As Vietnam’s ruling communist party prepares for a leadership transition later this month, the party has one major question: Would it back leaders that would strengthen ties with the US or those that would favor China.
Recently, tensions over the disputed South China Sea and Vietnam’s agreement to the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal have pushed Hanoi closer to the US. However, Vietnam remains economically dependent on China.
“This is a real political brawl between the conservatives and the reformers,” said Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, DC, in an interview with Bloomberg.com. “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.”
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has expressed a willingness to confront China, while his opponent Nguyen Phu Trong has represented leaders willing to take a more conciliatory stance on China.
Dung, who was a medic with the Vietcong during the Vietnam War, has played a major role in easing post-war relations between Vietnam and its former enemy the US.
“We have been able to work pretty well with him,” Raymond Burghardt, a former U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. “He seems to understand the importance of our economic and security ties. So I think for us that should be a fairly comfortable outcome.”
Even Trong has been recognized for improving relations with the US.
“Trong has evolved a lot,” Abuza 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.”
Still, there are some in the party who remain suspicious of the US.
The Central Committee will choose the next party general secretary in secret during the nine-day congress. The National Assembly will then vote in May or June for posts including prime minister and members of cabinet.
This transition happens in Vietnam once every five years..