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(October 16, 2018) Vietnam's star rises, as does one of its leaders - Kavi Chongkittavorn

 www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/1558706/vietnams-star-rises-as-does-one-of-its-leaders

At the outset, three important characteristics of Vietnam must be recognised.

First, despite its economy not yet being considered a market economy, Vietnam has the region's most extensive network of free trade agreements with foreign countries. Its economic growth continues at an average of 7%. It is the economic powerhouse of Asean.

Second, Vietnam is a socialist system under the supervision of the Communist Party, which has been very pragmatic since it adopted economic reforms under the doi moi policy three decades ago. No other communist country has been so adaptive, taking advantage of the prevailing environment. As a medium-sized country with 96 million people, Vietnam's current economic development and profile have been quite impressive.

Third, after more than two decades Asean membership, Vietnam is considered a heavyweight within the grouping in finding new pathways and modes of cooperation to strengthen Asean centrality and its relevancy. Vietnam's rapid international integration and rising profile is anchored deep inside Asean. Even though, Vietnam's chairmanship of Asean is not until 2020, Hanoi has already prepared the priorities it wants to push.

The latest headlines surrounding Vietnam's leadership change must be viewed in this context. After the death of former president Tran Dai Quang last month, the ruling Communist Party's secretary-general, Nguyen Phu Trong, has been nominated to assume the role of president. The position of president is a ceremonial one.

Once his nomination is accepted by the National Assembly, as expected, it could have long-term implications on decision-making and policy implementation in Vietnam.

Many questions have been raised about whether Vietnam will become more dictatorial, as Mr Trong would literally become the country's most powerful person, being both the party chief and the president -- an unprecedented situation.

Indeed, the death of president Tran Dai Quang was a blessing in disguise for Mr Trong as it enabled him to rise without any opposition. After all, Mr Trong has fulfilled the basic requirement of serving one full term in the politburo, according to Regulation No.102 of the Communist Party. Other candidates included Madame Tong Thi Phong, vice chair of the National Assembly; and Dinh The Huynh, former executive secretary of the Secretariat the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Although both have already served one term in the politburo, they have health problems.

Obviously with Mr Trong's dual role -- similar to that of China's President Xi Jinping -- speculation is rife that Vietnam is moving toward China's leadership model. It is also true that the current trend in socialist systems -- in China, Vietnam, Laos and North Korea -- is toward consolidating power under a single leader.

According to Vietnam expert, emeritus professor Carlyle Thayer, of the University of New South Wales, Vietnam has always rejected this model, reiterating that Vietnam's leaders are generally risk-averse.

"Their default position is to support evolutionary change and maintain political stability," he said. Granted the current circumstances, Mr Trong's rise comes at the right time, as the Vietnamese public has become fed up with mounting corruption. They hope a strong leader will be an effective way to tackle that corruption.

It is also interesting to note that Mr Trong personally did not want the additional responsibility.

After all, he still has two-and-a-half years to go as party chief. Nguyen Thien Nhan, the secretary-general of the Central Party Committee in Ho Chi Minh City, was Mr Trong's personal choice. But Mr Nhan has yet to serve a full term as a politburo member.

The party's top figures also had to assess the consequences of making Mr Nhan president as it could complicate political developments in the South. Without him, Ho Chi Minh would have to name a new secretary-general for the second time in two years, which would not augur well for the city or the country.

For the time being, with Mr Trong's dual roles, Vietnam's rise will be on a sure footing under a strong leadership.

Its advocacy for total integration within the international community, including its norms and values, has propelled Vietnam to come a significant figure on the global stage. Once again, Vietnam wants to become a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2020-21 while serving as Asean's chair.

It last held a UNSC seat in 2007-2008. Obviously, Hanoi would like to synchronise its regional and global role and position as transnational challenges increasingly demand such approaches.

When Vietnam joined the now-defunct Trans Pacific Partnership in 2015, the country's prestige reached an all-time high as its economy became part of the premium free-trade pact.

Within Asean, only Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia were in the same league. Since then, whatever shortcomings Vietnam had that caused concern in the West, in particular human rights-related issues, are no longer insurmountable issues.

A socialist government with a liberal trade regime will go a long way in the current globalised world. Just take a closer look at US and EU policies and attitudes towards Vietnam.

Looking to the future, Vietnam will become even more active in regional and international diplomacy. Hanoi's strong advocacy for a rules-based order and international norms has become the government's new mantra.

It remains to be seen how this new dynamism will play itself out, especially on the domestic front, especially with current political constraints on overall development in years and decades to come.


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