Dr. Tuong Vu is director of Asian Studies and associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon, and has held visiting fellowships at the National University of Singapore and Princeton University. He is the author of Vietnam’s Communist Revolution: The Power and Limits of Ideology (forthcoming), and Paths to Development in Asia: South Korea, Vietnam, China, and Indonesia (2010), both published by Cambridge University Press. The latter book received an Honorable Mention in the competition for the 2011 Asia Society Bernard Schwartz Award. He is also a co-editor of two other books and many articles in scholarly journals, including World Politics, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Journal of Vietnamese Studies, Studies in Comparative International Development, Communist and Post-Communist Studies, South East Asia Research, and Theory and Society. The interview with Dr. Vu was conducted on Feb. 4, 2016, by Andrew Sheets '17.
Vietnam’s new prime minister, Nguyen Phu Trong (pictured below), was competing against current Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who is known for being more of a reformist. What should we read into the open competition between these two top leaders?
The competition suggests a continuing rising level of contention and fragmentation in the Vietnamese Communist Party. This does not bode well for the party and it could lead to further fragmentation and eventually the breakup of the party because of intense factional struggle.
What are Trong’s priorities in his 2nd term as the party chief?
His primary concern is to maintain stability and security for the Communist Party and for the regime. He wants to constrain the changes and the pressure from the bottom for the party and the Vietnamese society to reform its political system and democratize.
His other concern is about foreign influences—the threat from the West to the Vietnamese Communist Party.
He understands that the party needs to continue to generate economic growth for Vietnam, but his main concern is about regime security and stability.
What economic changes do you anticipate from the new government? Will there be any major reforms?
No major reforms are expected. Things are going to be more or less the same. In terms of the general direction of economic reform, there will be even stronger resistance than in the past to reform of the state-owned sector, such as state-owned banks and state-owned enterprises.
There is unanimous support in the party leadership for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to proceed. But because of the conservative domination of the Politburo one can expect strong resistance to any concessions Vietnam’s part to certain rules in the TPP such as the rule about labor rights to have independent labor unions. I expect Vietnam will set up all the roadblocks to prevent that from happening and try to delay it as much as possible.
Will Trong’s election mean a shift back toward a more conservative system? What results do we expect from a more conservative leadership?
Yes, I believe that the new leadership is more conservative than the previous one. I don’t expect much policy change from the new leadership. The Vietnamese leadership has always been quite divided over and indecisive about the direction, scope, and goals of reform. Unable to achieve consensus, they have tended to react to events rather than being proactive. After three decades of reform, the government has not been able to create an institutional structure to really support economic growth in a sustainable way. Vietnam’s economic model still relies on cheap labor and the selling of natural resources. The government has failed to create support industries and build domestic linkages with the highly efficient and dynamic foreign invested enterprises. Without those linkages, it will not be possible for Vietnam to move up in the global production chain.
The pressure for structural economic reform has built up for many years. Labor productivity has stagnated. State investment has been channeled to an inefficient and corrupt state-owned sector while private enterprises struggle to survive under the burden of high taxes, red tape, and lack of access to land and credit. The Resolution of the Congress does not contain any deep concern for the challenges facing the Vietnamese economy, nor does it articulate any major policies of structural reform.
What are the views of the new leadership on China and the U.S. and how are Vietnamese-Chinese and Vietnamese-U.S. relations likely to be affected by the leadership change? Will the new government favor the U.S. or China?
The leadership is not new to Vietnamese politics. The top leaders have already served one term in the Politburo, and incumbent General Secretary Trong is taking another term. I expect Vietnam’s foreign policy remains the same.
The Vietnamese Communist Party adjusted its policy when China placed a large oil rig in Vietnamese waters in summer 2014. This Chinese move generated unprecedented mass riots in Vietnam and made even pro-China, conservative leaders more wary of Chinese intentions. As a result, Vietnam has sought to deepen relationships with the U.S., India, Japan, and other countries to balance China. I expect this policy will continue.
On the whole, however, the mentality of the leadership remains closer to China than to the U.S. An intimate relationship exists between the Vietnamese and the Chinese party, military and government on many levels that is going to continue.
U.S.-Vietnamese relations are similarly full of contradictions. On the one hand, the U.S. is the primary market for Vietnamese exports. At present the Vietnamese economy is heavily dependent on trade with China, which could make Vietnam vulnerable in case of a Sino-Vietnamese conflict in the South China Sea. It can be expected that Vietnam will expand economic relationships with the U.S. in order to balance and reduce dependence on China.
However authoritarian the current Vietnamese political system may be, it is more open, competitive and less repressive than China’s. How do you explain this difference?
The Vietnamese political system is much more fragmented and decentralized than its Chinese counterpart, translating into a greater openness to pressures from below and a greater degree of competition. In particular, the balance of power at the national level is more frequently disrupted by changing balance among various local and institutional centers of power.
In terms of oppression, it is hard to say which regime, in Vietnam or in China, is more repressive. If the Vietnamese regime is less authoritarian than the Chinese system, one reason is that Vietnam is dependent on foreign investment. If foreign investment stopped today, the Vietnamese economy would collapse tomorrow, unlike China. Vietnam has to be very sensitive to foreign critiques of the government and its relationships with its people.
How do political developments in China affect the policies of the Vietnamese Communist Party?
The Vietnamese tend to look to China for ideas and that is not just something they do today. Since the time of Ho Chi Minh and even in premodern times Vietnamese have looked to China for inspiration and ideas. Conservative leaders in Vietnam today trust China much more than the U.S., Japan, and India because they consider China a fellow socialist state committed to the future victory of socialism and communism as Vietnam is. Since the early 1990s, the Vietnamese Communist Party has followed closely and been strongly influenced by the Chinese approach to market reform without political reform.
This does not mean that democratization in China would be automatically followed by democratization in Vietnam. Such a development might encourage Vietnamese reform-minded leaders to rally for political reform, but it might also galvanize conservatives who will try to close down any opportunity for such reform even if that means to cut off relations with China.
Does China’s model of modernization under one-party rule have much influence in Vietnam?
As mentioned above, for the last 15 years it has had a lot of influence. For example, “peaceful evolution” is a concept conservative Vietnamese leaders borrowed from China. They have raised it to one of the main threats facing the regime and have used it since the early 1990s to block not only political reform but also closer U.S.-Vietnamese relations. Conservative Vietnamese leaders like to say that, since Chinese leadership is authoritarian and still can deliver economic growth, Vietnam does not need to change its system to accommodate more democracy.
What are some of the most significant consequences of this leadership transition, what should people be aware of?
The nature of the Vietnamese system allows only very marginal changes. I think people should actually pay less attention to the transition because it is not that important given the way politics works in Vietnam. It is really just one faction gaining power over the other factions to continue essentially the same kind of policy.
Where would more significant changes in the government or economic policy need to come from if not from the leadership?
Changes would either need to come from below or outside. Because of weak central leadership the Vietnamese system tends to react to events rather than being proactive. If China acts more aggressively on the South China Sea, then they would have to react to that or would face massive public protests. If an economic downturn occurs, or if large state-owned corporations go bankrupt, they would have to modify the policy to constrain the damages and rescue the economy.
We do not know what events will happen in the upcoming term but if there are no events then policy will remain largely the same. The leadership’s main concerns are to make money, maintain the status quo, and reduce threats to themselves.
Do you think the new leaders will crack down on corruption at all?
They may say so but they can never do much because most of them are corrupt. It is so deeply ingrained in the system now. One may even expect that corruption will increase.