External Affairs

Vietnam Opts for Continuity, and an Even Keel With China

vietnamese leader nguyen phu trong

Nguyễn Phú Trọng, re-elected general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party. Credit: World Bank/Flickr

The recently concluded 12th congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) elected the nation’s new ruling dispensation for the next five years, following weeklong (21- 28 January 2016) closed door deliberations. Incumbent party general secretary and senior party member Nguyễn Phú Trọng has been re-elected for a second term to the country’s supreme leadership post. Trọng, the 71-year-old ideologue, represents the left-of-centre, pragmatic sections of the VCP and has consistently advocated good relations with neighbouring China.

The Congress comprised of over 1,500 delegates representing the approximately 4.5 million-strong VCP. The meeting nominated the minister of public security, Trần Đại Quang as president and deputy prime minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc as the new prime minister of Vietnam. The nominations will be formally approved by Vietnam’s legislature, the National Assembly, in May or June.

It appears that the death of Cu Ra – Hanoi’s fabled giant softshell turtle linked emotionally by Vietnamese to the independence struggle of the country – just before the convening of the Congress was not the bad omen people feared. Rather, the congress proceeded smoothly and elected the next generation leadership.

The make-up of the central committee

In the run up to the congress, there was widespread speculation in the West that Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng, the pro-western reform faction leader of the party, will take over as the party’s new general secretary and Vietnam would likely opt for a speedier reform and opening up process. Writing a few months ago, Carly A. Thayer speculated that

“Dung would bring unparalleled economic and international experience to the post of party Secretary General as a result of his two terms as prime minster. Dung is not likely to let ideology bind his hands in dealing with China. He was outspoken during last year’s oil rig crisis in defending Vietnamese sovereignty and raising the possibility of taking international legal action against China,

However, the collective party leadership chose the relatively conservative, China-friendly Trong to continue as general secretary.

The congress elected the party’s new central committee with 180 official members and 20 alternate ones, after approving the withdrawal of 29 candidates from the election, including President Trương Tấn Sang, Prime Minister Dũng and National Assembly chairman Nguyễn Sinh Hùng. The average age of the new central committee is 53, comparatively younger than the previous one, and consists of 20 female members and 17 members representing ethnic minorities.

Among the 180 official members, 51 are secretaries of the provincial and municipal (city) party committees, with 17 others are vice secretaries. Some of the key elected members belong to the powerful public security bureau. Party committee secretary and director general of the Vietnam News Agency Nguyễn Đức Lợi is one among the 180 official members.

The newly elected party politburo consists of 19 members, including 12 new ones, while seven members remain from the previous politburo – ­among them Trong, Quang, Phúc, National Assembly vice chairwomen Nguyễn Thị Kim Ngân and Tòng Thị Phóng.

India and Vietnam: The way forward

Apart from the long-standing traditional friendly relations, Vietnam has of late emerged as a key country in India’s ‘Look East’ or modified ‘Act East Asia’ strategy. Therefore, keeping good relations with members of the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other important countries in Asia has become vital to Indian foreign policy objectives. Bilateral trade between India and Vietnam has seen continuous growth over the past few years. India is now among Vietnam’s top 10 trading partners. According to data from the Indian government, the volume of bilateral trade crossed $8 billion in financial year 2013-14, achieving, much in advance, the target of $7 billion by 2015. Both nations have now agreed on a new trade target of $15 billion by 2020.

The five key items imported by India were mobile phones and components, machinery, computers and electronic hardware, natural rubber, chemicals and coffee. The major products India exported to Vietnam were meat and fishery products, corn, steel, pharmaceuticals, cotton and machinery. With regard to investment, India has 93 projects in Vietnam, with a total investment of about $1 billion. Vietnam has three investment projects in India, with a total investment of $23.6 million. In 2013, Tata Power was awarded a $1.8 billion thermal power project in Soc Trang province, the largest Indian investment project in Vietnam till date. Indian companies are investing in energy, mineral exploration, agro-processing, sugar manufacturing, agro-chemicals, information technology and agricultural processing.

The new, denim generation of communists in Vietnam. Credit: Emilio Labrador/Flickr CC 2.0

The new, denim generation of communists in Vietnam. Credit: Emilio Labrador/Flickr CC 2.0

Over the past few years, both countries have enhanced their cooperation in the field of security. The 9th annual security dialogue at the defence secretary level was held in New Delhi on January 16, 2015. The Indian armed forces have been engaged with the capacity building of the Vietnamese armed forces, particularly the navy. Areas of focus have been training, repairs and maintenance support, exchanges between think tanks, study tours and ship visits.

Science and technology is another key area of cooperation between these the two counties. The joint committee on science and technology meets periodically to review the progress made in cooperation in those fields. The 9th meeting was held in Hanoi in November 2012 during which the programme of cooperation in science and technology was adopted, providing for joint projects, seminars, workshops and exploratory visits of experts in the fields of biotechnology, material science, ICT, ocean development and oceanographic research, pharmaceuticals and medical research. India and Vietnam have also initiated a joint project for leather research and tannery waste recycling between the Central Leather Research Institute of India and the Viet Nam Leather Research Institute.

Of late, Vietnam has become a key strategic player in Asian politics. It is a party to the ongoing South China Sea dispute between the People’s Republic of China, Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and others. Keeping the emerging strategic scenarios in Asia in sight, India is likely to continue doing everything in its capacity to promote friendly ties with Vietnam.

M V Rappai, formerly an analyst with the Research and Analysis Wing,  is Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi