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  • Geoff Donald

How new leadership in Vietnam may impact its future?

Updated: Jan 18, 2021

With a stable political system, a proliferation of free trade agreements, a large pool of low-cost workers and a growing economy, Vietnam is expected to remain a strong economic performer in Southeast Asia for the next few years.

As a country, Vietnam has done better than most in its handling of the COVID19 pandemic, it has been able to continue to attract high levels of foreign direct investment, and while its GDP growth dropped to 2.91% in 2020, it was the only country in Southeast Asia to post growth in the past year. In 2021 with world trade expected to bounce back, a growing internal market, and positive business sentiment about the country and its opportunities, Vietnam’ GDP is expected to grow at 6.8% in 2021.

Four Pillars

Yet potential change is coming to Vietnam in the form of new political leadership at the top of the Communist Party of Vietnam. The government will soon be holding its 13th National Congress at which time, it will formally select a new General Secretary of the Party, a National President, a Prime Minister, and a National Assembly Chair.

These “four pillars” of the Vietnamese government have traditionally been held by four different people with a geographic balance: The Secretary General from North Vietnam, the National President from Central Vietnam, the Prime Minister from South Vietnam, and the National Assembly Chairperson. However, since 2018, following the death of the sitting National President Tran Dai Quang, Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong was unanimously elected to the position of National President by the National Assembly. It remains unclear if these positions will revert to four people or if only three people will fill these positions going forward.

As the selection of these positions is done behind closed doors and an official ban has been put in to place barring speculation about the results of the 13th Congress, projecting the final selections is extremely difficult for Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese. Interest about the end results is among the general population is high with Vietnamese using references to football teams and weather trends instead of names of specific official on social media to trade information or theories and to circumscribe the ban.

In addition to elections of these positions for 5 years, the National Congress will also be setting the key policies for Vietnam. While Vietnam’s overall economic policy will look to remain the same, National Congresses have always resulted in shifts of how Vietnam will operate whether that was the adoption of Doi Moi policies in 1986 or the increase focus on corruption after the 12th National Congress in 2016. The National Congress also have provided insight into Vietnam’s foreign policy goals and practices.

Moving Forward

While set up for economic success, Vietnam does face some challenges going forward. At a geopolitical level, Vietnam has benefited economically from global cooperation over the past thirty years and as a country it will remain focused on supporting the current international system. While the increase competition between the United States and China as resulted in companies diversifying their supply chains into Vietnam to its benefit, Vietnam’s leaders will continue to their foreign policy practice of encouraging ASEAN unity to engage with larger countries and to encourage that the United States remains committed to the Southeast Asia region to act as a counterweight to China.

Like all the other countries in Southeast, Vietnam wishes to maintain their political autonomy and they do not want to have to “choose” between China and the United States. Vietnam will continue to chart a path that allows them to avoid making this choice while trying to maximize their economic benefit, political autonomy and national security.

Vietnam leadership will continue to focus on maintaining on internal social cohesion including a focus on corruption, censorship of media sources including on major social media platforms such as Facebook, and anti-Chinese sentiment which remains high among the Vietnamese.

The final challenge that Vietnam leaders face is environmental. Recent surveys conducted in Vietnam show that other than COVID related concerns, the number one issue for Vietnamese are environmental issues. In addition to being one of the countries that is most at risk due to climate change, Vietnam faces significant challenges with poor air quality in their major cities, overfishing and deforestation, decrease in water supply, droughts, plastic waste, and other environmental pollution.

While the outcome of the 13th National Congress is not yet known, Vietnam’s next set of leaders will be faced with an increasingly complicated challenges as they will be pressure, to maintain economic growth, social cohesion, improve Vietnam’s environment and manage a complicated foreign policy environment.

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