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Twindling thumbs, still waiting for the 10th Plenum

Following up from my last post about the postponement of the 10th Communist Party of Vietnam Central Committee, it is now abundantly clear that the 10th Plenum has been postponed again and will probably be held from 5-15 Jan 14, about eight months after the 9th Plenum was organised in May 2014.

Unlike the postponement of the Plenum from October to December 2014, which could be partly explained by the need to allow for the Vietnamese National Assembly to hold its vote of confidence before the Party held its own vote of confidence for Politburo members, the further postponement of the 10th Plenum by another month suggest deeper tensions are at play in the Party leadership.

But first, I’d like to take a step back to address why an eight-month gap between Plenum sessions should be any cause for excitement among Vietnam watchers. Firstly, the eight month gap between the 9th and 10th Plenum is the longest gap between two Plenum sessions in recent Party history. Looking back at the last 18 years of Plenum meetings since the 8th Party Congress in 1996, the longest ever gap between two Plenum sessions was about seven months. Furthermore, even a seven-month gap between Plenum sessions was not very common, occurring only once during the 10th Party Congress (2006-2011) and once during the 8th Party Congress (1996-2001). An eight month gap also means that the Central Committee of Vietnam is contravening Article 16 in the Party Statutes that state that the Central Committee should meet once every six months. The postponement of the 10th Plenum to January 2015 will also mean that 2014 will be the only year where the Party Central Committee has only convened one meeting since Article 16 was amended in 1996 to require a Central Committee meeting every half a year. As I mentioned in my October post, the Communist Party of Vietnam is an organisation that appreciates form and rules and Party members have picked up on this anomaly and have started to raise questions about the delay.

Looking back at the pattern of Central Committee Plenum sessions since 1996, it also seems that the current 11th Party Congress leadership appears to be less enthusiastic about organising Central Committee Plenums than the 8th-10th Party Congresses. On average, the 8th, 9th and 10th Party Congresses organsied about 13.3 Central Committee Plenums, although some of their Plenums were split into two separate sessions, raising the total number of times each Central Committee met to an average of 14.3 meetings per 5-year Congress term. In comparison, the 11th Central Committee has met nine times, with a tenth meeting forecast in January 2015. This means that for the 11th Central Committee to meet at least 14 times in its 5-year term, the Party will have to organise another four meetings within the 12 months remaining before the 2016 Party Congress. (The dates of the 2016 Party Congress have not been announced but it is expected to be held before the 2016 Tet holiday that begins on 7 Feb 16.)

While it is certainly not impossible to organise four Central Committee meetings in a year, the apparent slowdown in the pace of organisation of Central Committee meetings is an interesting phenomena and appears to hint that the Vietnamese Central Committee is becoming less influential in Vietnamese politics and Party leaders no longer see it as necessary to organise as many Central Committee meetings to seek their approval on major policy decisions.

However, this reading is erroneous as the 11th Central Committee has shown that it does exercise greater power and influence than its predecessors on at least two separate occasions since it was appointed in 2011. The first incident took place during the 6th Plenum in October 2012, where the Central Committee rejected a proposal from the Politburo to punish PM Nguyen Tan Dung. The second demonstration of the growing power of the Central Committee took place during the 7th Plenum that was organised in May 2013, where the Central Committee rejected two Politburo candidates proposed by the Politburo in favour of two other candidates that were closely backed by PM Dung.

Therefore, I see the continued postponement of the 10th Plenum as being related to the fact that the 11th Central Committee has become a powerful battleground for Vietnam’s top leaders. As we have seen from the 6th and 7th Plenum sessions, the Central Committee sided with PM Dung versus General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, the supreme leader (on paper) of the Party. Talk in Hanoi indicates that GS Trong has been behind both the postponements of the 10th Plenum as he grapples with an ever-more powerful PM Dung. According to Hanoi’s gossip-mongers, GS Trong had first delayed the 10th Plenum as he fought hard to retain a toothless three-level vote of confidence in the National Assembly. By pushing through the retention of the three-level vote of confidence in the parliament, GS Trong ensured that the Politburo would be able to follow the same vote of confidence mechanism with little risk of its top leaders, especially GS Trong himself, being forced to resign and/or deeply shamed.

For the second delay of the 10th Plenum, rumours are circulating that GS Trong is trying to fend off attempts by PM Dung to add discussions on political and economic reforms to the agenda of the 10th Plenum so that these reforms could be added to the draft documents for the 2016 Party Congress. Recent corruption revelations involving some of PM Dung’s former associates also hint that GS Trong may be using the month of December to gather evidence to again bring charges of dereliction of duty against PM Dung at the 10th Plenum. Whether these rumours are in fact will be proven when the Plenum hopefully convenes in the second week of January 2015.

Meantime, while the top Party leaders appear to be using the 10th Plenum to further their own political plots and games, Party members are becoming increasingly dissatisfied that their leaders are allowing their tensions to affect the normal functioning of the Party and the Central Committee. Central Committee members are themselves starting to complain that the Politburo is not according the Central Committee the respect and importance that is enshrined in the Party’s Statutes and Platform. Given this growing unhappiness, are the Politburo leaders risking a backlash from the Central Committee and lower levels of the Party? Let us not forget that 2015 is not an ordinary year in the Party as all provincial party committees will be organising their respective party congresses and this is an opportunity for Party members to air their views and opinions on the future of the Party. I have heard younger Party members speak of their desire to see major changes in the Party’s ideology and approach and their frustration that the current Politburo leaders are more interested in their own political infighting than in improving the Party and country. However, is the ground sweet enough to see some major changes or are the benefits of maintaining the current political system and practices enough to curb the desire for change in young Party members. Well, I don’t have any answers now but time will tell in 2016.

Whither the 10th Central Committee Plenum

Hello all, sorry for the absence of a month but things have been hectic at home with the arrival of a new cat and much of my energy has been spent settling her into our home.

Given my domestic distractions, it was a bit of a relief that the Communist Party of Vietnam decided to postpone its 10th Central Committee Plenum, which should have taken place in early or mid-October 2014. For those who are not familiar with the Vietnamese political system, the Party organizes at least two Plenum sessions each year and they are held before the Parliament meets (usually in May/June and October/November) so that the Party can provide guidance to the Parliament on key issues. Thus far, the Party has not made any formal announcement about the postponement of the Plenum but the talk around town is that the Plenum will now be held in December 2014, after the Parliamentary session is completed.

To be honest, I was greatly surprised by the postponement of the Plenum. After covering Vietnam for more than 10 years, this is the first time that I have seen a Plenum delayed for such a long time. My surprise is partly due to the political culture in Vietnam, which values form (often over substance!) and appearances. In that context, the decision to delay the Plenum should be read as a significant development and the key question is what was the key driver of this decision?

Different explanations have been offered to explain the delay but all of them relate back to the high level of infighting among Vietnam’s top leaders, viz., General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, President Truong Tan Sang and PM Nguyen Tan Dung. Tensions between the three men have remained high essentially from the day they were appointed to their respective positions at the 2011 Party Congress. In the run-up to the 2016 Party Congress, which will probably be held in early 2016, these tensions show no sign of abating.

One of the most compelling explanations for the postponement of the 10th Central Committee Plenum is an ongoing disagreement among Vietnam’s top leaders on the draft documents and rules for the 2016 Party Congress, all of which would be “approved” at the 10th Plenum. Most important among these are the rules for personnel selection, which would determine which of the current top leaders would be able to stay on for another term. Therefore, as General Secretary Trong, President Sang and PM Dung are locked in an intense competition to secure the Party general secretary post for themselves or their supporters, the finalization of the rules has been delayed and the 10th Plenum had to be postponed by two months to allow the top leaders more time to reach a compromise.

A second argument that I agree with is that the Plenum could have been postponed due to concerns about how Party Politburo leaders would fare in a vote of confidence that would be held during the 10th Plenum. (The Vietnamese “vote of confidence” is a novel mechanism where top leaders have to stand for annual votes of confidence either in the Party and National Assembly, or both, to ensure that they are doing a good job. Leaders who fail a vote or who do badly in two consecutive votes will be asked to resign or face a final vote of no confidence.) Party leaders are generally not fond of the mechanism, even though it had been introduced as a political tool to target PM dung and his government, and they have been keen to postpone the vote for as long as possible. Therefore, a planned Party vote of confidence in 2013 had also been postponed.

This time around, it appears that it will be much more difficult for the Party to delay the vote of confidence indefinitely as the Vietnamese public are quite fond of the mechanism and are encouraging the Party to hold its first vote of confidence. General Secretary Trong, who was the mastermind of the mechanism, also cannot hold off on organizing the vote in the Party Politburo for too long without attracting criticisms of not being willing to stand for the same test that government and state leaders have had to undergo. However, to minimize possible damage from the vote of confidence, Party leaders appear to have agreed to delay the vote of confidence (and the 10th Plenum) to December 2014, after the National Assembly holds its vote of confidence in late November 2014. By doing so, the Party leaders hope to be able to “mirror” the results of the National Assembly vote of confidence so that the Party vote of confidence does not appear to be rigged (ironic, I know).

All in all, I see that the postponement of the 10th Central Committee Plenum shows how Vietnamese politics is becoming much more contested and the political space has had to become more flexible to cater to the differing views of each leader. This is largely due to the fact that the competing factions in the Vietnamese leadership appear to be more or less evenly matched. This configuration will also have a major impact on the 2016 Party Congress, especially the selection of top leaders and the introduction of reforms and strategies. So stay tuned for the exciting times we will see in the coming 15-16 months!

Opaque, like muddy water

 Some days, the job of keeping on top of domestic developments in Vietnam and developing a deep understanding of the country’s political system and dynamics seems like an insurmountable task. Despite the number of years I have spent studying this country, it is still sometimes impossible to discern the truth from rumours and to piece together a coherent understanding of developments.


I was vividly reminded of this feeling over the past month, as I tried to uncover the top Vietnamese leadership’s thinking on bringing China to the international courts over their dispute in the South China Sea. Exciting developments appeared to be underfoot when rumours started flying that the Vietnamese Politburo had actually reached an agreement on proceeding with international arbitration in early July and a Central Committee meeting would be organized later that month to approve this decision. This rumour, if true, would have reflected a real change in the Communist Party of Vietnam’s approach to handling disputes with China, moving away from a bilateral Party and ideological-based approach to a legal-based approach.


Due to the potential significance of this development, I spent a large amount of time during the month trying to confirm and corroborate the rumours. Alas, there is where I hit a brick wall. Speaking to a range of individuals, everyone had a slightly different version of the same story. From the Politburo had reached a decision to they are still deeply split on the issue. From a secret Central Committee meeting was held to a meeting was planned but never took place to there was no such thing as a secret Central Committee meeting. I could go on, but you get my drift.


I took comfort in the fact that I was not the only individual finding it difficult to figure out what was going on. Different Vietnam experts, from Emeritus Prof Carlyle Thayer to Zachary Abuza and Alexander Vuving all had a slightly different (or in some case, widely different) take on how the debate on international arbitration had played out. So in my confusion, at least I was in good company.


Despite the murkiness of this issue, I would nevertheless like to put forward my hypothesis of how events unfolded, based on my numerous conversations and my understanding of Vietnam.


Firstly, the Politburo had discussed and come to an initial agreement to use international arbitration in its dispute with China. This decision was driven by Vietnam’s surprise at the level of China’s aggressiveness and its refusal to back down. Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi’s visit to Vietnam in June 2014 could have been the tipping point as Yang had admonished the Vietnamese leadership for falsely accusing China and of disturbing China’s activities in “Chinese waters”.


Secondly, the Politburo had probably planned to present their proposal to the Central Committee for its approval. While this would not have been necessary, the Politburo would have wanted to do so as the Politburo was not unanimous in its decision on using international arbitration. As relations with China remain a sensitive issue for the Communist Party of Vietnam, top leaders probably wanted the Central Committee to be involved in the final decision so that the Politburo would not have to bear all responsibility for the decision. This is Vietnam’s principle of centralized democracy at its very essence.


Thirdly, I am 99.9% certain that the Central Committee meeting never took place. This is because it is difficult to hide a meeting of 175 Central Committee members in a city as small and intimate as Hanoi. For example, thousands of people drive past the Party headquarters every day, me included and I can always spot when the Central Committee is in session because there will be a fire engine and ambulance parked just outside the Party headquarters. Officials of various levels of seniority in the government and state would also be aware of the meeting as their bosses or colleagues would be involved in the meeting.


The planned Central Committee meeting was probably cancelled due to the early withdrawal of China’s oil rig one month before its self-professed deadline of 15 Aug 14. China had likely picked up information about the Politburo’s discussion and decision on international arbitration and realized that they had pushed the Vietnamese leadership a bit too far. It is not in China’s interests to be brought to the international courts by yet another claimant in the South China Sea, especially not its fellow communist comrade.


Lastly, I think that the Vietnamese debate on international arbitration will now fizzle out, despite strong efforts by academics and legal experts to pressure the Vietnamese leaders to continue to move forward with a case against China. Simply put, there are still too many leaders in the Politburo who feel that Vietnam (i.e., the Communist Party of Vietnam) has to rely on China (i.e., the China Communist Party) for its survival . Therefore, these leaders would have jumped on the withdrawal of China’s oil rig to push for a rethink of international arbitration, at least until China’s next act of high aggression in the South China Sea.


I will probably never know whether my hypothesis is right as Vietnam doesn’t release declassified documents after a period of time. Sigh, some days here just feel like this….



Soldier or diplomat???


This year I was again lucky enough to be present at the 2014 Shangri-La Dialogue, where the hot topic of discussion was China’s recent aggressions in the South China Sea and its implications on regional security in the near future. For those who are not au fait with the Dialogue, it is an annual three-day Dialogue that is co-organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Singapore Government. Each year, top officials and academics involved in the domain of security and defence are invited to speak on key security issues affecting the region. In 2014, the highlights for me were the speeches by Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and of course, the speech by Vietnamese Defence Minister and Politburo Member Gen Phung Quang Thanh (pictured above).

Gen Thanh spoke during the third plenary session of the Dialogue, which addressed the issue of “Managing Strategic tensions”. Gen Thanh largely built on PM Nguyen Tan Dung’s speech at the opening session of the Dialogue in 2013, where he espoused the concept of “building strategic trust” in the region. He also emphasised that major powers had to play a leadership role in building strategic trust, as well as preventing conflict in the region. Thirdly, he touched briefly on Sino-Vietnamese relations and the ongoing conflict between the two countries over China’s deployment of an oil rig in an area that Vietnam claims as its exclusive economic zone. (The full text of his speech can be found here –

Domestic response to Gen Thanh’s speech at the Dialogue has been largely critical, with many Vietnamese questioning why he adopted such a soft, and in fact friendly, tone towards China. The Vietnamese blogging community has been quite unforgiving and is seeing Gen Thanh’s speech as yet another occasion when the top Vietnamese leadership has shown that it is too afraid of China to defend Vietnam’s own interests.

Why would Gen Thanh, a decorated military officer, deliver such a speech? My sense is that there are three main reasons for his actions.

1. Firstly, Gen Thanh probably did not have much of a choice in the content and tone of his speech as it would have been approved by the entire Vietnamese Politburo. This is standard practice for the speeches of all top leaders domestically and overseas and the Politburo would probably have gone through Gen Thanh’s speech with a fine tooth comb given the heightening tensions with China. Within the Politburo, different leaders advocate different approaches towards China. Some still believe that China is the Party’s (note: not necessarily Vietnam’s) most trusted ally and therefore, good relations must be maintained with China at all costs. On the other hand, some leaders (and most Vietnamese people) believe that such thinking is antiquated and Vietnam needs to refresh its foreign policy and become more independent vis-à-vis China. However, due to the Party’s tradition of consensus decision-making, the Party leaders often resort to adopting “the lowest common denominator” in decision-making and I believe that this is the reason for the disappointing tone of Gen Thanh’s speech

2. Secondly, I believe that Gen Thanh’s speech was not provocative in any sense as the Vietnamese leaders have a very accurate sense of their (lack of) military might compared to China. Already, Vietnam’s fisheries control and marine police resources are stretched close to the limit as Vietnam maintains a presence around the Chinese oil rig and tries to get the oil rig to leave Vietnam’s waters. Therefore, Vietnam clearly does not want to escalate the conflict with China and trigger a confrontation or war. As leader of the Vietnamese Armed Forces, Gen Thanh would have been the most aware of Vietnam’s military limitations.

Apparently, Gen Thanh has not been happy with the amount of criticism thrown his way. In private conversations, he is said to have lamented the fact that he didn’t actually participate in the writing of the speech and he didn’t have much of say in its contents. Nevertheless, Gen Thanh is bearing a lot of the people’s anger at the Vietnamese leadership and it will be interesting to see how this could impact on his political prospects at the 2016 Party Congress.

A day of disappointments

It is strange. I’ve lived in Vietnam for a number of years now, during which there have been various anti-China protests that have taken place. However, despite this, I was never tempted to attend one. Perhaps it was the fact that protests always take place on Sunday mornings, when I would be in bed trying to catch up on my sleep. Perhaps it was my lethargy and expectation that there would be another protest to watch next time.

 Today, I broke with habit. Early on a Sunday morning, I woke up, trudged down to Lenin Park and walked around for an hour to watch a highly anticipated anti-China protest. More accurately, I should say that I “tried” to watch the highly anticipated protest. I could only try because the extremely high security presence surrounding Lenin Park (and the Chinese Embassy which is located just opposite Lenin Park) successfully deterred any possible protest. During my one hour walk, uniformed and plain clothes security personnel asked me to move away numerous times as they slowly but surely expanded the security cordon around Lenin Park. This followed the government’s announcement that anti-China protests were illegal via numerous smses that were sent to all Vietnamese mobile numbers on 16 and 17 May 14. Authorities had also prevented some outspoken and well-respected individuals from attending the protests, to leave the protestors without leadership.

So why did the Vietnamese authorities stop anti-China protests that were in fact against China’s illegal deployment of an oil rig in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone.

 A key reason for this was the occurrence of some violent protests in Binh Duong and Ha Tinh provinces on 13 and 14 May 14. In a rare occurrence in Vietnam, the authorities lost control of protests by workers, resulting in the looting and burning of some foreign invested companies that were believed to be linked to China and attacks on foreigners who were believed to be from China. Caught up by their emotions, Vietnamese workers actually attacked and damaged factories owned by Taiwanese, Japanese, South Korea and Singaporean companies, attacked workers in those factories and burned a Singapore flag. When the dust settled, at least two Chinese nationals had been killed, more than a dozen had been injured and billions of Vietnamese dong of damages had been inflicted on more than 60 factories. Due to the violence of 13 and 14 May, the Vietnamese government came under immense pressure from China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and Singapore to ensure the safety an security of their nationals and assets in Vietnam.

 Disappointment in government

 Firstly, I have to praise the Vietnamese government for taking swift action to ensure that law and order has been restored nationwide. The government has reacted to not only assure foreign investors that their safety is of utmost concern, but it has also backed it words with firm actions. Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel slightly disappointed with the extreme lengths that the government went to prevent protests today. I believe that a balance could have been struck between allowing Vietnamese citizens to protest against China and maintaining law and order. That protests turned violent this week in Binh Duong and Ha Tinh occurred partly because Vietnamese citizens are disappointed and disillusioned by their own leaders lukewarm response to China’s infringement of Vietnam’s territorial sovereignty. Therefore, the cutting off of protests today will only raise public ire even further, potentially creating an even more explosive situation in the near future.

 Disappointment in Vietnamese people

 My comments here may be considered harsh but I am also disappointed with the Vietnamese people today. There have been many strong comments on Facebook and on Vietnamese blogs decrying China’s actions since China moved its oil rig into Vietnam’s waters on 2 May 14. However, in the face of the government’s ban on anti-China protests, the Vietnamese people appear to have been quickly cowed into submission. Tomorrow is the birthday of Ho Chi Minh, the most recognizable member of a brave generation of Vietnamese leaders who fought tirelessly against the French and the US to make Vietnam an independent nation. But today, in my eyes, the Vietnamese people have failed to honour the sacrifices of Bac Ho and other Vietnamese leaders of that generation.



Numerous security officials visible in the background as they expanded the security cordon around Lenin Park


Security barriers that were set up around Lenin Park to prevent gatherings

The game of musical chairs

musical chairs

At end March 2014, Vietnamese authorities announced its latest round of “cadre rotations”, where upper middle level government and state officials are sent to various provinces to take up top leadership posts, usually as deputy secretaries or even secretaries of provincial party committees or people’s committees. This recent round of cadre rotations drew more attention than usual because some very prominent names appeared in the list. Foremost among them were Nguyen Thanh Nghi, the son of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, Nguyen Xuan Anh, and the son of former politburo member Nguyen Van Chi, who are taking up posts in Kien Giang Province and Danang City respectively. That both men have been sent to the provinces, together with the fact that are already alternate members of the Central Committee, is a clear signal (barring only the most major of political scandals) that Nghi and Anh will be inducted into the next Central Committee at the 2016 Party Congress.

While most countries have some frameworks for the training and grooming of potential top leaders, Vietnam’s cadre rotation programme is exemplary in its scale and frequency. As seen from the batch of officials who were recently sent to the provinces, each batch involves between 40-50 officials who were previously holding the equivalent of vice minister positions in the government, state and Party. Each batch remains in the provinces for about 2-3 years, before returning to central level organisations and being replaced by yet another batch of young and promising cadres. (I have to add a caveat here that “young” is a relative term and an official in his 40s to early 50s could still be considered fairly young in Vietnam.)

Evolution of the cadre rotation programme

The cadre rotation scheme has a long history dating back to the wartime era in Vietnam’s history but it has been practiced more actively since 2002. The practice had largely been forgotten in the late 1970s and early 1980s probably as Vietnam’s leaders were preoccupied with dealing with the massive socio-economic challenges facing the country and could not devote time and resource to the grooming of future leaders. However, the practice was revived by Tran Dinh Hoan (a former head of the Party’s Personnel and Organisation Commission that oversees as personnel matters in the Party) in 2002. Over the years, the programme has gathered steam and currently more and more high level officials are graduates of the programme.

Objectives of the programme

The basic objectives of the programme can be easily understand – train young officials to build up a core group of talented and experienced officials to take on leadership positions in the future. Nevertheless, despite these noble aims, vested interests have played a major role in the successful revival of the programme.

Firstly, the programme is a means to entrench the Party’s control over the provinces, which have generally grown more independent as Vietnam has developed economically. This is especially true for more developed provinces such as Ho Chi Minh City, which do not need to rely on the state budget for its development. By parachuting in officials from Hanoi to these provinces, the Party therefore prevents the rise of local officials who could become too powerful and eventually challenge the authority of the Party or state. As all cadres on the programme are also members of the Communist Party of Vietnam, the programme effectively denies non-Party members from being considered for top level positions in the provinces.

Secondly, the patron of the cadre rotation programme Tran Dinh Hoan was also known to have been highly corrupt and there are various viewpoints that he resurrected the programme as a means to receive bribes from officials who wanted to be included in the programme. While I have no concrete proof of this, I have often been told that a position in the Party’s Personnel and Organisation Commission (now simply called the Organisation Commission) can be very lucrative as the Commission is the custodian of all major personnel decisions. Putting two and two together could therefore lead us four in this case.

Impact of cadre rotation on Vietnamese politics

I have never come across another country which conducts cadre rotation on such a systemic and regular basis and every time I read about cadre rotations, I always strikes me like a game of musical chairs. The only difference between the traditional game of musical chairs and the cadre rotation programme in Vietnam would be that no one seems to lose their seats in Vietnam. Why is it very rare for any official to “fail” or be booted out of the cadre rotation scheme? After all, is it only to be expected that some officials would not live up to their perceived potential?

That the programme is so foolproof can be traced back to the criteria used to select candidates for grooming. Besides being relatively wealthy (after all buying a seat on the programme may not be cheap), the other most important criteria appears to be good family connections, viz., my father is/was a high-ranking leader. Seen in this light, the cadre rotation programme is not a mechanism to test and groom Vietnam’s future leaders but a shifty scheme to justify a well-connected cadre’s rise up the ladder. The continuation of this programme will therefore result in a less robust and capable Vietnamese leadership, the exact antithesis of its stated objectives.

The clear victims of the cadre rotation programme are the provinces, which are stuck with provincial leaders who are often unfamiliar with the key issues affecting the province and who are often only interested in advancing their own political agendas. How much effort will a leader commit to a province if he knows that he will only be there for 2-3 years? Will he be able to understand and connect with the citizens of the province if he has never lived or worked there in his life? Unfortunately these questions do not seem to be highly valued by the Communist Party of Vietnam.

Hotlines – a new instument of control?


The phone lines between Vietnam and China have reportedly been buzzing with warm emotions since the beginning of 2014, with Chinese leaders making two well publicised calls to their Vietnamese counterparts in the first four weeks of the year alone. The first call by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Vietnamese DPM and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh on 30 Dec 13 to extend new year greetings from the Chinese leaders was closely followed by a second, more significant call, just three weeks later when Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke to General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong sometime after mid-January 14 to mark the 64th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

So, are relations between the two countries is improving and tensions over their overlapping disputes in the South China Sea decreasing? While I would love to be able to say that I was convinced that Sino-Vietnamese relations were on their way to a more stable footing, facts about the two calls that have emerged from Vietnamese political blogs suggest that the tone and purpose of the two calls were anything but friendly.

According to informed individuals, Wang Yi’s call to Pham Binh Minh focused less on delivering seasonal greetings and more on “encouraging” Vietnam to cooperate fully with China on the Joint Working Group on development in Maritime Areas that had been established during Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Vietnam in October 2013. Vietnam had been less enthusiastic than China to initiate new joint development projects as they had found that such projects always benefitted China more than Vietnam in the past.

While Wang Yi applied more subtle pressure on Vietnam to cooperate with China on joint development projects, Chinese President Xi applied more direct pressure on his Vietnamese counterpart by demanding that Vietnam rein in activities that had been organised to commemorate the anniversaries of various military confrontations between Vietnam and China in 2014. The first of these anniversaries was the 40th anniversary of the Paracels Battle on 19 Jan 2014 and China had received information that various commemorative events were being planned across Vietnam. Xi’s call appeared to have achieved its objectives as the Vietnamese Politburo then proceeded to cancel some activities and restrict media reporting on the anniversary.

These two calls indicate that China is taking the concept of hotlines between top leaders to a new level and is adding this to its arsenal of tools of control and coerce Vietnam. In today’s technologically advanced world, Chinese leaders realise that a 10 minute phone call can achieve as much as a two-day visit by top-envoy and with much less hassle. Furthermore, hotlines can offer China a much more discrete channel for communications as such phone calls can be easily kept secret, unlike visits by top leaders which can be easily reported by bloggers and citizen reporters.

While I can clearly understand China’s objectives in publicising the phone calls that had been initiated by their top leaders, I was initially perplexed by Vietnam’s readiness to also misrepresent these calls as friendly gestures from China. But with further thought, I realise that these two incidents could serve Vietnam’s own aims in two ways. Firstly, the Vietnamese leaders could use them to demonstrate to the Vietnamese public that the Chinese leaders were making efforts to be a good neighbour to Vietnam. This could be used to counter criticisms that the policy of the Communist Party of Vietnam’s policy towards China was too soft and encouraging China to become more aggressive in their dealings with Vietnam. Secondly, by “playing ball” with China, Vietnam’s leaders would also show their intent to keep relations with China positive. Such behaviour would be in sharp contrast to the behaviour of the Philippines, whose actions have greatly angered the Chinese leadership.

In conclusion, I am again reminded that in Sino-Vietnamese relations, nothing is ever as simple and innocuous as it appears and that every single event in their bilateral relations is coloured by undercurrents of competition and tension and should always be analysed through that prism.