Source: Stratfor Worldview
In fact, despite Vietnam’s repeated efforts to reduce China’s economic influence, its reliance on the giant economy has increased over the years because it must import raw materials from China to manufacture its export products and because there are few alternatives to Chinese-built infrastructure in Southeast Asia. Hanoi, for one, cannot swing too close to Washington, lest it put itself in Beijing’s crosshairs, which is why it has been careful with such engagement and restricted its security cooperation with the United States to mostly training and military purchases. Likewise, while Hanoi has been debating about whether to resort to legal means to press Beijing in the South China Sea (as Manila did in filing an arbitration case against Beijing in 2013), the anger this would cause in China, as well as its inability to enforce any favorable ruling, will likely discourage Vietnam from pursuing such an option. Instead, Hanoi will leverage its possession of two key international positions in 2020 — its chairmanship of ASEAN and its non-permanent seat at the U.N. Security Council — to build up international support to counter China’s maritime aggression, even if that won’t meaningfully alter Beijing’s position.
Hanoi cannot swing too close to Washington, lest it put itself in Beijing’s crosshairs.
The Risks of a Political Transition
2020 will also be the last year before Vietnam embarks upon a transition in power next January at its party congress, which will elect the country’s top leaders for the following four years and beyond. Critically, the congress will almost certainly result in the retirement of the ailing incumbent party chief and Vietnamese president, Nguyen Phu Trong. There are plenty of questions about how party leaders will guide the country going forward, especially as Trong has exercised a great deal of power, in contrast to the collective leadership style favored by past rulers. Given the uncertainty over Trong’s successor, factional infighting could break into the open, resulting in a rapid shift in alliances and, more importantly, fomenting instability.
Despite his poor health, Trong could retain a tight grip and spearhead a transition to his allies, thereby guaranteeing Vietnam some political stability ahead of January 2021, but his possible incapacitation or political infighting will make the political transition far more turbulent. Such internal problems, meanwhile, could also result in an abrupt end to the country’s current pragmatism toward China, since Beijing’s expansion in the South China Sea has emboldened Vietnam’s China hawks, many of whom are younger leaders who do not have the same close links with the Chinese Communist Party that their elders do. Should these challenges escalate into a serious succession crisis, it could also jeopardize — at least temporarily — Vietnam’s investment climate, undermining the country’s appeal at a time when countries around the region are battling to throw their doors open to business the widest.
Source: Stratfor Worldview, January 3, 2020 |