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The analytical obsession with ‘Factions’ in vietnamese politics

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There is little evidence that the country’s political landscape is divided into “pro-Chinese” and “pro-American” camps.

Are there factions in Vietnamese politics? This question again takes center stage in contemporary debates about Vietnam, especially the impact of the latest leadership changes on the internal balance of power within the Vietnamese party-state and the country’s foreign policy. Assuming that there are different factions within Vietnamese politics helps observers make clear-cut analyses of and predictions about Vietnam’s adoption of a policy, which presumably reflects the interests and the balance of power among the factions.

One of the most repeated arguments is that there is a balance of power between the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) officials and the state bureaucrats, with Party officials being generally “pro-China,” and bureaucrats “pro-United States” or “pro-Western.” By tracing which camp/position each of the leaders belongs to and the balance of power among the two “factions,” observers can analyze and predict Vietnam’s foreign policy behavior. It was thus not surprising to see some observers predict that Vietnam would tilt more towards China and Russia after the recent leadership changes, which put more power into the hands of the Party.

A major advantage of this model of analysis is that it is parsimonious and can produce quick analyses or predictions. Observers always want to explain more with less, and looking at an official’s affiliation with either the CPV or the state to make predictions about that official’s policy stance does not take much work. However, observers now tend to overemphasize the “explain more” without reevaluating whether the assumption or the evidence, if there is even publicly available knowledge, holds. They assume that “with less” allows them to analyze and predict faulty assumptions, and in the case of a closed political system like Vietnam, on unverifiable rumors. The obsession with “with less” can be seen in the argument that the domestic balance of power in Vietnam can explain and predict its foreign policy, which, seen in the light of the consistency in the country’s post-Cold War foreign policy despite major leadership changes, makes little sense.

To be fair, discussions about factions in Vietnamese politics is not without precedence or devoid of logical basis. During the Vietnam War, the CPV was perceived to be split between two different opinions on how to fight South Vietnam. One body of opinion, whose advocates included President Ho Chi Minh and Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, wanted to focus on building socialism in the North before launching major attacks on the South. The other opinion, championed by the Party’s first secretary Le Duan and Politburo member Le Duc Tho, wanted to destabilize the South first before it was strong enough to resist.

After the Vietnam War ended, observers made another case that two factions were mirroring the Sino-Soviet Split, with Le Duan being the key pro-Soviet figure that committed Vietnam to the Soviet sphere of influence and purged pro-Chinese figures. After the Cold War ended, there were arguments that the ideological conservatives sidelined the moderates to pursue an ideological rapprochement with China. It is thus only natural that contemporary scholars utilize the same framework to analyze Vietnam’s current affairs.

Importantly, what sets past discussions of factions in Vietnamese politics apart from current discussions is their extensive use of primary evidence from Vietnamese archives, which lends credibility to their claims of factionalism and establishes a clear causal connection between actors and their preferred policies. Nevertheless, just because factions existed in the past does not mean they exist now, nor that the issues that divided the Party back then are the same.

Unlike in the past, South Vietnam and the Soviet Union no longer exist. And Vietnam is now friends with both China and the United States, which was not the case between the country’s independence in 1945 and its normalization of diplomatic relations with the U.S. in 1995. As a country lacking agency on the international stage, it would be inappropriate to underemphasize the impact of external changes on the development of Vietnam’s foreign policy of neutrality. In other words, it is too simplistic to argue that Vietnam’s foreign policy behaviors just reflect the quarrel between supposedly different factions without considering external changes. Observers cannot and should not try to understand Vietnam’s behaviors “with less.”

Skepticism of factionalism as a determining variable in contemporary Vietnamese politics is not to suggest that factions or rivalries do not exist. Officially, the CPV prohibits “interest groups” because the CPV is aware that “interest groups” can weaken the Party from within, a counterpart to the foreign “hostile forces” that weaken the Party from without. The CPV maintains that it has always been the people’s party and it always puts the interests of the masses first over any group interests. The CPV thus does not accept any mentions or discussions of factional politics, for that would undermine “national unity.” It is understandably difficult for observers to find any reliable information to make their case for the existence of factions, let alone what characterizes them.

Still, such a lack of official information is not permission to rely on rumors or hasty assumptions in lieu of reliable evidence. And it is often the case that basing an argument on a faulty assumption to make the story more click-worthy exaggerates the impact of current events on Vietnam’s future policies. Rumors, which can also come from anti-CPV elements, can subjectively create an image of a disorganized Party that likely confirms the writer’s pre-existing beliefs rather than creating falsifiable arguments. Some observers predict a new era of uncertainty for Vietnamese politics after the purges of the so-called “technocrats,” but the smooth transition of power to President Vo Van Thuong shows that Vietnam’s politics are largely stable and the CPV wants to keep attracting foreign investments. Methodologically, it is impossible to define and distinguish a “technocrat” from an “ideologue” without evidence. Moreover, government officials can and do transition into CPV positions and vice versa.

Only archival primary sources can tell us whether factions exist, but these will not be declassified in the short or medium terms, and could never be. Observers are advised to not try to explain more with less, but to explain more with more reliable information. The first step is to accept the limits of what publicly available information can tell us. Whether an official hails from either the CPV or the state says nothing about his or her foreign policy preferences, and the domestic balance of power between different “factions,” for example the number of officials hailing from the security apparatus and other officials in the Politburo, implies little about whether Vietnam will lean toward China or the United States. Also, just because an official is trained in the West does not mean he or she is “pro-West.”

Second, we need to be wary of the predictive fallacy of parsimonious arguments. Even if there is perfect information of what the factions are and their balance of power, there is no guarantee that the more prominent faction will adopt a specific foreign policy. External constraints matter too.

Understanding “factions” in contemporary Vietnamese politics is a welcoming academic endeavor. Still, it is important to not let the end justify the means. Reliable evidence and falsifiable arguments should be the basis for any serious analyses of Vietnamese politics.

By Khang Vu – The Diplomat – March 10, 2023

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