NEW YORK: As the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam prepared for its five-year national congress, suspense built over who would take over the party’s helm. When the curtain was finally lifted on January 25 supporters of populist Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung were disappointed that he lost the coveted post to conservative incumbent chief Nguyen Phu Trong, who was given a second term. The sidelining of Dung, who has been accused of nepotism, cronyism and economic mismanagement, is unlikely to change the middle course traditionally preferred by the party. Reforms will continue, albeit at a slower pace, as would increasingly closer ties with the United States.
The reason for the pro-Dung public sentiment is not hard to fathom. In a country where the masses have not ceased railing against China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, leaders who exhibit explicit gestures to confront Beijing are likely to win the public heart. When China dragged its oil rig into an area that Vietnam considers part of its exclusive economic zone in May 2014, Dung was outspoken in publicly lashing out at China’s territorial ambitions. He is also a visible champion of economic reforms and strategic alliances with other regional powers, particularly the United States, moves apparently aimed at countering China’s economic clout.