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The Quiet Hanoian

By Ernest Z. Bower, Senior Adviser and Director, CSIS Southeast Asia Program

As Graham Greene hunched over his desk perched on the wizened teak floors of Hanoi’s Metropole Hotel knitting together the silky threads of naiveté and intrigue to craft his masterful tale of Alden Pyle and Thomas Fowler, he unwittingly foretold a key element of modern Vietnamese politics: What you see is not what you get. Unlike many of its Southeast Asian neighbors, Vietnam has the capacity to keep its politics behind closed doors.

Vietnam is in the middle of the most intense part of its political cycle—the socialist corollary to the last four months of U.S. elections—the lead-up to the Communist Party of Vietnam’s (CPV) 11th National Party Congress (NPC), which will take place in late January and early February 2011.

On the surface, Hanoi is quiet. Local papers extol the joys of seasonal cuisine and test analogies linking the U.S.–England World Cup match to the White House’s row with British oil giant BP, but there is almost no coverage of domestic politics. Ironically, that is because the country’s ultimate power roles are on the line and are being contested in the political equivalent of a knife fight behind the closed doors at Government House. Amid this Vatican-like transparency, Party leaders are deciding now who will lead the country and hold the key positions of general secretary, president, prime minister, and key Politburo and cabinet roles.

It is important to understand this dynamic because it has limited how far the government of Vietnam can go in accelerating economic reform, providing energetic leadership as this year’s chair of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), and enhancing relations with the United States. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung is trying to lead while flying below the radar. The government and high-level officials are under intense pressure; Party elders and would-be competitors have them under a microscope exploring any vulnerability—each decision, relationship, and results of past efforts—as the Party decides their future.

Vietnam, along with Indonesia, is one of the key relationships the Obama administration hopes to elevate as it enhances its focus on Southeast Asia. Vietnam is a willing and keen partner, but its responsiveness has been moderated by this political cycle.

Pressure to align with conservative socialist values has resulted in a crackdown on political activists, journalists, and other groups. This has raised concern among human and religious rights groups and put pressure on the U.S.-Vietnam relationship in the U.S. Congress and other venues. Obama administration Asia hands and the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi are well aware of the situation and have adeptly expressed their concerns while offering longer-term support as they anticipate, with good reason, that Vietnam will emerge from this cycle retaining its commitment to economic reform, a vested interest in strengthening ASEAN and regional economic, political/security, and cultural integration, and closer ties with the United States.

The CPV itself is focused on the overarching goal that is the bottom line for all political parties—survival. Its nerve center is the Central Committee. This committee comprises 150 members and is essential in shaping the Party’s policies. The Central Committee opened its 12th conference in Hanoi on March 22 this year to discuss and approve draft documents to be presented at the NPC. As the conference closed on March 28, Party General Secretary Nong Duc Manh presented several documents that will be debated during the NPC, including a 10-year strategy for socioeconomic development through 2020 and a political report from the 10th Party Central Committee.

During the weeklong conference, senior Party members also reviewed personnel plans for the next Party Central Committee (which will be confirmed during the NPC) and decided on the number of delegates to the Party Congress. In advance of the NPC, the committee will meet at least twice, most likely in September and December 2010. The first meeting will be to hold preliminary votes on key personnel, while the latter will be to make final decisions on policy and personnel.

The pending NPC will keep the political temperature high in Hanoi throughout the year. This will lead to a degree of policy paralysis and evident conservatism in the coming months as factions and players jockey for position ahead of the Congress.

While political intrigue remains high, it is important for international partners and U.S. policymakers not to be naïve. They can count on the following trends:

  • First, it is unlikely that Vietnam will turn away from its current commitment to economic and administrative reform;
  • Second, the CPV understands that to survive, Vietnam must remain engaged in the regional and global economy, including providing leadership for an integrated and strong ASEAN and a more forward-leaning party to the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations;
  • Third, Vietnam will strive to compete for investment and expand jobs and education/training through exports and foreign investment. These are core deliverables to citizens that the Party will not risk trying to take away;
  • Fourth, the Party understands that corruption has the potential to eventually undermine its power base. As a result, it will continue supporting the reform measures instituted by Prime Minister Dung; and,
  • Finally, the crackdown on political dissent (tied to religious and press freedom issues) is likely to ebb after the NPC.

Policymakers and business leaders should heed the apt premonitions from Greene’s The Quiet American. The quiet in Vietnam belies a proactive subterranean political agenda. The good news is that Vietnam’s leaders are likely to move the country in directions that will enhance its standing and growth, strengthen ASEAN, and open the door for closer ties with the United States and other international partners.

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