Expert on Vietnam Carl Thayer shares thoughts on new leadership

By Viet Anh   April 11, 2016 | 07:03 pm GMT+7
Expert on Vietnam Carl Thayer shares thoughts on new leadership
Carl Thayer. Photo: Nguyen Dong

VnExpress interviews Professor Carl Thayer about the challenges facing Vietnam's new cabinet. 

Q- How do you view Vietnam's recent elections and what is your assessment of PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc, President Tran Dai Quang and NA Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan?

A- The recent election of new government leaders shows the adjustment of Vietnam’s one-party system to international integration. In the past almost a year would elapse between a national party congress and elections to the National Assembly. The National Assembly elections were later brought forward to the same year as the national party congress. If recent past precedent had been set there would have been about a five-month ‘lame duck’ period in which ministers slated for retirement would have still held office. Five months is a very long time to carry out a leadership transition.

All three officials are competent. All have received good endorsements by National Assembly deputies in votes of confidence taken in 2013 and 2014. Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan is a star performer. She was very competent as a minister and has legislative experience to perform the role of Chair of the National Assembly and its Standing Committee in an outstanding manner.

Nguyen Xuan Phuc follows Vietnam’s tradition of electing a senior deputy prime minister to prime minister. He has considerable experience in provincial affairs at the highest level. Phuc’s approval rating, as measured by the number of confidence votes received, shot up between 2013 and 2014.

Tran Dai Quang has also received solid support in confidence votes from fellow deputies in the National Assembly. In 2014, 86 percent of deputies voted high confidence or confidence in his handling of his ministerial responsibilities. It is clear that his expertise in national security affairs will be needed as state president.

Q- What are their policy priorities?

A- Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc will have four major challenges: reducing public debt, reforming the banking system to reduce non-performing loans, pushing the equitization of state-owned enterprises, and supporting efforts to reduce corruption.

Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan’s challenges are more predictable because the legislative program of the National Assembly is comparatively much easier to set than the president’s or prime minister’s work plan. Ngan’s challenges will come after the May elections and the formation of a new government around July.

President Tran Dai Quang will be confronted with two major issues: the East Sea and human rights. The recent trials of bloggers and their convictions are likely to create some problems in relations with the United States, especially as President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit in May.

Q- Is Vietnam going to take a tougher stance on the East Sea issue? How about co-operation with ASEAN members?

A- Vietnamese leaders have already concluded that one of their past shortcomings was being too quiescent in dealing with China on disputes in the East Sea. It is a good sign that Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh has been elected member of the Politburo. We can already observe some stiffening of Vietnam's position towards China in arresting a Chinese vessel supplying fuel to fishermen in Vietnamese waters and Vietnam’s protest at the placement of the HD 981 oil rig in disputed waters in the Gulf of Tonkin.

All of Vietnam’s top new leaders and new minsters will have to make the rounds of ASEAN countries to get to know their counterparts. Vietnam will continue to lend its strong support to ASEAN’s centrality in regional affairs and ASEAN integration. When Vietnam was admitted to ASEAN in July 1995, ASEAN accepted Vietnam’s political system. ASEAN will continue to support Vietnam and its new leaders;

Q - What is Vietnam's direction on relations with the U.S. and China?

A- Vietnam’s relations with the United States may experience some turbulence as the U.S. conducts its presidential and national elections this November. President Obama will leave a good foundation for future relations. If Hillary Clinton is elected president this will continue. Great difficulties may be expected if Donald Trump becomes president because he is so unpredictable about his policies for Asia. Vietnam may not be the target but it will be affected by the policies Trump carries out with Vietnam’s neighbors. Finally, the United States has a system of separation of powers. It is unknown at this moment which party will control the House of Representative and which party will control the Senate – or if one party will control both. The U.S. president needs the support of both houses of Congress to be successful.

Q - The country will need to focus on state-owned monopolies and public debt. How competitive do you think Vietnam will be when the TPP takes effect? 

A-Vietnam will make reducing public debt and reforming state-owned enterprises a priority. Success will not come easily and will take time. Vested interests will continue to lobby party and government officials for special consideration. Vietnam has shown a very positive attitude towards the TPP. But both U.S. presidential candidates, Clinton and Trump, have criticized it. Without approval by the U.S. Senate there won’t be a TPP. Vietnam has to prepare for both the best and worst of these contingencies. If the TPP passes, Vietnam will have to meet its obligations. If the TPP fails, Vietnam will have to reconsider its reform program and the path to proactive international integration.

Q - How will serious issues like corruption be solved? Do you think there will be a turning point? 

A- The elimination of corruption will never be completely successful. Vietnam may charge corrupt bankers and speculators to warn other corrupt officials. In the end, however, corruption can only be reduced by the rule of law and the independence of the police, courts and media from outside political influence.

Q -How will new leaders push action on climate change, for example dealing with salt water intrusion in the Mekong Delta?

A- Vietnam was one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to see the potential harm posed by climate change. It has been a high priority for the government. The key is adopting proper mitigation strategies. New strains of rice may have to be developed and popularized to deal with salt water intrusion into the Mekong River. Of course a big problem is the activities of upstream states – China, Laos and Thailand  and their control of water flowing downstream. This can only be tackled on a regional basis with the support of major outside powers.

Q - Will the new leaders give more priorities for overseas Vietnamese?

A- Vietnam has been consistent for quite some time in viewing the Viet Kieu as a special resource that can assist Vietnam in its development. As Vietnam steps up the pace of global integration and moves up the ladder of technology, it will come to rely more on the skills of overseas Vietnamese. The key here is not to have static policies but flexible policies that overcome bottlenecks and encourage Viet Kieu to contribute to Vietnam’s development.

Q - What are challenges and advantages will Phuc, Quang and Ngan face? How do you view Vietnam's prospects? 

A- Prime Minister Phuc’s major challenges are mainly economic. His major advantages are he has considerable experience at the highest level of government, he has the clear support of deputies in the National Assembly, and he has firm support of members of the party Central Committee.

President Quang has considerable experience in national security. His major challenges will be to adopt to a new and more open role as head of state and develop international relations with his counterparts overseas.

National Assembly Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan seems to me to have the easiest job of the three. She has already proven to be extremely competent at what she does and the National Assembly agenda is relatively clear. It is her role to forge consensus among deputies to produce the best legislation they are capable of.

As noted by Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong, Vietnam has a system of collective leadership and individual responsibility. Vietnam’s key policy documents – the Political Report and the Five-Year Socio-Economic Plan – are a product of a whole-of-government approach with input from special experts and the general public. Vietnam’s policies in the next five years will reflect this system. Vietnam is in capable hands and its forward trajectory will achieve success. That is the expectation and judgment of the informed members of the international community.

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