Vietnam News

How Vietnamese army’s rising influence in politics reflects South China Sea security concerns

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  • What does the election of two top generals to the Politburo of the Communist Party of Vietnam mean for the country’s political, economic and foreign policy prospects?
  • The Vietnam People’s Army has also deepened its influence through significant business interests, including in telecoms conglomerate Viettel

The 13th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), which concluded in early February, resulted in several surprising personnel arrangements. One of them was the election of two army generals into the party’s Politburo – the first time this has happened in 20 years.

In addition, the number of military representatives in the Party’s Central Committee also increased from 20 to 23, cementing the status of the Vietnam People’s Army (VPA) as the largest voting bloc in the Committee.

What is behind the military’s increased representation in the CPV’s top echelons, and hence its increasing leverage? And what does this trend mean for Vietnam’s political, economic and foreign policy prospects ?

‘THE PARTY COMMANDS THE GUN’

Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong famously said in 1938 that “Every Communist must grasp the truth, ‘political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’. Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party”.

The CPV follows the same principle and has always put the VPA under tight control. Party officials and ideologues frequently criticise the idea of depoliticising the VPA and turning it into a “national army” independent of the CPV, something they consider a scheme by “hostile forces” to undermine the Party’s rule.

The CPV’s constitution stipulates that the VPA is subject to the Party’s “absolute, direct and comprehensive leadership”.

The Party needs to maintain tight control over the VPA because the latter plays an essential role in not only national defence but also the regime’s security. Although the Party has never faced the level of threat that its Chinese counterpart did in 1989 when it mobilised soldiers and tanks to crush the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests, the CPV views the VPA as a critical tool to deal with imminent threats against itself. The VPA also plays an important role in the country’s socio-economic development. Apart from running more than 20 major state-owned enterprises, the VPA also manages 28 economic-defence zones located in remote border areas. These zones, run by economic-defence corps, are part of the Party’s strategy to protect national sovereignty and promote socio-economic development in these less-developed areas.

The VPA’s importance to the country and the CPV is reflected in its strong representation in state bodies and party governance institutions. It is allocated a significant bloc of seats in the National Assembly as well as the CPV’s Central Committee and Politburo, turning it into an influential player in national politics. The VPA’s representation in these bodies was markedly strong during wartime and periods of heightened national security.

After adopting economic reforms under the Doi Moi policy in 1986, withdrawing from Cambodia in 1989 and normalising relations with China in 1991, Vietnam entered into a phase of peace and development. Economic development became the top priority for the country and national defence became less of a concern. This gradually led to the declining role of the VPA in national politics, reflected in its reduced representation in the Politburo.

THE LARGEST VOTING BLOC

At the 13th CPV National Congress, the norm of electing only one VPA representative into the Politburo was broken when Colonel General Phan Van Giang, Chief of General Staff and Minister of Defence, and General Luong Cuong, head of the VPA General Political Department, won their seats.

In addition, the VPA’s representation in the Party’s Central Committee also steadily increased over the past 10 years. As a result, the VPA currently forms the largest voting bloc in the Central Committee. Two major factors may account for this trend.

First, rising tensions in the South China Sea tend to enhance the VPA’s bargaining power. Defending national security and sovereignty has been central to the CPV’s political legitimacy, meaning that the VPA has a bigger say whenever the country’s security and sovereignty are threatened. This pattern was well established in the past with the VPA gaining more influence during the Vietnam war and in the 1980s when the country faced serious security threats from China and the Khmer Rouge. China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea over the past decade has deepened the CPV’s security concerns, enabling the VPA to gain not only more leverage in the Party’s top decision-making bodies but also more budgetary resources.

Second, the VPA’s political position appears to have benefited from its expanding economic role. Apart from helping to develop the local economy in remote areas, the VPA’s economic role also extends to a wide range of activities, including manufacturing, telecommunications, information technology, banking, transport and construction. There are two main groups of military-run businesses. The first is defence companies which mostly produce weapons and defence equipment for the VPA. They are managed by the General Department of Defence Industry under the Ministry of Defence.

The second includes businesses which serve both the VPA and civilian clients. Vietnam’s 2009 Defence White Paper listed 10 such major businesses, the most notable of which include Viettel, a telecommunications and industrial conglomerate; Military Bank; and Sai Gon New Port, the biggest container terminal operator in Vietnam. In recent years, these companies’ commercial success and their increasing contribution to national economic development have helped enhance the VPA’s reputation and influence. Viettel, for example, has been considered a national champion in developing Vietnam’s defence industry and hi-tech capabilities, especially 5G technologies.

GREATER IMPLICATIONS

It remains to be seen if the election of two military representatives into the CPV Politburo is just a one-off development or a new norm to be repeated in subsequent party congresses. Similarly, it is unclear if the VPA will be able to maintain its current all-time strong representation in the Party’s Central Committee in the future. However, if the South China Sea dispute intensifies and military-run businesses continue to contribute substantially to Vietnam’s economic development, VPA generals are likely to be able to maintain their current level of leverage.

There is little evidence that the military’s increasing influence will lead to major changes in Vietnam’s political, economic and foreign policies. However, minor or gradual shifts may be possible. Politically, despite its increasing leverage, the VPA will remain subject to the CPV’s total control. However, VPA generals will endorse prudent approaches to political issues, which may eventually slow down certain reforms, especially those towards more political freedoms.

Economically, there are indications that the “securitisation” of certain economic policies may slow down Vietnam’s economic growth. For example, the 2020 Law on Investment mentioned the word “national defence” 12 times and introduced new provisions to subject certain investment projects and share acquisitions, especially those by foreign investors, to the approval of the Ministry of Defence. Consequently, there have been complaints from some investors about delays in the licensing process. Such regulations could worsen Vietnam’s business environment and hurt its economic growth. At the same time, military-run businesses may crowd out private investors in certain sectors and contribute to an unlevel playing field. This is because well-connected defence companies normally enjoy an unparalleled advantage in getting access to capital, land and other policy incentives.

Finally, the VPA’s influence on Vietnam’s overall foreign policy will remain strong, but its increased leverage in domestic politics is unlikely to lead to major shifts in Vietnam’s foreign relations. The VPA’s stronger say may harden Vietnam’s stance on the South China Sea, but this does not necessarily mean that Vietnam will take a more adventurous approach to the dispute.

Although Vietnam is determined to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity, VPA leaders, who have gone through multiple costly wars in the past, tend to favour the peaceful resolution of disputes and avoid armed conflicts where possible. This is in line with Vietnam’s focus on domestic development, which depends on its ability to maintain peace and stability. Therefore, although Vietnam fiercely opposed China’s planting of the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig in its exclusive economic zone in 2014, which Vietnam saw as a serious infringement, it has since adopted a more restrained approach to China’s other provocations in its South China Sea waters.

While the VPA’s increasing leverage in the CPV’s top policymaking bodies may have some impact on Vietnam’s political, economic and foreign policy outlook, such impact will likely be moderate and limited. As the CPV continues to “command the gun”, the VPA’s influence will remain within boundaries set by the Party. In the future, the generals’ influence may fall again if the South China Sea dispute cools down, or if the Party’s top leadership sees potential problems arising from the VPA’s growing clout.

By Le Hong Hiep – The South China Morning Post – May 2, 2021

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