HANOI – When Vietnam starts the process of picking its new leadership this month, the Communist Party is set for a tense behind-the-scenes debate: Opt for officials who want to preserve ties with neighbor China, or for those who would steer the country closer to the United States.
The once-in-five-years political transition comes as the country finds itself balancing its Communist loyalty and economic dependence on China with increasing concern about that nation’s behavior over islands they both claim in the South China Sea. The tension has seen Vietnam gravitate toward the U.S., with the warming of military ties and Vietnam’s involvement in the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.
So far there’s little public indication of who will end up in what post in the shuffling that will take place. The party congress is set to start Jan. 20.
Political jockeying in Vietnam, which occasionally spills onto the Internet as candidates disparage each other via anonymous or surrogate postings, remains largely opaque.
One of the biggest challenges for the new leadership will be how far, or fast, to boost ties with the U.S.
“This is a real political brawl between the conservatives and the reformers,” said Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, D.C., who has studied Vietnam’s leadership for two decades. “There are debates over strategies on how to deal with Chinese aggression. There are people in the party who are still fearful of antagonizing China.”
The new leaders, no matter which camp they hail from, are not expected to veer dramatically in either direction. It could “just be turning of the dial a little more in one direction than the other,” said Raymond Burghardt, U.S. ambassador to Vietnam between 2001 and 2004.
The central committee will choose the next party general secretary in secret during the nine-day congress. Party members aligned with the new general secretary will be voted on by the National Assembly in May or June for posts including prime minister and members of Cabinet.
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who has shown some willingness to confront China, is in the running for general party secretary against incumbent Nguyen Phu Trong, who is seeking to extend his term and represents leaders preferring a more conciliatory stance toward China, according to officials familiar with the discussions who asked not to be identified as the talks are private. The offices of both Dung and Trong declined to comment.
“There have been a lot of rumors posted online, which reveals quite a bit of infighting,” said Tuong Vu, an associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon. “It’s hard for anyone to say anything about the outcome.”
Relations between Vietnam and China, which fought a brief border war in 1979, ruptured in the summer of 2014 after a Chinese oil rig was placed off Vietnam’s coast in the disputed Paracel islands. This month Chinese planes have repeatedly landed on a new airstrip on islands it reclaimed in the Spratly area, triggering protests from Vietnam.
Still, China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner and the two countries’ leaders have a shared commitment to communist ideology, while some Vietnamese officials remain suspicious of the intentions of the U.S., their former enemy.
Dung, injured as a medic with the Vietcong guerrilla force in South Vietnam that fought the U.S., played a pivotal role in the development of closer U.S.-Vietnam postwar relations.
“We have been able to work pretty well with him,” Burghardt said of Dung. “He seems to understand the importance of our economic and security ties. So I think for us that should be a fairly comfortable outcome.”
During the oil rig controversy, Dung ordered Vietnamese coast guard and fishing boats to harass the Chinese flotilla, stirring pride at home, said David Brown, a retired diplomat who served in the U.S. Embassy in the former South Vietnam between 1965 and 1969. The more conservative members of the politburo eventually followed Dung’s lead in criticizing China.
“Hanoi has repositioned further from Beijing and closer to Washington, but in neither power’s pocket,” Brown said. “They will do that as long as it’s useful.”
The key will be whether Trong gets selected to stay on as party secretary for at least part of the next five-year term, given Dung’s interest in the post, said Abuza from the National War College, a view echoed by Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor and Vietnam expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.
China would be pleased if Trong retains his role, Abuza said. Still, “Trong has evolved a lot,” he said. “When he was elected everybody said, ‘Oh my God, he is the pro-China guy’. But he endorsed TPP. He went to the White House and met Obama. He invited Obama to visit Vietnam.”
After Trong met President Barack Obama in July, he said Vietnam appreciated U.S. interest in the situation in the South China Sea.
Still, Vietnam is approaching U.S. ties with care. In 2014 the U.S. partially lifted a ban on the sale of weapons to Vietnam, allowing transfers of nonlethal arms. Vietnam has been slow to submit orders.
“I think they are very torn,” former ambassador Burghardt said. “Part of it is the inherent Vietnamese cautiousness about how it positions itself within what they call the triangle — the U.S., China and Vietnam.”