Webinar on: “Vietnam’s 13th Party Congress: Political Significance and Implications”

In the first of a four-part series on Vietnam’s recently concluded 13th Party Congress, Dr Paul Schuler and Mr Nguyen Khac Giang assessed the political significance and implications of the leadership changes and key policy documents unveiled at the congress.


Tuesday, 9 Feb 2020 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute organised a webinar on “Vietnam’s 13th Party Congress: Political Significance and Implications” on Tuesday, delivered by Dr Paul Schuler and Mr Nguyen Khac Giang. Dr Paul Schuler is Assistant Professor at the University of Arizona, while Mr Nguyen Khac Giang is the former Head of the Political Research Unit of the Hanoi-based Vietnam Institute for Economic and Policy Research (VEPR) and currently a PhD candidate at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. This was the first of a four-part webinar series on Vietnam’s recently concluded 13th Party Congress.

Dr Paul Schuler and Mr Nguyen Khac Giang
Dr Paul Schuler and Mr Nguyen Khac Giang assesses the political significance and implications of the leadership changes and key documents adopted by the congress. Mr Lye Liang Fook moderated the session. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Firstly, Mr Giang noted that the re-election of Nguyen Phu Trong as general secretary for a third term is a break with both informal and formal norms. However, this move can also be seen as a reflection of the party’s desire for short-term continuity, given the lack of other alternative candidates – specifically, the failure of Tran Quoc Vuong to secure the position. For the first time since 1986 there has also been no southerners among the four leadership “pillars”. This, Mr Giang notes, is a huge blow to the South and in particular Ho Chi Minh City, which has been campaigning for several years for more investment in the city and the Mekong Delta. The new leadership slate can also be seen as a win for the country’s security wing, with five out of 18 Politburo members having links with the Ministry of Public Security and two with the Ministry of Defence. This indicates that political stability continues to be a top priority for the VCP.

With regard to the “four pillar” appointments, Mr Giang argued that Trong’s third term as general secretary will be focused on grooming new leadership. In particular, much attention will be paid to whether Trong will seek to institutionalise succession through the party’s selection process or handpick a favourite candidate. While Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s appointment as president, a largely ceremonial position, is in a sense a demotion from his previous appointment of prime minister, Phuc still stands as the second-most senior leader in the Politburo and is a possible candidate to take over as general secretary should Trong retire or is incapacitated due to health problems. The expected incoming prime minister Pham Minh Chinh is not well known outside Vietnam, and is more associated with party affairs than government matters. As an organisational expert, he is likely to champion administrative reform in Vietnam. Given Chinh’s relatively young age, it is also likely that he and Vuong Dinh Hue will dominate Vietnamese politics after Trong’s eventual exit. The expected incoming National Assembly chair is Vuong Dinh Hue. He is largely considered an economic expert, and was initially expected to be elected as prime minister. Mr Giang argued that Hue’s new appointment as NA chair, however, might imply that Hue is a possible candidate as the next general secretary, given that Vietnam’s last two general secretaries served as NA chair before being appointed to the top position.

With regard to economic policy, Mr Giang noted that policy documents indicate plans to encourage the establishment of big private corporations and SOEs, as well as the continued reform of Vietnam’s SOEs. The party also announced its intention to shift the country towards high-tech sustainable foreign investment. With regard to domestic policy, Trong’s anti-corruption campaign is likely to slow down as focus shifts to administrative reform of the state bureaucracy under Chinh. With regard to foreign policy, the party has indicated its intention to focus on multilateral institutions in its diplomacy, particularly regional ones such as ASEAN and APEC. There is also unlikely to be any major shift in Vietnam’s relations with the superpowers, with the country continuing to tread a fine line between the United States and China.

Dr Schuler noted that Trong’s relinquishment of the presidency indicates commitment to collective leadership and the four-pillar structure in Vietnam. Dr Schuler also stressed that, unlike Xi Jinping in China, Trong’s re-election was enabled by a special exemption and not constitutional amendment. It remains to be seen, however, what Trong’s breaching of the two-term limit bodes for Vietnamese politics in the future.

Dr Schuler also argued that Trong’s “blazing furnace” anti-corruption campaign is likely to continue at the local level in the short term. In the long run, however, Tran Quoc Vuong’s inability to secure re-election likely indicates a declining appetite within some quarters of the central committee for this heavy-handed campaign, and it remains to be seen who will take on this mantle from Trong and Vuong in the future. With regard to foreign policy, Dr Schuler concurred with Mr Giang that Vietnam’s policy towards the United States and China is likely to remain constrained and unchanged. Dr Schuler, however, argued that there is the possibility of a subtle shift in how Vietnam will approach East Sea/South China Sea issues moving forward – that it will seek to decouple its approach to South China Sea issues with its economic engagement with China. With regard to institutional reform, Dr Schuler argued that collective leadership will continue at the national level, with the separation of the general secretary, president, and prime minister positions. There will, however, be a continued push to “streamline” at the local level – i.e. attempts to eliminate People’s Councils and merge party-state positions. While this could help reduce bureaucracy and increase efficiency, Dr Schuler noted that “streamlining” could also impinge on accountability, particularly at the village level.

The webinar concluded with a Q&A session that discussed issues ranging from reactions from Vietnam’s business leaders to the new leadership, the party’s goal to transform Vietnam into an upper-middle income economy by 2030 and a high-income developed economy by 2045, nationalism and anti-China sentiments in Vietnam, cyber freedom, female political representation, as well as prospects for economic and political reforms.

Over 150 participants attended the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)