HANOI: Vietnam began a crucial political transition Thursday as the five-yearly Communist Party congress convened to pick new leaders, who will face challenges from a maritime standoff with China to much needed economic reform.
The meeting will take place largely behind closed doors, with a changing of the guard expected for the top brass of the party that has ruled Vietnam since the end of war in 1975.
The run up to the week-long congress has been marked by a bitter factional struggle between the party’s traditional wing, who are seen as being closer to Beijing, and more modern reformers like Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.
The opening of the event has also been overshadowed by Vietnam’s larger communist neighbor moving an oil rig into waters claimed by Hanoi.
“China always keeps up the pressure on the Vietnamese leadership, especially before and during the party congress,” said Duong Danh Dy, a retired Vietnamese diplomat who spent 14 years at the embassy in Beijing.
China last moved the rig into contested waters in 2014, triggering protests and riots in Vietnam that left at least three people dead, and prompting the southeast Asian state to move closer to its former wartime foe the United States.
Vietnam expert Carl Thayer said China’s move would likely backfire.
“It’s certainly not going to help China. It might help (Prime Minister) Nguyen Tan Dung as he’s seen as most critical of China,” Thayer said.
At the congress, the country’s top three jobs — Party General Secretary, President and Prime Minister — are up for grabs, with all incumbents technically due to retire.
But Dung, a pro-western reformer who presided over Vietnam joining the WTO and the US-led Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, was tipped by analysts to move up to the powerful General Secretary position, becoming party leader.
Incumbent Nguyen Phu Trong, seen as more a conserva- tive apparatchik, has been maneuvering to extend his term in office.
Although neither side will dramatically change course on key issues such as the dispute with Beijing over the South China Sea, analysts agree Dung’s faction is broadly the more competent, pro-market option.
“With Dung, the country will move much further and much more quickly,” on issues like market reforms, free trade deals, and security ties with the US, Thayer said.
The party congress will also approve a five-year economic blueprint, which will seek to help the country build on recent impressive economic growth of nearly seven percent annually, a rate that is one of Asia’s strongest.
With a slew of foreign trade agreements including the US-led TPP pact ahead, experts and foreign investors are urging Vietnam’s leadership to pursue long-stalled domestic reforms, including overhauling the banking sector and moving more aggressively on privatizing state owned companies.
The party congress opened Thursday amid heavy security across Hanoi, including repeated warnings from authorities in the run up to the event for the public not to read “slanderous” online speculation.