- Major power competition, especially between the US and China, has negatively affected the ADMM-Plus’ decision-making process and institutional outcomes.
- The ADMM-Plus’ confidence-building measures aimed at incident prevention and crisis management tend to focus more on instituting processes than delivering results. Their practical value remains elusive as they have never been tested in a crisis situation.
- Emerging minilateral security arrangements among the US and other major powers in the Indo-Pacific are unlikely to replace the ADMM-Plus. However, they do threaten to eclipse it in terms of speed and efficiency in responding to geostrategic shifts and crises in the region.
- The ADMM-Plus must be more strategic and less bureaucratic in the design of its agenda and activities. It needs to focus more on risk control at the policy dialogue and operational levels.
*Hoang Thi Ha is Fellow and Lead Researcher (Political-Security) at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS –Yusof Ishak Institute.
Established in 2010, the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) occupies pride of place in the ASEAN-led regional architecture, being recognised by its 18 members as “the highest ministerial defence and security consultative and cooperation mechanism for regional security issues” and “de facto multilateral security mechanism in the Asia-Pacific”. Its steady development has contributed significantly to robust multilateral defence diplomacy in Southeast Asia and the broader region over the past decade.
At the policy dialogue level, the frequency of ADMM-Plus ministerial engagements increased from triennial (2010) to biennial (2014) and annual (2018). Informal ‘plus one’ meetings between ASEAN defence ministers and their American, Chinese, Japanese and most recently Australian counterparts have been introduced and gradually regularised in parallel. At the operational level, practical cooperation under the purview of respective Experts’ Working Groups (EWGs) has expanded from five to seven areas, and now cover maritime security, counter-terrorism, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), peacekeeping operations, military medicine, humanitarian mine action and cyber security.
Alongside the steady progression and expansion of the ADMM-Plus over the past decade, the regional geostrategic landscape has changed dramatically, underlined by three major trends. First, there is the rise of China and Beijing’s activism in rewriting the rules and reasserting its role and influence in the regional and global order. Second, there is the shift in US-China relations from engagement to strategic competition. Third, there is the emergence of the Indo-Pacific construct and minilateral security arrangements by and among the US and other major powers in response to China’s rise. Shivshankar Menon describes this uncertain and fluid landscape as one that is “between orders”, characterised by increasing fragmentation and polarisation from both within and without. The pursuit of cooperative security championed by ASEAN-led institutions has become more fraught in this increasingly contested region. This Perspective examines whether the ADMM-Plus in its current institutional set-up is adequately equipped to cope with these challenges, especially in the maritime domain.
THE ADMM-PLUS AND MAJOR POWER COMPETITION
ASEAN is no stranger to managing the competing interests of major powers in its mechanisms. Institutional balancing – defined by Kai He as “countering pressures or threats through initiating, utilising, and dominating multilateral institutions” – is inherent within and across ASEAN-led mechanisms that include the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Plus Three (APT), East Asia Summit (EAS) and ADMM-Plus. While the outcomes are in the form of cooperative security, the process always entails the whole spectrum of “institutional struggle, confrontation, bargaining, negotiation, compromise and balance among states within institutions”. Navigating between competition and cooperation is part and parcel of ASEAN processes, as it is in this in-between-ness that regional states exercise their agency and advance their interests.
Yet, the current abyss in US-China relations, and other sub-sets of major power contestation that are independent from but not unrelated to US-China rivalry, have exerted unprecedented pressure on ASEAN-led mechanisms to the point of polarising their decision-making processes and complicating their institutional outcomes. The ADMM-Plus is not insulated from this fraught situation. For example, the granting of Observership to ADMM-Plus EWGs’ activities to the UK, France, Canada and the EU has been in abeyance since 2017 due to opposition from Plus members, especially Russia and China. Disagreements between the US and China over the wording on the South China Sea (SCS) resulted in the ADMM-Plus failing to issue a joint declaration (JD) for the first time in 2015. ASEAN has since skipped this strenuous exercise of negotiating the JD, and decided to issue ADMM-Plus joint statements on specific topics and JDs only on special occasions. This bureaucratic tweak has helped avert a recurring impasse but has had no bearing on the deepening security dilemma in the region. Differences over the SCS issue continued to haunt the forum, and almost derail the issuance of the Joint Declaration on Strategic Security Vision of the ADMM-Plus at its 10th anniversary in 2020.
As noted by Tan See Seng in 2016, “it is unlikely that the ADMM-Plus will transform the increasingly toxic state of the security environment of the region and overturn its massive trust deficit.” The negotiating process leading to the ADMM-Plus Joint Declaration on Strategic Security Vision last year unveiled anything but a common strategic vision among its members. Rather, it demonstrated the widening strategic chasm between China and Russia on one side and the US and its allies and partners on the other. Even how this broader region is to be called – i.e. Asia-Pacific or Indo-Pacific – is intensely contested since these terms signify contrasting visions among the Plus countries for the future regional order.
Thus, the question facing the ADMM-Plus at this juncture is whether it can withstand, and to some extent mediate, these competitive forces through strategic dialogue and practical cooperation. The ADMM-Plus is not the prominent forum for strategic dialogue on traditional security concerns. Its focus has always been on practical cooperation which in turn places the emphasis on non-traditional security issues. This is a design feature, since one of the ADMM-Plus’ key aims is to “strengthen regional defence and security cooperation through conduct of concrete and practical cooperation”. According to Nick Bisley, “defence diplomacy is popular in Asia because it is focused on concrete concerns and values the practical and the technical over the abstract and political.”
Yet, as Bisley also points out, while defence diplomacy “may be technical in means, it is inherently political in its ends. It is about using defence personnel and assets to communicate, negotiate and more generally manage relations between states.” As the political-technical nexus is never far from the surface, the defence ministers and ADSOM-Plus leaders at the policy dialogue level must be more upfront in expressing their concerns over major power rivalries and recognising the need to institute risk control measures that include developing norms of engagement and convening ADMM-Plus emergency meetings, among others. The objective should focus more on recognising the differences and managing them than putting up an appearance of solidarity.
MEASURING PROGRESS THROUGH PROCESS?
The ADMM-Plus has made its mark in building mutual confidence and promoting norms of engagement among the participating militaries through practical cooperation at the operational level. This has enabled security cooperation to go “beyond diplomatic dialogue and towards more practical, task-oriented frameworks, agendas, and exercises.” In fact, it is the operational aspect involving military personnel and assets in joint activities and exercises that make the ADMM-Plus stand out in the ASEAN-led architecture, especially vis-à-vis the foreign affairs-led ARF. There have been 20 large-scale combined military exercises thus far that cut across the ADMM-Plus’ seven priority areas.
Some of these practical CBMs were designed with the objective of crisis management and incident prevention in mind. For example, the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) was practised during the ADMM-Plus maritime security field training exercise (FTX) in May 2019. The ADMM-Plus in 2018 expressed in-principle support for the ADMM’s Guidelines for Air Military Encounters and the intention to “explore the application of these guidelines by the ADMM-Plus”. Similarly, the ASEAN defence ministers in 2019 agreed to extend the ASEAN Direct Communications Infrastructure (ADI) to the eight Plus countries.
While these guidelines, protocols and norms of engagement are regarded as important deliverables of the ADMM-Plus, their practical value in crisis situations remains untested. On closer examination, these protocols fall into the trap of instituting processes instead of delivering results. As an example, there are simply too many bureaucratic procedures and contextual requirements built into the ADI to make it an effective hotline for rapid response in times of emergency and crisis.
This procedure-bound mindset also led ASEAN to sleepwalk into the current impasse regarding the admission of observers to the EWGs’ activities. The concept paper on observership highlights the principle of ASEAN centrality, with the ADMM having “the prerogative to determine the criteria to select the non-Plus countries as observers”. Yet, observership applications must be approved by the ADSOM-Plus by consensus, giving the Plus countries veto power, which is exactly what China and Russia are currently exercising. This was a lapse in strategic judgement as ASEAN was too engrossed in bureaucratic procedures in managing the ADMM-Plus portfolio.
Last but not least, practical confidence-building measures under the ADMM-Plus run the risk of lagging behind new security dynamics and developments in the region, especially the use of grey-zone tactics by maritime law enforcement agencies and maritime militias. Both China and Vietnam operate maritime militia forces and the Philippines is considering establishing one. China recently upped the ante with its new Coast Guard Law that allows its coast guard to use weapons against foreign ships, while Indonesia recently armed its maritime enforcement vessels with machine guns. The CUES and other ADMM guidelines of maritime interaction and air encounters are not quite relevant and effective in this grey zone warfare. Besides, these guidelines’ geographic scope only applies to the high seas whereas maritime incidents in the region mainly take place in disputed exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and territorial waters as a result of overlapping sovereignty and jurisdiction claims.
BUY-IN FROM THE PLUS COUNTRIES
Non-ASEAN countries, especially the US and its allies such as Australia and Japan, maintain a longstanding ambivalence towards ASEAN as the architect and driver of the region’s institution-building. On the one hand, the ADMM-Plus and other ASEAN-led mechanisms provide useful platforms for them to exert their influence in shaping the regional security environment. On the other hand, the embedded ASEAN-centric incremental and consensual approach is considered a permanent drag on its efficacy and the delivery of concrete results. Therefore, ASEAN-led institutions are among “many policy options and alternative frameworks” for these states and “the increased capacity and initiative displayed by China on both economic and maritime fronts with the turn of the 21st century only adds to the incentives to push alternative proposals that are both more exclusive in their participation and more major power-centric in their preoccupations.”
In recent years, exclusive minilateral alignments among like-minded security partners have increased in both variety and intensity. According to Sarah Teo, “minilateralism could prove more effective than multilateralism in responding to specific issues and move regional cooperation beyond the proverbial low-hanging fruits.” In 2020, the ADMM-Plus was dormant in terms of its operational activities, which is technically attributed to the fact that most of these activities had been undertaken in previous years according to the timelines specified in the respective EWG 2017-2020 work plans. Even then, there is no denial of the fact that ADMM-Plus, with its broad and diverse membership, almost always moves at a slow pace. For example, before a field exercise can take place, the conceptualisation and planning stages for it may take a couple of years and involve initial, mid-term and final planning conferences and a preceding table-top exercise (TTX).
In contrast, major power-centric exercises remained very active throughout 2020, especially among the US-Japan-India-Australia Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue (Quad) members in different configurations that include plurilateral, trilateral and bilateral (Table 1). Their narrow membership with high levels of strategic convergence and interoperability allows for swift deployments and nimble responses despite all the disruptions caused by COVID-19. The Quad’s scope of work remains under-defined and under-institutionalised – perhaps intentionally so to allow for flexibility – but it clearly signals its members’ return to or re-focus on balance of power to countervail a risen China. The Quad serves an entirely different purpose from the ADMM-Plus; nor does it seek to replace or compete with the ADMM-Plus institutionally. Instead, it raises questions and concerns over the relevance of the ADMM-Plus in an increasingly contested region.
Table 1: Major power-centric naval exercises in the Indo-Pacific in 2020
|January||US-Japan Iron Fist 2020 exercise|
|February||US-Japan advanced warfighting training (BAWT)US-Japan Resilient Shield 2020 exercise|
|April||US-Australia combined operations in the South China SeaUS-Japan joint operations while sailing through the Andaman Sea|
|June||India-Japan passing exercise (PASSEX) in the Malacca Strait|
|July||US-Japan Mine Warfare Exercise (MIWEX) 2JA 2020 off Japan’s coastUS-India joint military exercise in the Indian Ocean|
|August||Exercise Rim of the Pacific (US-led, China excluded)US-Japan joint exercises in the waters and airspace near Japan|
|September||Pacific Vanguard Exercise (US, Japan, Australia, ROK)|
|October||US-Japan-Australia naval exercise in the South China SeaUS-Japan Keen Sword 21 exercise|
|November||Malabar Naval Exercise (US, India, Australia, Japan)|
|December||Russia-China joint aerial patrol over the Sea of Japan and East China SeaUS-France-Japan integrated exercises in the Philippine Sea|
As and when these major powers shift their focus back to ASEAN, their respective proposals to strengthen defence cooperation under the informal ‘ADMM plus one’ configuration also presents a conundrum for ASEAN. China especially has pushed for a more exclusive form of ASEAN-China defence cooperation to reinforce the narrative and visibility of China as the first among equals among all ASEAN’s Dialogue Partners. The first ASEAN-China maritime exercise was conducted with much publicity in 2018. ASEAN balanced this out with a maritime exercise with the US in 2019 and another with Russia in the near future. The same dynamic has been observed in the separate informal engagements that have taken place between ASEAN defence ministers and their counterparts from China and the US (since 2011), Japan (since 2016) and Australia (2020).
On the one hand, these engagements may bring “expertise, perspectives and resources from extra-regional countries” that “benefit ASEAN member countries in building capacity to address shared security challenges” – a very important objective of ASEAN’s defence diplomacy. On the other hand, they may put the ADMM-Plus at the risk of bifurcation and/or multifurcation along US-China rivalry faultlines. ASEAN’s innate institutional balancing has thus far managed this competitive dynamic well and turned it to cooperative outcomes. But it must watch out for the potentiality of these exclusive ‘Plus One’ engagements gradually sucking the oxygen out from the ADMM-Plus’ collective undertaking.
While “resolution of major power conflicts is beyond the capacity of ASEAN frameworks”, the ADMM-Plus still holds the significance of mediating and alleviating their competitive dynamic through normative rhetoric, policy dialogue and practical cooperation. To this end, the ADMM-Plus will need to be more strategic and less bureaucratic in the design of its agenda and activities. It must take a hard look at the unfolding rivalries in the region, and place greater emphasis and urgency on risk control at both the policy dialogue and operational levels. The ADMM-Plus’ impressive track record in a short span of ten years is cause for celebration, but it should not be reason for complacency. If the ADMM-Plus contents itself with the comfort zone of confidence building and the process-bound mindset, the ARF, with a protracted history of confidence building and fading relevance in today’s region, provides a cautionary tale.
ISEAS Perspective 2021/13, 10 February 2021.
 Hanoi Joint Declaration on the First ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus, 12 October 2010, https://www.asean.org/wp-content/uploads/images/archive/defence/JointDeclaration101012.pdf
 Chairman Statement of the 5th ADMM-Plus, 20 October 2018, https://asean.org/storage/2018/10/Final-5th-ADMM-Plus-Chairmans-Statement.pdf
 Nadège Rolland, China’s Vision for a New World Order, The National Bureau of Asian Research, NBR Special Report no. 83, 27 January 2020, https://www.nbr.org/publication/chinas-vision-for-a-new-world-order.
 The White House, United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China, May 2020, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/U.S.-Strategic-Approach-to-The-Peoples-Republic-of-China-Report-5.20.20.pdf.
 The White House, Remarks by President Trump at APEC CEO Summit, Da Nang, Vietnam, 10 November 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-apecceo-summit-da-nang-vietnam; Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, https://www.fpwhitepaper.gov.au/foreign-policy-white-paper; Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Prime Minister’s Keynote Address at Shangri La Dialogue on 1 June 2018, https://mea.gov.in/SpeechesStatements.htm?dtl/29943/Prime_Ministers_Keynote_Address_at_Shangri_La_Dialogue_June_01 _2018; Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, https://www.asean.embjapan.go.jp/files/000352880.pdf.
 Tanvi Madan, “What you need to know about the “Quad”, in charts”, Brookings, 5 October 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/10/05/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-quad-in-charts
 Shivshankar Menon at the Regional Outlook Forum 2021, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, 6 January 2020.
 Kai He, “Institutional Balancing and International Relations Theory: Economic Interdependence and Balance of Power Strategies in Southeast Asia”, European Journal of International Relations, September 2008.
 Alice Ba, “US-China Relations and Regional Institutions: Challenges and Paths Ahead”, p.167, US and China in Asia: Mitigating Tensions and Enhancing Cooperation, John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Institute of International and Strategic Studies Peking University, Washington DC: Pacific Community Initiative, 2019.
 “No joint statement as US, China clash over wording on South China Sea”, Today, 5 November 2015, https://www.todayonline.com/world/no-signing-joint-declaration-asean-defense-forum.
 Joint Declaration by the ADMM-Plus Defence Ministers on Strategic Security Vision of the ADMM-Plus, 10 December 2020, https://admm.asean.org/dmdocuments/2020_Dec_7th%20ADMM-Plus_10%20Dec%202020_1.%20JD%20Final.pdf.
 Tan See Seng, “The ADMM-Plus: Regionalism that Works?”, National Bureau of Asian Research, Asia Policy No. 22, July 2016, pp. 70-75, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/628482.
 Hanoi Joint Declaration, op.cit.
 Nick Bisley, “The Possibilities and Limits of Defence Diplomacy in Asia”, the Centre of Gravity paper #17 ‘Defence Diplomacy: Is the game worth the candle?’, http://sdsc.bellschool.anu.edu.au/sites/default/files/publications/attachments/2016-03/cog_17_web.pdf.
 Alice Ba, “ASEAN and the Changing Regional Order: The ARF, ADMM, and ADMM-Plus”, ASEAN @ 50 Volume 4: Building ASEAN Community: Political-Security and Socio-cultural Reflections, Edited by Aileen Baviera and Larry Maramis, 2017, https://www.eria.org/ASEAN_at_50_4A.8_Alice_Ba_final.pdf.
 News release, Dedication to Ensure Regional Peace and Stability Stronger Than Ever Amid Ongoing Security Challenges, MINDEF Singapore, 10 December 2020, https://www.mindef.gov.sg/web/portal/mindef/news-and-events/latest-releases/article-detail/2020/December/10dec20_nr.
 News release, Multinational Navies Work Together to Counter Maritime Security Threats in ADMM-Plus Exercise, MINDEF Singapore, 12 May 2019, https://www.mindef.gov.sg/web/portal/mindef/news-and-events/latest-releases/article-detail/2019/May/12may19_nr.
 Joint Statement by the ADMM-Plus Defence Ministers on Practical Confidence-Building Measures, 20 October 2018, https://asean.org/storage/2018/10/Final-ADMM-Plus-Joint-Statement-on-Practical-Confidence-Building-Measures.pdf.
 Linette Lai, “Asean defence ministers to extend rapid communication hotline to eight other countries”, The Straits Times, 11 July 2018, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/asean-defence-ministers-to-extend-rapid-communication-hotline-to-eight-other-countries
 Concept Paper on Observership of ADMM-Plus Experts Working Group Activities, 19 October 2018, https://admm.asean.org/dmdocuments/2018_Oct_12th%20ADMM_Singapore,%2019%20October%202018_[Final]%20Concept%20Paper%20on%20Observership%20of%20ADMM-Plus%20EWG%20Activities.pdf.
 Alan Robles, “Philippines’ plan for maritime militia to match China raises fears of ‘shooting war’”, South China Morning Post, 16 October 2020, https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3105687/philippines-plan-maritime-militia-match-china-raises-fears.
 “China law empowers coast guard to use force amid disputes”, Channel News Asia, 23 January 2021, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/china-law-empowers-coast-guard-to-use-force-amid-disputes-14026398#:~:text=The%20Coast%20Guard%20Law%20passed,organisations%20or%20individuals%20at%20sea%22.
 Amy Chew, “Indonesia arms maritime force to deter Chinese, Vietnamese fishing vessels from entering Natuna seas”, South China Morning Post, 10 January 2021, https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3117018/indonesia-arms-maritime-force-amid-growing-china-encroachment.
 Alice Ba, “ASEAN and the Changing Regional Order: The ARF, ADMM, and ADMM-Plus”, op.cit.
 Sarah Teo, “Could Minilateralism Be Multilateralism’s Best Hope in the Asia Pacific?”, The Diplomat, 15 December 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/12/could-minilateralism-be-multilateralisms-best-hope-in-the-asia-pacific.
 Malcolm Cook, “Indo-Pacific ushers in a new era of post-modern regionalism”, ASEANFocus,
 Compiled by author from various sources. The list is non-exhaustive.
 Li Wenfang, “China, ASEAN begin joint naval drill”, China Daily, 23 October 2018, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201810/23/WS5bce80d7a310eff303283f68.html.
 US Mission to ASEAN, “ASEAN-US Maritime Exercise Begins in Thailand”, 1 September 2019, https://asean.usmission.gov/asean-u-s-maritime-exercise-begins-in-thailand.
 “ASEAN and Russia work together through the idea to conduct joint navy drill”, Navy Recognition, 14 February 2020, https://www.navyrecognition.com/index.php/news/defence-news/2020/february/8052-asean-and-russia-work-together-through-the-idea-to-conduct-joint-navy-drills.html.
 Concept Paper on the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), https://www.asean.org/wp-content/uploads/images/archive/21216.pdf.
 Alice Ba, “ASEAN and the Changing Regional Order: The ARF, ADMM, and ADMM-Plus”, op.cit.
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- Vietnam institutionalised in official documents a ‘reconciliation/mediation role’ for its diplomacy even before taking on the 2020 ASEAN chairmanship and the country’s non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
- This new thrust demonstrates Vietnam’s growing confidence on the regional, if not international stage. Hanoi recognises that it is in its interest to contribute to international peace and security.
- However, Vietnam has to overcome significant challenges to play a role in reconciliation and mediation. As a newcomer to this field, Vietnam will need significant time and resources to build up its capacities and reputation.
- Undertaking a lower key mediation role that focuses on facilitating understanding and dialogue among disputing parties should be Vietnam’s current aim.
- For a start, the country could seek a mediating role in regional security issues and enhance its peacekeeping contribution to demonstrate its commitment and build up its reputation in the area.
* Guest writer, Hoang Oanh, is Deputy Director, Center for Regional Studies and Foreign Policy, Institute of Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies, Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.
Vietnam’s rapid economic development political stability, and successful hosting of various high-profile international events have raised the country’s regional and international profile. With this new spotlight, however, has come expectations from inside and outside of Vietnam for the country to contribute more to international peace and security. 
Recent developments in Vietnam’s foreign policy demonstrate the country’s stronger commitment to peace and reconciliation:
- The themes drawn up to guide its engagement in multilateral forums concentrate on peace and reconciliation – the expressed theme for Vietnam’s non-permanent seat on the UNSC is “Partnership for Sustainable Peace”, focused on conflict prevention, peace building, post-conflict reconstruction, and on strengthening the role of multilateralism and multilateral institutions in peace and security.
- A priority for its ASEAN chairmanship also emphasises a “cohesive ASEAN” gained through fostering solidarity and unity among its members.
- Vietnam started its 2020-2021 UNSC term with two initiatives that exemplify the themes: One open session on UN Charter compliance, stressing the need to enhance dialogue, multilateralism, and peaceful tools provided by the UN for conflicts and disputes; and one meeting to ‘bridge’ the UN and ASEAN, aimed at increasing understanding between the two bodies and promoting ASEAN’s contribution to UN initiatives, especially peacekeeping. For the first time, at the initiative of Vietnam, an information briefing on ASEAN took place at the UNSC.
- Vietnam has rapidly increased its contribution to UN peacekeeping operations, and the recent passage of the National Assembly Resolution on Vietnam’s participation in UN PKO in November 2020 has laid a legal foundation for its further contribution. Vietnam is also eager to upgrade its UN peacekeeping training centre into a regional facility for the Asia Pacific. The country has also been willing to share its experience in post-conflict reconstruction, national reconciliation, promoting integration, and sustainable development. For instance, Vietnam has actively shared its experience on tackling post-conflict issues at various multilateral forums, such as through its work with the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD), working on topics such as the handling of bombs, mines, and unexploded ordinances. It has also emphasised the role of women in post-conflict reconstruction, as a part of efforts to promote the UNSC Resolution 1889 (2009) on Women and Peace and Security. Bilaterally, it has shared lessons on reunification, national reconciliation, and reforms with both of its Korean partners.
These diplomatic efforts, particularly Vietnam’s hosting of the second Trump-Kim Summit in February 2019, have fuelled discussions among intellectuals and general public about a Vietnamese ‘reconciliation diplomacy’ or ‘mediation diplomacy’. These discussions mainly feature two key ideas: (i) Vietnam’s repositioning as a middle power, and the need to build a ‘niche diplomacy’ to contribute more effectively in global affairs; and (ii) Vietnam possibly becoming ‘Asia’s Helsinki’ or a ‘peace bridge’. One former deputy foreign minister remarked: “Although it is still too early to talk about it, but a ‘reconciliation diplomacy’ or ‘mediation diplomacy’ is not impossible for Vietnam if we take into account Vietnam’s history or its recent efforts and contributions to world peace. However, what we need is not just a slogan, but we have to initiate concrete actions to implement the objective”.
This paper explores Vietnam’s possible role and options in the field of peace and conciliation. It argues that the time is ripe for Vietnam to play a limited mediation role in line with the country’s national interests. It concludes with some policy recommendations for Vietnam to play such a role.
WHY SHOULD VIETNAM CONSIDER A MEDIATION ROLE?
(i) A new thrust in foreign policy
Vietnam has long declared a foreign policy goal of “willing to become a friend and reliable partner of all countries in the world community, striving for peace, independence and development”. However, it was only recently that Vietnam placed greater emphasis on the goal of proactive contribution to international peace and security. Directive No. 25 CT/TW of the Secretariat of the Party Central Committee (issued on 8 August 2018) on enhancing the role of multilateral diplomacy stated that the country would need to shift from merely “attending” to “actively participating” and “actively contributing” to multilateral institutions, accelerating efforts to play a “leading or mediatory role in multilateral organizations and forums having strategic importance to the country” in accordance with the specific capabilities and conditions of the country. Vietnamese leaders have repeatedly used the phrase “hoa giai” (translated as either reconciliation or mediation in English) in their public speeches, and stated that Vietnam should gradually promote the role of mediation in regional and global issues.
“Hoa giai” in the Vietnamese language implies the involvement of a third party. According to the Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Vietnam, “Reconciliation/Mediation means peacefully solving disputes by arrangements and negotiation with the assistance of a third party”. “Hoa giai” is a common practice in Vietnamese culture, where bringing disputes to legal authorities is not a preferred option. Officially, Vietnam uses the word “hoa giai” to indicate that the country is willing to take on the role of a third party, such as in mediating international disputes and conflicts, though preferably under a multilateral framework.
Directive 25-CT/TW was issued in preparation for Vietnam’s 2020 ASEAN chairmanship and its non-permanent seat on the UNSC. This directive, however, has long-lasting and significant implications for Vietnam’s foreign policy. It signals, as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh puts it, “an important milestone in foreign policy thinking”. It is remarkable that, for the first time, mediation diplomacy has been institutionalised. While this highlights a sense of responsibility and desire to contribute to international peace and security, it also demonstrates Vietnam’s growing confidence on the regional, if not international stage. Vietnam draws this growing confidence from what it perceives as an increased degree of trust and encouragement from the international community. Directive 25-CT/TW, thus, can be seen as an institutionalisation of Vietnam’s newfound confidence and willingness to take on a bigger role in international affairs.
(ii) Vietnam’s capabilities and advantages
Mediation resonates with Vietnamese cultural and historical traditions: It could be argued that reconciliation diplomacy is not simply a new direction but harks back to Vietnam’s history of reconciling with former enemies after conflicts. A master strategist in the 15th century, Nguyen Trai, declared after a military victory that the country would facilitate the return of prisoners of war (Chinese troops) to “repair the bilateral friendship [and] end war forever”. King Tran Nhan Tong (1258-1308) has also been seen as a symbol of Vietnam’s reconciliatory spirit.According to The Complete Annals of Đại Việt,King Tran Nhan Tong stripped the reward of a prince who continued to hunt for Yuan troops after the king had ordered a ceasefire. To alleviate his mandarins’ fear of any post-war political retribution, the king also had any supposed proof of treason burnt.
In the contemporary period, Vietnam has established high-level partnership frameworks with all its former foes – France, the United States, and China. Vietnam has also made significant efforts and achievements in national reconciliation, particularly with new political and legal frameworks that facilitate the return and participation of overseas Vietnamese in Vietnam’s political, economic, and social life. Notably, four out of the 15 members of the current prime minister’s Economic Advisory Group are overseas Vietnamese intellectuals. The government has also actively promoted outreach efforts targeted at overseas Vietnamese communities in the United States. The return of Mr Nguyen Cao Ky, former prime minister of the South Vietnamese administration that fought against the Vietnam Communist Party in the North, in 2004, during which he expressed support for national conciliation, was a symbolic success in the process.
Vietnam’s improved international prestige: Vietnam has been pursuing a proactive foreign policy through its expanding diplomatic network, which is currently ranked 38th in the world and 10th in Asia. It has established 189 diplomatic relations, among which are three comprehensive strategic partnerships, 14 strategic partnerships, and 13 comprehensive partnerships. One notable feature of Vietnam’s foreign policy is the emphasis on ties with “traditional friends”, many of which are currently involved in disputes and conflicts that might require international support to promote reconciliation efforts. Vietnam’s economic development model as well as its experience with reform and ‘opening-up’ could be a source of inspiration for others.
Organisational capability and confidence in its diplomacy: The experience gained from its roles at important multilateral institutions and from hosting big international events has boosted Vietnam’s confidence in its diplomacy. The second Trump-Kim Summit held in February 2019 was a political and logistical success, praised by both Trump himself and DPRK officials. Vietnam’s efforts in facilitating a safe long journey by train for Kim also demonstrates Vietnam’s commitment, diligence, and ability to deliver a key event at very short notice.
Strong domestic support: Among the Vietnamese people, there is a strong sense of gratitude and desire to contribute to international peace, in acknowledgement of the international community’s support for Vietnam during its wars, post-war reconstruction, and modern development.As stated in a news briefing, the second US-DPRK Summit held in Vietnam is particularly meaningful as Vietnam, during its past wars, had counted on the support of international third-party mediators in the Geneva and Paris negotiations in 1954 and 1973 respectively. Today, Vietnam is thus willing to mediate peace between the United States and DPRK, for the region and the world. Despite the significant amount of financial and human resources spent on the event, as well as the inconvenience and disruption it brought to daily life, the Vietnamese people are supportive and proud to have played such a role in the US-DPRK negotiations.
(iii) It serves Vietnam’s interests
Vietnam’s national interests has three broad dimensions: security, economic development, and prestige. A mediation role supports Vietnam’s national interests in all three dimensions. In terms ofsecurity,maintaining a peaceful and stable external environment is one of the most important goals of Vietnam’s foreign policy. Contributing to efforts to manage disputes in the region directly complements this goal. More importantly, upholding a rules-based international order is of great importance given Vietnam’s two main security challenges – territorial disputes in the South China Sea and water management issues in the Mekong. By playing a mediating role, Vietnam reinforces and promotes the norms of peaceful settlement of disputes and conflicts, while signalling its rejection of unilateral and violent acts which contravene international law. Such a role would also help Vietnam enhance its own conflict management and resolution capacities.
Playing an active role in managing international disputes also serves Vietnam’s economicinterests. According to a Moody report, if tensions on the Korean Peninsula continue to escalate and lead to conflict, other than the parties directly involved (North Korea, South Korea, and the United States), Vietnam and Japan would be the most badly hit. This is because approximately 20 per cent of Vietnam’s intermediate goods are imported from South Korea, while its exports to South Korea account for more than 5 per cent of its GDP.
Last but not least, a mediating role will improve Vietnam’s image and reputation, which in turn, will translate into many concrete benefits. Vietnam would for instance become increasingly attractive as a tourist destination and business environment. Its national products would become more desirable, and the country could even experience an increase in its soft power.
EXPLORING A MEDIATION ROLE FOR VIETNAM
The current challenge for Vietnam is to translate a very general official guideline into practical policies which address geopolitical realities, while being in step with the country’s comfort level, capacities, and resources. A ‘third-party’ reconciliatory role could potentially involve anything from providing good offices to taking on mediation, inquiry, conciliation, and arbitration responsibilities before, during, and after a conflict. Many of these responsibilities, such as conciliation and arbitration, require a significant level of engagement and demand more political and financial costs and greater capabilities and experience.
Mediation itself also has a wide range of approaches, from the lowest level of good offices to actively inducing a certain solution to disputes. As outlined by Touval and Zartman (1985), there are three general approaches: information strategies, formulation strategies, and manipulation strategies, depending on the level of involvement of the mediator.
If Vietnam is to take on such a ‘reconciliatory role’, it will need to develop a clear conceptualisation and a feasible operational strategy. Firstly, it should start with a narrower focus – a modest mediation role or the first and second approaches listed above. There are three main reasons for this: (i) Despite having a long tradition of peace diplomacy, Vietnam is still a ‘newly reborn kid on the block’ in a professional field that requires specialised expertise, experience, practical guidance, as well as considerable political, financial, and administrative support. The challenge is greater when it has to operate in an increasingly competitive environment, where the number of third-party facilitators and mediators (at local, national, regional, and international levels) has significantly increased in the last decade; (ii) The fundamental principles of Vietnamese foreign policy, including a respect for sovereignty, self-determination, and non-interference, will limit the extent of its engagement. Vietnam’s own experience with mediation also discourages the country from a manipulative approach – during the Geneva Conference negotiations, its own interests were negatively affected by the calculations of bigger powers; (iii) While Vietnam’s close relationships with all parties, particularly the disputing parties, is an advantage; this also requires the country to firmly uphold its neutrality.
With a moderate mediation role, Vietnam can consider several options such as good offices, shuttle diplomacy, facilitating negotiations, capacity building, and experience sharing with relevant parties. Directive 25 advocates a mediatory role in a multilateral setting; however, as mediation is often a very long process and Vietnam will not always be able to hold high-profile posts at multilateral forums, it will have to explore both multilateral and bilateral approaches.
Secondly, Vietnam will have to overcome several significant challenges. An operational masterplan needs to be designed to build domestic consensus and political will, lay the institutional foundations, mobilise financial and human resources, and build the necessary capacities: (i) Peace making and mediation in particular require the right set of competencies – both at the level of individuals and institutions. While pooling a few eminent individual peace-makers is important, it is more vital to build institutional capacity and an organizational culture that enables a well-coordinated engagement and allows sustainability given the rotational nature of the country’s diplomatic system. (ii) Managing relationships with other actors including civil society, the academia, and foreign actors is also a challenge. (iii) Economic resources provide important leverage to peace-making when the mediator might have to fund confidence-building activities, shuttle diplomacy, or back the implementation of peace agreements. This could be a big challenge given Vietnam’s plan to streamline and downsize its public spending.To overcome the above challenges, Vietnam will need to reach out to relevant partners and experienced mediators for assistance and build cooperative partnerships.
Thirdly, Vietnam should aim to boost its peace reputation and offer to undertake an appropriate role in regional issues. The second Trump-Kim Summit in Hanoi demonstrated Vietnam’s capability in hosting high-profile events. Both the parties were also pleased with Vietnam’s efforts. There have already been many players involved in mediating efforts on the Korean issue. Trump and Kim also have their own direct channels. However, Vietnam is uniquely placed to be an effective facilitator for conversation. Vietnam has a non-hostile and neutral profile, with no geopolitical motives. The DPRK is very sensitive to any perceived influence from a third party – North Korea’s chief negotiator Kim Myong Gil, for instance, once criticised Sweden for acting like a “backseat driver” when mediating nuclear negotiations. Moreover, as the DPRK has a relatively high level of trust in Vietnam, its leadership is comfortable learning from Vietnam’s experience in economic development and reform, as well as Hanoi’s ability to maintain good relationships with both the United States and China. In fact, Kim’s 2019 visit to Vietnam was designated as an “official friendship visit”, a term that connotes an even higher status than Kim’s previous visits to China. While the Trump-Kim meeting was underway in Hanoi, a separate DPRK delegation made field trips to Vietnam’s industrial parks and factories.
Presently, the United States and North Korea do not wish to appear weak and lose their bargaining power in their ongoing tug-of-war. In this regard, they can consider the alternative of approaching a credible third country to explore ways to move forward without being seen as ceding ground unnecessarily. Given its comparative advantage, Vietnam could facilitate an agreement that meets both parties’ near-term objectives (i.e. reducing tensions and diffusing crises) that can lay the basis for a longer-term solution. Vietnam should also further promote humanitarian assistance to mitigate food shortages and natural disasters, and encourage the exchange of students, academics, and officials, especially on issues related to economic planning and transition.
Within the region, Vietnam should support ASEAN, the UN and relevant parties in promoting dialogue towards long-term solutions to conflicts and facilitating the safe and dignified repatriation of refugees in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. More specifically, Vietnam could continue to strengthen the ASEAN consensus on a regional approach and the association’s crucial role in helping Myanmar reach a solution; facilitate dialogue between relevant parties on technical issues such as illegal migration, human trafficking, refugee repatriation; and share its experience in working with relevant partners on refugee repatriation, rehabilitation, and reconciliation.
Last but not least, Vietnam should further enhance its PKO participation in both quantity and quality, particularly expanding its PKO functions to include policing and enhancing women’s representation. These measures will promote effective community outreach and confidence-building, leading to lasting and positive impact on the ground. In fact, Vietnam has performed pretty well in promoting the role of women. Beyond their assigned duties, they actively take on other roles such as teaching children, sharing farming experience with the local people, and encouraging the participation of women and girls in political processes. Vietnam should also share its own successful experiences on national reconciliation and sustainable post-conflict reconstruction, and possibly explore a mediation role involving its PKO missions at a proper time.
ISEAS Perspective 2021/6, 27 January 2021.
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 Although Vietnam is relatively new to peacekeeping and has only started its deployment since 2014, it has significantly stepped up its efforts. Up to January 2020, it had sent 43 officers and 126 military doctors and medical personnel to South Sudan. Since 2018, Vietnam has sent whole PKO unit forces with two Level-2 field hospitals to South Sudan, and is ready to deploy the third one by the end of 2020. It is also currently ready to dispatch 295 military engineers and is training police force for PKO in South Sudan. Lonicera Vu (2020), “Vietnamese peacekeepers maintain peace to the world to defend the country,” Vietnam Times, 30 May, at https://vietnamtimes.org.vn/vietnamese%2Dpeacekeepers%2Dmaintain%2Dpeace%2Dto%2Dthe%2Dworld%2Dto%2Ddefend%2Dthe%2Dcountry%2D20863.html
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 UNSC seat enables Vietnam to contribute more to global peace (2019), Nhan Dan, https://en.nhandan.org.vn/politics/external%2Drelations/item/7559702%2Dunsc%2Dseat%2Denables%2Dvietnam%2Dto%2Dcontribute%2Dmore%2Dto%2Dglobal%2Dpeace.html
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 Vice PM Pham Binh Minh (2019), “Doi ngoai nam 2018: Sang tao trong cach lam, hieu qua trong hanh dong,” VietnamNet, at https://vietnamnet.vn/vn/thoi%2Dsu/chinh%2Dtri/doi%2Dngoai%2Dnam%2D2018%2Dsang%2Dtao%2Dtrong%2Dcach%2Dlam%2Dhieu%2Dqua%2Dtrong%2Dhanh%2Ddong%2D499099.html
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 There has been an initiative on a reconciliation award named after the King. See more at: “Tran Nhan Tong Reconciliation Award to be launched in the US” (2012). VietnamNet, 19 June, at https://english.vietnamnet.vn/fms/society/23461/tran%2Dnhan%2Dtong%2Dreconciliation%2Daward%2Dto%2Dbe%2Dlaunched%2Din%2Dthe%2Dus.html
 Ngô Sĩ Liên (1993) Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư, translated from Nội các quan bản Edition (1697). Hanoi: Social Sciences Publishing House, p. 199.
 Thu Ha (2010), “Hòa hợp dân tộc qua góc nhìn của ông Nguyễn Cao Kỳ,” Que huong, 27 April, at http://quehuongonline.vn/doi%2Dsong/hoa%2Dhop%2Ddan%2Dtoc%2Dqua%2Dgoc%2Dnhin%2Dcua%2Dong%2Dnguyen%2Dcao%2Dky%2D14900.htm
Dang Minh Khoi (2020), “Công tác về người Việt Nam ở nước ngoài,” Tap Chi Cong San, 26 March, at http://www.tapchicongsan.org.vn/web/guest/50%2Dnam%2Dthuc%2Dhien%2Ddi%2Dchuc%2Dcua%2Dchu%2Dtich%2Dho%2Dchi%2Dminh/%2D/2018/816007/view_content
 “Former Saigon PM talks about homeland” (2010) Viet Nam News, 4 November, at /https://vietnamnews.vn/politics%2Dlaws/205369/former%2Dsaigon%2Dpm%2Dtalks%2Dabout%2Dhomeland.html
 Lowy Institute Global Diplomacy Index 2019, at https://globaldiplomacyindex.lowyinstitute.org/country_rank.html#
 Pham Binh Minh (2015) Ngoại giao góp phần xứng đáng xây dựng và bảo vệ Tổ quốc, Vietnam Government Portal News, 15 August, at http://baochinhphu.vn/70%2Dmua%2Dthu%2DCach%2Dmang/Ngoai%2Dgiao%2Dgop%2Dphan%2Dxung%2Ddang%2Dxay%2Ddung%2Dva%2Dbao%2Dve%2DTo%2Dquoc/234114.vgp
“Vietnam respected in international arena: Ambassador,” Vietnam News Agency, 28 August 2020, at https://en.vietnamplus.vn/vietnam%2Drespected%2Din%2Dinternational%2Darena%2Dambassador/182029.vnp
 Nguyen Viet Phuong (2019), “Thuong dinh My – Trieu Ha Noi: Noi cong dong quoc te dat niem tin hoa binh,” The gioi va Viet Nam, at https://baoquocte.vn/thuong%2Ddinh%2Dmy%2Dtrieu%2Dha%2Dnoi%2Dnoi%2Dcong%2Ddong%2Dquoc%2Dte%2Ddat%2Dniem%2Dtin%2Dhoa%2Dbinh%2D88274.html
 Nguyen Viet Phuong, and Vu, Khang (2019), “After the Hanoi Summit: Next steps for the US, North Korea, and Vietnam,” The Diplomat, 2 March, at https://thediplomat.com/2019/03/after%2Dthe%2Dhanoi%2Dsummit%2Dnext%2Dsteps%2Dfor%2Dthe%2Dus%2Dnorth%2Dkorea%2Dand%2Dvietnam
 Vietnam only had a two-week preparation period, much shorter than the two-month advance notice given for the leaders’ meeting in Singapore in June 2018.
 Security Council, “Security Council urges renewed measures to improve women’s participation in peace processes,” reaffirming the key role women can play in rebuilding war-torn societies, United Nations at https://www.un.org/press/en/2009/sc9759.doc.htm
 These diplomatic processes are considered consequential in Vietnam’s struggle for its independence in view of the power imbalances between Vietnam and its much stronger adversaries. As a complete military victory was too costly, and even impossible, the then Vietnamese strategy was to combine “fighting and negotiation”. See Vo Van Sung (2012), “Suy ngẫm về bài học “vừa đánh vừa đàm” trong chiến tranh bảo vệ Tổ quốc,” Nhan Dan, 13 December, at https://nhandan.com.vn/tin%2Dtuc%2Dsu%2Dkien/suy%2Dngam%2Dve%2Dbai%2Dhoc%2Dvua%2Ddanh%2Dvua%2Ddam%2Dtrong%2Dchien%2Dtranh%2Dbao%2Dve%2Dto%2Dquoc%2D582129
 Nguyen Hong Diep (2019), “Thuong dinh Hoa Ky – Trieu Tien: Kien tao hoa binh, nang tam vi the,” Thong tin Doi Ngoai,at http://tapchithongtindoingoai.vn/su%2Dkien%2Dva%2Dbinh%2Dluan/thuong%2Ddinh%2Dhoa%2Dky%2Dtrieu%2Dtien%2Dkien%2Dtao%2Dhoa%2Dbinh%2Dnang%2Dtam%2Dvi%2Dthe%2D21338
 Luu Ngoc Khai, and Dang Cong Thanh (2019), “Duong loi doi ngoai cua Dang theo tinh than Nghi quyet Dai hoi XII – Mot tam cao moi,” Bao Dien tu Dang Cong san Viet Nam, at http://dangcongsan.vn/tu%2Dlieu%2Dtham%2Dkhao%2Dcuoc%2Dthi%2Dtrac%2Dnghiem%2Dtim%2Dhieu%2D90%2Dnam%2Dlich%2Dsu%2Dve%2Dvang%2Dcua%2Ddang%2Dcong%2Dsan%2Dviet%2Dnam/tu%2Dlieu%2Dcuoc%2Dthi/duong%2Dloi%2Ddoi%2Dngoai%2Dcua%2Ddang%2Dtheo%2Dtinh%2Dthan%2Dnghi%2Dquyet%2Ddai%2Dhoi%2Dxii%2Dmot%2Dtam%2Dcao%2Dmoi%2D544967.html
 Yuda Masayuki and KikuchiTomomi (2017), “Vietnam and Japan would be among hardest hit by a Korean conflict,” Nikkei Asian Review, 4 October, at https://asia.nikkei.com/Economy/Vietnam%2Dand%2DJapan%2Dwould%2Dbe%2Damong%2Dhardest%2Dhit%2Dby%2Da%2DKorean%2Dconflict2
 J. G. Merrills, International Dispute Settlement, Cambridge University Press (Fifth Edition 2011), p. 26.
 Information strategies: the mediator primarily serves as a facilitator of information, laying the groundwork for further substantive progress in the conflict resolution process. Formulation strategies are those where a mediator serves as a facilitator for actual negotiations by providing a meeting place, and moderating discussions. Manipulative strategies: a mediator actively engages the parties and shapes the negotiations. See William Zartman and Saadia Touval (1985), “International Mediation: Conflict Resolution and Power Politics,” Journal of Social Issues, 41(2), 27–45.
Jacob Bercovitch (1997), “Mediation in International Conflict.” In I. William Zartman and J. Lewis Rasmussen, eds., Peacemaking in International Conflict. Washington, DC: United States Institution of Peace Press., pp. 137-138.
 The European External Action Service (2016), Global Challenges and Trends in International Peace: Mediation and Diplomacy: A Background Note, p. 2, at http://eeas.europa.eu/archives/docs/cfsp/conflict_prevention/docs/20160519%2Dglobal%2Dchallenges%2Dand%2Dtrends_final_en.pdf
 The Geneve Accords was a legal commitment from the great powers to respect the independence and sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Vietnam (together with Cambodia and Laos). However, Vietnam could not ultilise the military advantages it had gained on the ground to leverage a better settlement as China and the Soviet Union made concessions on the Vietnamese demarcation line for their own interests. See Vu Khoan (2014), “Hiep dinh Gio-ne-vo, 60 nam nhin lai”, Quan doi Nhan dan Online, at https://www.qdnd.vn/thoi%2Dsu%2Dquoc%2Dte/binh%2Dluan/hiep%2Ddinh%2Dgio%2Dne%2Dvo%2D60%2Dnam%2Dnhin%2Dlai%2D447282
Fredrik Logevall (2012). Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam. Random House, pp. 607-620.
 Vietnam needs to cut recurrent spending to ensure healthy budget (2018), Nhan Dan, at https://en.nhandan.com.vn/_mobile_business/_mobile_economy/item/6076102%2Dvietnam%2Dneeds%2Dto%2Dcut%2Drecurrent%2Dspending%2Dto%2Densure%2Dhealthy%2Dbudget.html.
 Oliver Hotham (2019), “Sweden no longer needed to mediate North Korea-U.S. talks: DPRK diplomat,” NKNews, 19 November, at https://www.nknews.org/2019/11/sweden%2Dno%2Dlonger%2Dneeded%2Dto%2Dmediate%2Dnorth%2Dkorea%2Du%2Ds%2Dtalks%2Ddprk%2Ddiplomat
 Le Dinh Tinh & Nguyen Duc Chinh (2019) “Why Vietnam Is More Than Just a Venue for the United States and DPRK Summit: A View From Hanoi,” Pacific Forum, 1 March.
 Lye Liang Fook and Ha Hoang Hop (2019), “Vietnam-North Korea Relations: Still a Special Relationship?,” ISEAS Perspective, Issue: 2019, No.18, p. 3.
 Eric Talmadge (2019), “On summit sidelines, North Koreans study Vietnam’s economy,” APNews, at https://apnews.com/eb50d09b6fa94e2e8166098be7dedc5c
 Vietnam offered the DPRK 100 tonnes of rice aid in 1995 and another 13,000 tonnes in 1997. From 2000 to 2012, it supported the DPRK with 22,700 tonnes of rice, 5 tonnes of material rubber, and US$50,000 in emergency aid. It offered US$70,000 in flood relief to the North Asian nation in 2016. See “Official visit to set historic milestone in Vietnam-DPRK relations” (2019), Viet Nam News Agency, 28 February, at https://en.vietnamplus.vn/official%2Dvisit%2Dto%2Dset%2Dhistoric%2Dmilestone%2Din%2Dvietnamdprk%2Drelations/147476.vnp
 Political Department (2018), “Vietnam, Myanmar issue joint statement,” Nhan dan Online, at https://en.nhandan.com.vn/politics/external%2Drelations/item/8237902%2Dvietnam%2Dmyanmar%2Dissue%2Djoint%2Dstatement.html
 Jennifer Pagonis (2006), “Cambodia, Viet Nam and UNHCR agree on further Montagnard cooperation,” UNHCR The UN Refugee Agency, 22 August, at https://www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2006/8/44eb03442/cambodia%2Dviet%2Dnam%2Dunhcr%2Dagree%2Dfurther%2Dmontagnard%2Dcooperation.html
 Up till Oct 2020, Vietnam has sent 23/166 female officers (13.8%) for UN PKO missions in South Sudan, which is higher than the UN average rate (4.8% of military contingents and 10.9% of formed police units). See more at: Women in Peacekeeping. https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/women%2Dpeacekeeping#:~:text%3DIn%202020%2C%20out%20of%20approximately,units%20in%20UN%20Peacekeeping%20missions.
 Women’s participation key to effective peacekeeping and peacebuilding (2020), at https://www.vn.undp.org/content/vietnam/en/home/presscenter/pressreleases/UNSCR1325.html
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- Vietnam needs to build more power plants to deal with its looming power shortage. Instead of tapping Chinese loans under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it is working with American investors to build a series of power plants using liquified natural gas (LNG) imported from the United States.
- Vietnam’s decision is driven by its wish to use cleaner sources of energy and to reduce financial and fiscal risks for the country.
- These projects also strengthen Vietnam-US relations and help make bilateral trade more balanced.
- The American government is strongly endorsing these LNG-to-power projects for both economic and strategic reasons. The United States is particularly interested in presenting regional countries with an alternative to the BRI that is based on sustainable, high-standard, market-oriented private sector investments.
- The emergence of an alternative to the BRI is welcome news for regional countries as they will have more funding options for their infrastructure projects.
- Competition from the United States should encourage China to make BRI lending practices more transparent, sustainable, and compatible with international standards.
* Le Hong Hiep is Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
As a fast-growing economy, Vietnam’s demand for new infrastructure has been increasing over the years. According to the Global Infrastructure Outlook, Vietnam’s investment needs for infrastructure projects between 2016 and 2040 amount to US$605 billion, in which power plants account for US$265 billion (44 per cent). Facing delays in current power projects and difficulties in getting financing for new ones, Vietnam’s power shortage is estimated to reach 6.6 billion kWh in 2021 and 15 billion kWh in 2023, or 5 per cent of the country’s total power demand. If this problem persists, it will pose serious constraints to Vietnam’s economic development.
Against this backdrop, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) should be an appealing source of funding that Vietnam can tap into. However, for various reasons, Vietnam has generally shunned BRI loans. Instead, it is actively working with US investors to develop its energy infrastructure. By late 2020, at least two major power plants funded by US investors using US liquified natural gas (LNG) had been approved, and at least five more similar projects are in the pipeline.
Vietnam’s decision to tap American rather than Chinese capital for its power plants not only has important implications for Vietnam-US relations but also provides an indication of how America is responding to China’s expanding economic and geopolitical influence through the BRI. If these projects are successful, they will bring credibility to America’s approach and offer regional countries a viable alternative to the BRI.
VIETNAM’S SWITCH TO LNG-FIRED POWER PLANTS
As shown in Figure 1, as of early 2020, Vietnam’s total installed capacity of power generation was 54.88 gigawatts (GW), in which hydropower and coal-fired power plants account for 71.46 per cent. However, these traditional power sources have shown limitations.
Figure 1 – Vietnam’s power generation sources as of 2020 (per cent)
Source: EVN National Load Dispatch Center
In addition to the lack of suitable locations left to build new hydropower plants, criticisms against hydropower projects have intensified, especially following recent serious flood and landslide disasters linked to a hydropower project in Quang Nam Province. Meanwhile, air pollution concerns and the Vietnamese government’s strengthening commitment to green development have caused widespread public rejection of new coal-fired power plants. Provinces such as Bac Lieu, Binh Thuan, Long An, Nghe An and Ha Tinh have cancelled coal-fired power projects planned in their jurisdiction. International financiers have also pressured investors to withdraw from coal-fired power projects in Vietnam. For example, a group of investors recently urged Mitsubishi Corp. and seven other Japanese companies to withdraw from the Vung Ang 2 coal-fired power project in Ha Tinh Province. As more international banks refuse to fund coal-fired power plants, getting financing for such projects have become increasingly difficult. The most feasible source of funding for new coal-fired power plants now is from China. However, the borrower would have to use Chinese technology, which is generally seen as less advanced and more polluting. The rising anti-China sentiments in Vietnam would also be a major challenge.
In order to diversify away from hydro and coal-fired power, Vietnam has created a lot of incentives for investments in the renewable energy sector. As shown in Figure 1, as of 2020, solar and wind power account for 11.05 per cent of Vietnam’s total power generation capacity. By August 2020, 23 GW of renewable energy had been added to the national power development plan, including 11.2 GW of solar power and 11.8 GW of wind power. In the next few years, as these renewable energy projects are completed and put into operation, the share of renewable energy in Vietnam’s energy mix will further increase.
However, as renewable energy sources are not stable due to changing weather conditions, Vietnam still needs more stable sources of energy to serve as baseload power. In this regard, LNG-fired power plants provide the most promising option as they are seen as much cleaner than coal-fired power plants while safer and less difficult to develop than nuclear power plants. Currently, Vietnam is planning 10.4 GW of gas-fired power by 2028, most of them use imported LNG. The key challenge, however, is to get funding for these projects.
THE ROLE OF AMERICAN INVESTORS
Vietnam has developed more than 10 gas-fired power plants, but most of them (except for the Phu My 2.2 and Phu My 3 projects in Ba Ria – Vung Tau Province) are developed by domestic investors. All these plants use gas from Vietnam’s gas wells in the South China Sea. As the domestic gas supply is rather limited while new gas development projects have been delayed, Vietnam finds engaging American investors to build new power plants using LNG imported from the United States a convenient option for various reasons.
First, engaging American investors will help strengthen US-Vietnam relations. This is an important consideration, given that Vietnam is keen to maintain strong ties with the United States for both economic and strategic benefits. The United States is currently Vietnam’s biggest export market, while strategic cooperation with Washington is important for Vietnam’s efforts to balance against China in the South China Sea.
Second, importing LNG from the United States will help reduce America’s trade deficit with Vietnam, which stood at $55.8 billion in 2019. This large and swelling trade deficit has been a major source of resentment for the administration of President Donald Trump. In December 2020, the US Treasury labeled Vietnam as a currency manipulator and accused Vietnam of manipulating its currency to gain “unfair competitive advantage in international trade”. Importing US LNG for its power plants will therefore enable Vietnam to achieve the dual goals of addressing America’s trade concerns and improving its energy security.
Third, working with US private investors will reduce financial and political risks for the Vietnamese government. Unlike Chinese loans under the BRI which are normally arranged through government-to-government agreements and require government guarantee, most LNG-to-power projects in Vietnam are proposed by private investors under the independent power producer (IPP) model. Under this model, the Vietnamese government only needs to commit to buy electricity from such projects at an agreed price. Financial arrangements for the construction of the projects will be made by the investors, which helps reduce the fiscal burden on the Vietnamese government.
Fourth, as Washington is providing support for the LNG industry to turn America into a major LNG producer and exporter, importing US LNG can be a sustainable option for Vietnam in terms of pricing and supply capacity. Moreover, US investors, with their proven financial and technical track record, can better ensure that their projects are implemented successfully without the problems normally associated with China-backed infrastructure projects, especially cost overruns and project delays.
Table 1- Vietnam’s major LNG-to-power projects related to American investors
|Project name||Capacity||Investment value (US$)||American investor||Status|
|1||Son My 2||2.2 GW||1.7 billion||AES*||Approved, commissioned in 2024|
|2||Bac Lieu LNG||3.2 GW||4 billion||Delta Offshore Energy||Approved, phase 1 commissioned in 2023|
|3||Chan May LNG||4 GW||6 billion||Pacific Rim Investment and Management Inc.*||Proposed, phase 1 commissioned in 2024|
|4||Long Son LNG||3.6 GW||4.39 billion||General Electric*||Proposed, phase 1 commissioned in 2025|
|5||Hai Phong LNG||4.5 GW||5.09 billion||ExxonMobil*||Proposed, phase 1 commissioned in 2026|
|6||Long An LNG||3 GW||2.88 billion||General Electric*||Proposed, phase 1 commissioned in 2025|
|7||Mui Ke Ga||3.6 GW||4.2 billion||Energy Capital Vietnam, Excelerate*||Proposed, phase 1 commissioned in 2028|
* These projects are not wholly-owned by American investors, and there are local or third-country partners involved.
Source: Author’s own compilation
As of December 2020, more than 20 LNG-to-power projects have been proposed in Vietnam. Among these, two have been approved to be developed by American investors. As shown in Table 1, some other projects that have entered advanced stages of their application are also associated with American investors. In the next few years, more America-backed projects are expected to be announced.
AN EMERGING ALTERNATIVE TO THE BRI?
These projects have been considered favorably by not only Vietnam but also America. A primary example is the Bac Lieu LNG-fired power plant. This project is developed by Delta Offshore Energy, a special purpose vehicle established in Singapore but owned by three American shareholders. In September 2019, the US Department of Commerce (DOC) added the project to the US Commercial Advocacy Program, which enables the project to enjoy certain benefits, including lobbying efforts led by US government agencies. Shortly after that, the project was approved by the Vietnamese government and added to the national Power Development Plan 7 in December 2019. It has since been highlighted as a marquee project of US-Vietnam energy cooperation. At the Indo-Pacific Business Forum held in Hanoi in October 2020, under the witness of Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh and US Ambassador to Vietnam Daniel J. Kritenbrink, Delta Offshore Energy signed a master teaming agreement with three other American firms (Bechtel, General Electric and McDermott) to prepare for the execution of the project.
Commenting on the event, which also witnessed the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to develop the Hai Phong LNG power project and a joint venture agreement for the development of the Son My LNG import terminal, the US embassy in Hanoi stated that “the United States is committed to helping Vietnam meet its growing energy needs”.
The US government’s support for America-led LNG-to-power projects in Vietnam is a telling example of how the US is countering China’s BRI. Since the BRI’s launch in 2013, China has been able to use the initiative to advance its economic and strategic agenda across the region at the expense of the United States and its allies. A key factor causing many regional countries to embrace the BRI was that BRI was almost the only game in town. The LNG-to-power projects that the United States is backing in Vietnam therefore provides early evidence that Washington is taking concrete actions to present regional countries with an alternative to the BRI.
Towards this end, the United States and Vietnam signed in November 2019 a Cooperation Framework to Strengthen Infrastructure Finance. The initiative was designed to achieve the two countries’ mutual goals of supporting infrastructure development through market-oriented, private sector investments. The agreement is said to support the broader US Government Indo-Pacific Strategy by complementing initiatives such as the Enhancing Development and Growth through Energy (Asia EDGE) and the Infrastructure Transaction and Assistance Network (ITAN).  At the regional level, Washington has also signed similar agreements with South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand.
The participation of private investors like Delta Offshore Energy, ExxonMobil, AES or General Electric makes America’s approach to assisting the region’s infrastructure development markedly different from the BRI, as the implementation of the BRI has so far been dominated by Chinese state-owned enterprises. Moreover, while most BRI projects use loans arranged through government-to-government agreements or provided by Chinese state-owned banks, America-backed projects use market-based financing arrangements negotiated between investors and international creditors. In the energy sector, America’s promotion of LNG-to-power projects also contrasts with the BRI’s approach, which has mainly focused on hydro or coal-fired power plants. In Vietnam, Chinese investors and contractors have built many coal-fired power plants, and the BRI’s only energy project in the country so far is the 1.2 GW Vinh Tan 1 coal-fired power plant in Binh Thuan Province.
America is also working with Japan to support Vietnam’s energy infrastructure development under the Japan-US Strategic Energy Partnership. In a joint statement at a trilateral forum on LNG held in December 2020, the two countries pledged to provide financial assistance for Vietnam to build LNG-fired power plants and receiving terminals. Japanese investors are also actively investing in such projects on their own or in collaboration with American partners. For example, during US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien’s visit to Vietnam in November 2020, Mitsubishi, General Electric and their Vietnamese partners signed an MOU to develop the Long Son LNG power project. In the same month, Tokyo Gas, Marubeni and Vietnamese partners also signed an MOU to build the Quang Ninh LNG-fired power plant.
The collaboration between America and its allies and partners therefore highlights another major difference in the approaches of America and China to international infrastructure development. While China has funded BRI projects mostly by its own money, America has tried to pool resources from its allies and partners. In the long run, this approach together with the market-based financing mechanism will make America’s strategy more sustainable. Washington has strengthened collaboration with its allies for not only project financing but also standard setting. A primary example is the Blue Dot Network (BDN), an initiative announced in November 2019 by the United States, Japan, and Australia to provide assessment and certification of “quality infrastructure investment that is open and inclusive, transparent, economically viable, financially, environmentally and socially sustainable, and compliant with international standards, laws, and regulations”. Another goal of the initiative is to mobilize private capital for infrastructure development projects across the Indo-Pacific. As Vietnam’s LNG-fired power projects appear to meet the above criteria, it is likely that they will soon be certified as BDN projects.
US-China strategic competition has expanded to different areas, including funding infrastructure development projects in developing countries. Bilateral competition in this domain has particularly intensified since 2013 when China rolled out its BRI. Until recently, China has been successful in promoting the BRI partly because the United States lacked a coherent and viable strategy to compete with the BRI. However, the case of America-backed LNG-to-power projects in Vietnam provides early evidence that Washington is taking concrete steps to counter the BRI in an effective manner. A comprehensive strategy to help regional countries build quality infrastructure in line with America’s economic and strategic visions is also taking shape. This will present a formidable challenge to the BRI at a critical juncture when the BRI itself is facing significant international and domestic setbacks, leading to Beijing’s decision to scale back the initiative and adopt a more conservative approach.
The availability of an alternative to the BRI should be welcome news to regional countries as they can thus avoid dependence on any single source of funding. Competition from the United States and its allies will also force China to become more responsible and make its BRI lending practices more transparent, sustainable, and compatible with international standards. If the United States and its allies can successfully implement its infrastructure development financing model in Vietnam and replicate it in other countries, Washington can strengthen its strategic and economic position in the Indo-Pacific and counter China’s expanding influence more effectively. For Vietnam, the participation of US investors brings a critical source of funding at a time when the country desperately needs to build more power plants to deal with its looming power shortage. If these LNG-to-power projects are successful, Vietnam may also consider engaging American investors in other infrastructure projects as well. In the meantime, the priority for both Vietnam and the United States is to make sure that these LNG-to-power projects are successful. One challenge Vietnam may face along the way is how to manage the possible increase in its electricity retail price given that LNG-fired power is relatively more expensive than coal-fired or hydro power. If this challenge is addressed properly, there are good reasons to believe that Vietnam-US cooperation in the development of energy infrastructure will strengthen over the next decade.
ISEAS Perspective 2021/2, 19 January 2021.
 Global Infrastructure Hub, “Global Infrastructure Outlook – Infrastructure investment needs – 50 countries, 7 sectors to 2040”, July 2017, https://d2rpq8wtqka5kg.cloudfront.net/389138/open20170919030300.pdf
 “Từ 2021, mỗi năm Việt Nam sẽ thiếu hàng tỉ kWh điện”, Tuổi Trẻ, 9 November 2019, https://tuoitre.vn/tu-2021-moi-nam-viet-nam-se-thieu-hang-ti-kwh-dien-20191109084941987.htm
 For an analysis of Vietnam’s perception of the BRI, see Le Hong Hiep, “The Belt and Road Initiative in Vietnam: Challenges and Prospects”, ISEAS Perspective, 2018 (18).
 “Ditch Vietnam coal-fired plant, investors tell Mitsubishi and banks”, Nikkei Asia, 29 November 2020, https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Environment/Ditch-Vietnam-coal-fired-plant-investors-tell-Mitsubishi-and-banks
 “Banks Shunning Coal Financing Bodes Badly for New Plants in Asia”, Bloomberg, 25 February 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-02-25/banks-shunning-coal-financing-bodes-badly-for-new-plants-in-asia
 Author interview with Vietnam energy expert, November 2020.
 “113 dự án năng lượng tái tạo đã cơ bản được giải tỏa công suất”, Vietnam Electricity, 4 September 2020, https://www.evn.com.vn/d6/news/113-du-an-nang-luong-tai-tao-da-co-ban-duoc-giai-toa-cong-suat-6-12-26358.aspx
 Office of the US Trade Representative, “Vietnam”, undated, https://ustr.gov/countries-regions/southeast-asia-pacific/vietnam
 “U.S. Treasury labels Switzerland, Vietnam as currency manipulators”, Reuters, 16 December 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/usa-currency-manipulation-idUSKBN28Q1SF
 “The US is helping the natural gas industry make a profit — at the expense of the environment”, The Texas Tribune, 12 December 2018, https://www.texastribune.org/2018/12/12/us-helping-private-natural-gas-companies-make-profit/
 Facebook page of US Embassy in Hanoi, 29 October 2020, https://www.facebook.com/usembassyhanoi/posts/3930934623602037
 US Department of the Treasury, “United States and Socialist Republic of Viet Nam Sign Cooperation Framework to Strengthen Infrastructure Finance”, 7 November 2019, https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/sm829
 “Vietnam teams with Japan and US for low-carbon electricity”, Nikkei Asia, 4 December 2020, https://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Energy/Vietnam-teams-with-Japan-and-US-for-low-carbon-electricity
 US Department of State, “Blue Dot Network”, undated, https://www.state.gov/blue-dot-network/
 For example, according to data compiled by researchers at Boston University, BRI lending by the China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China decreased from a peak of US$75 billion in 2016 to just US$4 billion in 2019. See “China curtails overseas lending in face of geopolitical backlash” Financial Times, 8 December 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/1cb3e33b-e2c2-4743-ae41-d3fffffa4259
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- The Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) installs its personnel based on criteria such as competence, experience, age limits, gender and geographical origins. The last factor significantly affects the personnel line-up.
- Historically, two political geographic regions were formed around the feuding armies of Trinh and Nguyen starting from 1620. In 1834, a Nguyen king (Minh Mang) divided the country into three regions – North, Centre and South. The French colonial government essentially maintained this division until 1945.
- From 1954 to 1975, Vietnam was divided into North and South Vietnam. These divisions, feudal clashes and the wars of resistance against foreign powers further shaped the centres of power in Vietnam.
- After Vietnam’s reunification in 1975, the CPV leadership took into account geographical origins in its personnel line-up by seeking a balance among leaders from the North, the Centre and the South, following the tradition established by the Nguyen dynasty.
- To date, the general secretary and prime minister are selected from two different regions. This leadership line-up is a top-down practice that nurtures political groups whose members are connected by their geographical origins.
* Ha Hoang Hop is Visiting Senior Fellow of the Vietnam Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute; and Lye Liang Fook is Coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme and Coordinator of the Vietnam Studies Programme at the same institute. This Perspective is part of a series and builds on earlier pieces related to the 13th National Congress.
The Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) will hold its all-important 13th National Congress early this year. The 13th plenum of the Party’s Central Committee in October 2020 made further progress in terms of the personnel preparation for the national congress – coming up with the list of candidates for the central committee of the 13th National Congress term. The 14th plenum in December 2020 decided on the list of candidates for the Politburo and Secretariat of the 13th National Congress.
The Politburo further decided to hold the 15th plenum just before the 13th National Congress to deliberate on the list of candidates for the four top national positions (general secretary, prime minister, state president and chairperson of the national assembly). This paper provides an overview of the personnel installation at the national level, with a focus on the geographical dimension of the selection in terms of the practice and criteria used.
GEOGRAPHICAL DIMENSIONS IN PERSONNEL INSTALLATION
The Top National Leadership
At the national leadership level, the CPV first devised the scheme of “collective leadership” at the 7th National Congress in 1991 that comprised the four top positions of the Party’s general secretary, state president, prime minister and chairperson of the national assembly. It was also at this same congress that the Party instituted the rule of geographical origins which stipulated that the positions of the general secretary, state president and prime minister must be held by three separate individuals from different geographical parts of Vietnam, i.e. from the North, Centre and South, and that no two individuals are to have come from the same region.
The rule of geographical origins was relaxed somewhat at the 10th National Congress in 2006 when the CPV decided that only the general secretary and prime minister need to be from different regional parts of Vietnam. General Secretary Nong Duc Manh, who came from the North, secured a second term, and both the President Nguyen Minh Triet and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung hailed from the South. Similarly, during the 11th National Congress term (2011-2016), apart from General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong who came from the North, both President Truong Tan Sang and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung hailed from the South.
At the 12th National Congress in 2016, the principle that only the general secretary and prime minister need to be from different geographical regions of Vietnam was adhered to. So for the 12th National Congress term (2016-2021), General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong came from the North while Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc came from the Centre.
At the upcoming 13th National Congress, one possible scenario is the continuation of the established practice of having the general secretary and prime minister come from different geographical regions of Vietnam. Another increasingly possible scenario, which will be a break from convention if it comes to pass, is for the general secretary and prime minister to come from the same geographical region. In this scenario, Nguyen Phu Trong will stay on as general secretary for a third term despite his age and ill health. A possible candidate for prime minister is existing Politburo member Pham Minh Chinh (concurrently secretary of the CPV Central Committee and head of the Party’s Organisation Commission) who is from the northern province of Thanh Hoa.
Another question that remains to be answered is whether the post of general secretary and president will remain in the hands of a single individual as is the case at present. The CPV could consider to continue to merge the positions of general secretary and state president in the interest of simplicity and for the sake of diplomacy so that on official trips abroad, the general secretary could be accorded the status of a head of state. The practice of having these two positions held by two separate individuals has been applied since 1945, driven by a primary consideration, i.e. to avoid over-concentration of power and the growth of an individual personality cult.
What is clear is that since the 7th National Congress in 1991, there has been a stress on the general secretary being an individual from the North. At the same time, this individual must be “a master in Marxism, Leninism and Ho Chi Minh doctrine”. In the upcoming 13th National Congress, there were earlier indications that Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Tran Quoc Vuong, current standing member of the CPV’s Secretariat, were possible candidates for the position of general secretary. The inclusion of Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who comes from the Centre, would seem to indicate a break from the established practice. However, one latest indication as mentioned above is that Nguyen Phu Trong would be the frontrunner for staying on as general secretary.
Tran Quoc Vuong could be another frontrunner as he has the support of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong. Tran Quoc Vuong also has experience in fighting corruption as head of the Central Committee on Control and Scrutiny, a post he held from 2016 to 2018. He is more likely to carry on the anti-corruption fight if he becomes general secretary. Another factor is that Tran Quoc Vuong is a Northerner. As mentioned above, the CPV’s general secretaries generally come from the North. There is some historical context behind this geographical emphasis. In January 1930, the three communist parties in the North, the Centre and the South of Vietnam, then a French colony, merged into a single party with a majority of the leaders coming from the North. Interestingly, some of these leaders came from what we know today as the CPV’s definition of the political North. Even among the CPV rank and file, there is greater representation of members from the North. For instance, among the current 5.4 million party members as of end 2020, more than 60% are from the North.
From the CPV’s perspective, the term ‘geographical origins’ is not merely a narrow construct denoting birthplace or ancestral village but also includes how politically active an individual has been in a particular region. In this regard, General Secretary Le Duan (1960 – 1986) was considered a Southerner even though he was born in Quang Tri, a central province. This was because Le Duan spent a large part of his political career in the South. In the same vein, Nguyen Van Linh who succeeded Le Duan and was general secretary from 1986 to 1991, and who initiated Doi Moi (economic renovation), was considered politically a Southerner although his birthplace was in Hung Yen province in the North.
At the moment, there appears to be a nice geographical balance in the top leadership with General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong from the North, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc being from the Centre, and Chairperson of the National Assembly Madame Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan being from the South. Traditionally, since the 7th National Congress, the prime ministers have come from the South, such as Vo Van Kiet (1991-1996), Phan Van Khai (1996-2006), and Nguyen Tan Dung (2006-2016). The primary reason is that since the South has contributed most to the state coffers, it is important to give it due recognition by having the prime minister come from there. But the fundamental reason lies in the CPV’s will to enhance political unity and solidarity throughout the country. However, it is worth noting that the current prime minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc is an exception; he is from the Centre. He became prime minister in 2016 since no member of the Politburo in the 12th National Congress who was from the South satisfied the selection criteria for that position.
The Politburo and the Secretariat
In the current Politburo of the 12th National Congress, we can also discern representation based on the geographical origins of the North, Centre and South. The North has two explicit groups. One comprises Ha Nam, Nam Dinh and Ninh Binh provinces which have contributed five members to the Politburo. This group, especially those from Ha Nam and Nam Dinh, is a closely knitted one. The other consists of Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces which has contributed one member of the Politburo and three members of the Secretariat. They also form a close-knit group. The Centre has contributed one member of the Politburo and one member of the Secretariat. The South has contributed five members of the Politburo and one member of the Secretariat (see Table 1 below).
Table 1: Members of the Politburo of the 12th National Congress Term
|Geographical Regions||Provinces||Politburo (12th National Congress term – list all members)||Status|
|1||North||Nam Dinh||Dinh The Huynh||To Step down|
|2||North||Ha Nam||Ngo Xuan Lich||To Step down|
|3||North||Ninh Binh||Tran Dai Quang||Deceased|
|4||North||Nam Dinh||Pham Binh Minh||To Remain|
|5||North||Nam Dinh||Dinh La Thang||Prosecuted|
|6||North||Son La||Ms. Tong Thi Phong||To Step down|
|7||North||Thai Binh||Tran Quoc Vuong||To be decided|
|8||North||Ha Noi||Nguyen Phu Trong||To be decided|
|9||North||Thai Binh||Hoang Trung Hai||To Step down|
|10||North||Phu Tho||Nguyen Van Binh||To Step down|
|11||North||Thanh Hoa||Pham Minh Chinh||To Remain|
|12||North||Hung Yen||To Lam||To Remain|
|13||North||Nghe An||Vuong Dinh Hue||To Remain|
|14||Centre||Quang Nam||Nguyen Xuan Phuc||To be decided|
|15||South||Ben Tre||Ms. Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan||To be decided|
|16||South||Tra Vinh||Nguyen Thien Nhan||To Step down|
|17||South||Long An||Truong Hoa Binh||To Step down|
|18||South||Quang Binh||Truong Thi Mai||To Remain|
|19||South||Vinh Long||Vo Van Thuong||To Remain|
Source: Various public sources
There are six other members of the Politburo and one other member of the Secretariat from the North but they are not in any group or quasi-group. In the South, the members of the Politburo and Secretariat do not explicitly form any group. In general, the members of the Politburo and Secretariat tend to originate more from the North. In a way, this enables them to have more power to make changes in the Party and government organisations and personnel at various levels.
In the personnel line-up for the upcoming 13th National Congress, all members of the Secretariat of the 12th Congress from Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces will be elevated to the Politburo. The other Northern provinces of Ha Nam, Nam Dinh and Ninh Binh can expect to have three or four members of the Politburo, the Centre can expect two or three and the South three or four.
The rest will be elected from the candidates to the Central Committee of the 13th National Congress. Some Central Committee members will also be elected to become members of the Secretariat.
The current Central Committee of the 12th National Congress has 180 full members and 20 alternate members. Among the full members are at least 23 members from the Northern group of Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces. This group has the biggest number of members in the Central Committee of the 12th National Congress. Except for a few who will step down at the 13th National Congress, most of them will serve in the Central Committee of the 13th National Congress and some of them will be promoted to the Politburo and/or the Secretariat of the 13th National Congress and even the 14th National Congress. The other northern group is made up of those from Ha Nam, Nam Dinh and Ninh Binh provinces, and have at least 18 full members on the Central Committee of the 12th National Congress.
To maintain their presence, both groups must have worked hard in the 10th and the 11th National Congress to be included in the personnel line-up in the current Central Committee, the Politburo and the Secretariat.
At least two members of the Central Committee can recommend or promote one individual as candidate for the Central Committee in the upcoming National Congress.
The usual route is for members of the Central Committee to promote or recommend a number of individuals to form a preliminary list of candidates. Another less common route is for members of the Central Committee from one particular geographical group to recommend or promote an individual who is also in that group in an effort to retain their power and influence. The Central Committee has the so-called central list of recommended individuals; this list is somewhat less affected by the geographical dimension.
SOME HISTORICAL CONTEXT
The source of the present-day groups that can be discerned to be based on geographical origins has some connections to Vietnam’s history. For example, there were two distinct geographical regions that were formed during the feuding war between the Trinh and Nguyen clans (1620 – 1672). In 1802, Nguyen Anh, a young prince, founded the Nguyen dynasty, and in 1834, Minh Mang, a Nguyen emperor, announced the division of Vietnam into three regions: the North, the Centre and the South. From 1887, the French colonialists re-affirmed this division, which lasted until 1945.
Even before the Trinh and Nguyen clans came along, the North was a distinct centre of political power. In particular, the Tran dynasty was founded in Nam Dinh province in 1223. From 1257 to 1288, it defeated the Mongolian Yuan invaders thrice. Over time, and as a result of the victories of the Tran dynasty, the then Nam Dinh prefecture (comprising present-day Hung Yen, Ha Nam, Nam Dinh, and Thai Binh), became a centre of political power in Vietnam. The people in this quasi-group of provinces have nurtured a tradition of being a strong centre of political power until the present day.
Also in the North, Thanh Hoa province had a special contribution to the history of Vietnam: this single province was itself a centre of power that lasted some 300 years, straddling the Le and Nguyen dynasties. The clans of Trinh and Nguyen, mentioned above, both originated from Thanh Hoa; albeit the clan of Nguyen went to the South and later founded the Nguyen dynasty.
After the Second World War, with Vietnam divided into the North and the South by the 1954 Geneva Agreement, many communists shifted from the South to the North to prepare for eventual reunification. Following Vietnam’s reunification in 1975, Party organisations were re- strengthened in the Centre and the South, and soon entrenched themselves there, forming local political support bases for the ruling CPV regime headquartered in the North. In a way, the history of Vietnam from the 17th century to the present day have re-enforced the culture of three distinct geographical regions.
The CPV was founded in January 1930 through the merger of three then-existing communist parties in Vietnam. At that time, the general secretaries of all the three parties were almost all from the North – Bac Ninh, Ha Noi, Hung Yen, Hai Phong, Nam Dinh, Thanh Hoa, Nghe An, Ha Tinh provinces. Since the 1930s, all CPV general secretaries have been from the North, except for Le Duan and Nguyen Van Linh who were politically considered as being from the South (see Table 2 below).
Table 2: General Secretaries of the CPV (1930 to present date)
|Geographical Regions||Provinces||General Secretaries||Duration|
|North||Ha Tinh||Tran Phu||1930 – 1931|
|North||Nghe An||Le Hong Phong||1931 – 1936|
|North||Ha Tinh||Ha Huy Tap||1936 – 1938|
|North||Bac Ninh||Nguyen Van Cu||1938 – 1940|
|North||Nam Dinh||Truong Chinh||1940 – 1956|
|North||Nghe An||Ho Chi Minh||1956 – 1960|
|South||Quang Tri||Le Duan||1960 – 1986|
|North||Nam Dinh||Truong Chinh||1986|
|South||Hung Yen||Nguyen Van Linh||1986 – 1991|
|North||Ha Noi||Do Muoi||1991 – 1997|
|North||Thanh Hoa||Le Kha Phieu||1997 – 2001|
|North||Bac Kan||Nong Duc Manh||2001 – 2011|
|North||Ha Noi||Nguyen Phu Trong||2011 – Present|
Source: Various public sources
At the 2nd National Congress in 1951, the Party established a personnel body to oversee the personnel and organisational matters of the Party and the government. However, the choice of members of the Central Committee, the Secretariat and the Politburo was based solely on the will and preference of the top leaders and members of the Politburo. At that time, the top leaders and individual members of the Politburo had a few cadres under their personal tutelage. Without going through any objective assessment of competence, knowledge, experience and morality, a protege could secure a strong endorsement for promotion. More often than not, leaders tended to take care of individuals who were from the same province as themselves.
The propensity for leaders to promote fellow-provincial or fellow-regional men into positions of influence has been a basic motivation for nurturing geographical groups. Groups often create narratives to hail their own achievements and lay claim to leadership roles. They sometimes disguise political infightings as the practicing of democratic centralism. Inside each larger group, there may be smaller groups with links to particular provinces or provincial districts.
Personnel installation is a top-down process: the Central Commission of Personnel and Organisation assists the Central Committee and the Politburo to select cadres from the various regions and provinces, from central apparatus (such as ministries, central commissions of the Party, Fatherland Front, Communist Youth, Women’s Union). The selected cadres are sent to be trained at Ho Chi Minh National Political Academy (the Party’s organ) and National Administrative Academy (the state organ). After training, these cadres are assigned to posts at the Party and state organisations via personnel decisions and through Party congresses.
For instance, Directive No. 35 of 2019 issued by the CPV Politburo aims to maximise the number of provincial party secretaries being from provinces other than the ones they are serving in. To date, about 46 percent of provinces have such party secretaries. Quite a few of these party secretaries are from the political geographical groups of Nghe An, Ha Tinh and Ha Nam, Nam Dinh.
In addition, Directive No. 214 of 2020 issued by the CPV Politburo contain a set of rules for personnel selection based on competence, experience, morality, ethnicity, gender, and health. Although this directive appears to be a step towards more objective criteria for selection of top leaders, it is unclear to what extent these criteria are adhered to in actual practice. More often than not, the unwritten rules of political geographical arrangements are used to temper, even to object to earlier choices made on the basis of such criteria.
A key objective of CPV politics is to promote political solidarity and unity nationwide by having a leadership that is based on some form of equilibrium among the different geographical regions of Vietnam. The South and the North, which have traditionally been more dynamic in either generating wealth or functioning as political centres than the Centre, are more prominent in the top national leadership, and in key institutions such as the Central Committee and the Secretariat.
However, the CPV and the government have made a special effort to ensure that the Centre is represented as well. This was demonstrated when the 12th National Congress reached a consensus to install Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who is from the Centre, to the position of prime minister in 2016. If he is re-elected at the 13th National Congress, he is likely to assume another key role. It is also possible that he may step down. In addition, representation of the Central provinces may be strengthened with one or two more individuals from this region being elevated to the Politburo (see Table 3 below).
Table 3 – First-time Candidates as Members of the Politburo of the 13th National Congress
(13th National Congress term’s candidates)
|1||North||Phu Tho||Luong Cuong|
|2||North||Ninh Binh||Dinh Tien Dung|
|4||North||Ha Nam||Dao Ngoc Dung|
|5||North||Nghe An||Phan Dinh Trac|
|6||North||Nghe An||Nguyen Xuan Thang|
|7||North||Ha Tinh||Ms. Le Thi Nga|
|8||North||Ha Nam||Ms. Bui Thi Minh Hoai|
|9||North||Ha Tinh||Tran Cam Tu|
|10||North||Ha Tinh||Le Minh Hung|
|11||North||Tuyen Quang||Do Van Chien|
|12||Centre||Quang Ngai||Nguyen Hoa Binh|
|13||Centre||Thua Thien – Hue||Bui Thanh Son|
|14||South||Tay Ninh||Nguyen Van Nen|
|15||South||Hau Giang||Tran Thanh Man|
|16||South||An Giang||Ms. Vo Thi Anh Xuan|
|17||South||Bac Lieu||Le Minh Khai|
|18||South||Tien Giang||Nguyen Trong Nghia|
Source: Various sources
Current indications are that the incoming general secretary is likely to be someone from the North. This will not come as a surprise as the Northern provinces that include Thanh Hoa, Nghe An and Ha Tinh have traditionally been part of the CPV’s definition of the geographical North as well as the political centre.
The line-up of the top leadership remains fluid at the moment. One must wait at least until the 15th plenum of the 12th National Congress is held to learn how many members of the Politburo who are older than 65 will be retained at the 13th National Congress. At the 15th plenum, there is a possibility that the general secretary and prime minister could come from the same geographical region of Vietnam. If this should come to pass, it would represent a break with convention.
ISEAS Perspective 2021/1, 15 January 2021.
 The 13th National Congress will be held from 25 January to 2 February 2021 in Hanoi; see Vietnam government news at VGP News at Ban Chấp hành Trung ương triệu tập Đại hội XIII từ ngày 25/1/2021 | BÁO ĐIỆN TỬ CHÍNH PHỦ NƯỚC CHXHCN VIỆT NAM (baochinhphu.vn)
 Holding a 15th plenum before a National Congress is not a record. At the CPV’s 2nd National Congress in the 1950s, a 16th plenum was held.
 Prior to 1991, the post of chairperson of the national assembly was not as important as the other three posts.
 The CPV’s definition of the geographical regions is different from physical geographical regions of Vietnam. Based on the Party’s definition, the North consists of all the Northern provinces down to Ha Tinh province; the Centre stretches from Quang Binh province southwards to Phu Yen province (including all the Central Highland provinces); and the rest of the provinces comprises the South.
 Lye Liang Fook and Ha Hoang Hop, Vietnam’s 13th Party Congress: Document Preparation and Personnel Lineup, Perspective No. 84, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, 6 August 2020. /wp-content/uploads/2020/07/ISEAS_Perspective_2020_84.pdf.
 In addition, there are indications that existing Politburo member Vuong Dinh Hue will become chairperson of the national assembly. Hue was previously minister of finance and head of the CPV Central Economic Commission. He has a doctoral degree in economics and was a professor at the Hanoi University of Finance and Accountancy in the 1990s.
 The CPV wanted to avoid the personality cult of Joseph Stalin and the over-concentration of power by Mao Zedong. It wanted to avoid the power concentration of Mikhail Gorbachev as well, especially in his later years as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
 The Platform of the Nation Building in the Transition Period to the Socialism – the 7th National Congress of the CPV, 1991. Source: https://tulieuvankien.dangcongsan.vn/ban-chap-hanh-trung-uong-dang/dai-hoi-dang/lan-thu-vii/cuong-linh-xay-dung-dat-nuoc-trong-thoi-ky-qua-do-len-chu-nghia-xa-hoi-1558.
 The Communist Party of Indochina, the Communist Party of Annam, and the Communist League of Indochina joined together to form a united communist party called the Communist Party of Vietnam (Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam) in Hong Kong on 3-7 February 1930.
 Among all the general secretaries, only Nguyen Van Linh is politically considered as originating from the South. But interestingly, he was born in the North, but spent his political life in the South from age 15.
 Since 1995, the South has been contributing more than 60% of Vietnam’s total state budget.
 The five members of the Politburo are Dinh The Huynh (inactive due to illness), Dinh La Thang (dismissed and prosecuted), Tran Dai Quang (deceased), Ngo Xuan Lich (Defence Minister) and Pham Binh Minh (Deputy Prime Minister cum Foreign Minister). Only Pham Binh Minh will be a candidate for the Politburo of the 13th National Congress since Ngo Xuan Lich will step down and retire due to his age. We can expect new candidates to be selected from this group to the Politburo and the Secretariat of the 13th National Congress.
 They are member of the Politburo Vuong Dinh Hue (from Nghe An), member of the Secretariat Phan Dinh Trac and Nguyen Xuan Thang (both from Nghe An), and member of the Secretariat Tran Cam Tu (from Ha Tinh).
 They are Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (member of the Politburo, from Quang Nam province), and Chief Justice Nguyen Hoa Binh (member of the Secretariat, from Quang Ngai province).
 The six members of the Politburo are: Nguyen Phu Trong (from Hanoi), Tran Quoc Vuong (from Thai Binh province), To Lam (from Hung Yen province), Pham Minh Chinh (from Thanh Hoa province), Hoang Trung Hai (from Thai Binh province) and Nguyen Van Binh (from Phu Tho province); and the member of the Secretariat is Luong Cuong (from Phu Tho province).
 Vietnam Party Central Committee meets to identify successors, Vietnam Express, 11 May 2020, at https://e.vnexpress.net/news/news/vietnam-party-central-committee-meets-to-identify-successors-4097508.html.
 The list of members of the Central Committee of the 12th National Congress, https://tulieuvankien.dangcongsan.vn/ban-chap-hanh-trung-uong-dang/ban-chap-hanh-trung-uong-dang/khoa-xii.
 Ben Kiernan, Việt Nam: A History from Earliest Time to the Present (USA: Oxford University Press, 2017).
 General Secretary Le Kha Phieu (1997-2001) was from Thanh Hoa. Vietnam’s longest serving prime minister Pham Van Dong (1955-1987) was born in Quang Ngai province, but his home village was in Thanh Hoa province.
 The CPV definition of political geography is used in this piece.
 The CPV presented itself as the Vietnam Workers’ Party until 1976.
 As an example, Ho Duc Viet, during his five years as Head of the CPV Central Commission on Personnel and Organisation, recruited many cadres from Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces to many party organisations and state apparatus. A dozen or two are now members of the Central Committee; and a few are members of the Politburo and Secretariat.
 Decision No. 35 of the Politburo on convening all level party congresses to prepare for the 13th national congress, https://thuvienphapluat.vn/van-ban/bo-may-hanh-chinh/Chi-thi-35-CT-TW-2019-dai-hoi-dang-bo-cac-cap-tien-toi-Dai-hoi-dai-bieu-toan-quoc-lan-thu-XIII-417004.aspx.
 22 of the provincial party secretaries are not locals, see https://vietnamnet.vn/vn/thoi-su/dai-hoi-dang/22-bi-thu-tinh-uy-khong-la-nguoi-dia-phuong-682422.html.
 Decision No. 214 of 2 January 2020 on the criteria for selection of cadres (Quy định số 214-QĐ/TW, ngày 02/01/2020 của Bộ Chính trị về khung tiêu chuẩn chức danh, tiêu chí đánh giá cán bộ thuộc diện Ban Chấp hành Trung ương, Bộ Chính trị, Ban Bí thư quản lý), 19 November 2020,https://tulieuvankien.dangcongsan.vn/he-thong-van-ban/van-ban-cua-dang/quy-dinh-so-214-qdtw-ngay-02012020-cua-bo-chinh-tri-ve-khung-tieu-chuan-chuc-danh-tieu-chi-danh-gia-can-bo-thuoc-dien-ban-6021.
 There are indications that Nguyen Xuan Phuc could be president.
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