Vietnam’s 13th National Party Congress that concluded in February set very ambitious development targets for the Southeast Asian nation. The party congress resolution calls for Vietnam to become a developing country with modernity-oriented industry and move up and out of lower-middle income level by 2025, it wants Vietnam to reach upper-middle income level by 2030, and finally become a developed country with high-income level by 2045. While Vietnam certainly has the potential to achieve these targets, it also has to navigate several internal and external challenges.
On the internal front, like other nations, rapid advances in new technologies like modern digital communication, automation and artificial intelligence present significant socio-economic challenges. On the external front, East Asia is increasingly becoming a theatre for strategic competition between an aggressive China and the US. And Vietnam is in the thick of things given its maritime disputes with China in the South China Sea. Against this backdrop, Vietnam’s leadership needs to have both stability and nimbleness to navigate the tricky waters.
In this regard, the 13th Party Congress’s decision to re-elect Nguyen Phu Trong as the general secretary of the Vietnam Communist Party for a rare third term was clearly a pitch for stability. Trong’s experience and steady hand at the party helm can be the anchor for Vietnam’s development. On the other hand, the elevation of Pham Minh Chinh to the position of Prime Minister – which will be confirmed after the first session of Vietnam’s national assembly in July – is a bold choice aimed at ensuring flexibility and continuation of reforms. That 62-year-old Chinh is the current party organisation chief and was previously the party secretary of Quang Ninh Province means he possesses a wide range of management experience – both at central and local level. In fact, his time in Quang Ninh saw transformation of the local economy through building of high quality infrastructure and development of the tourism industry. He was also in charge of the party’s pilot project in the province that saw the elimination of people’s councils at the district level to reduce bureaucracy, increase efficiency and curb corruption. Under Chinh’s leadership, the policy is likely to be extended across Vietnam. Plus, Chinh is also known to be an advocate of special economic zones.
Thus, if he is confirmed by Vietnam’s national assembly, Chinh is expected to push bold reforms that Vietnam needs to achieve its development targets. But reforms by their nature and speed engender entropy, which if not managed can lead to destabilising effects. A classic example of this is the rise of populism across the world. This can be traced to two clear technological disruptions in the last two decades – the advent of new age communication media like social media and the rise in automation in manufacturing. While the former has been responsible for a lot of misinformation and manipulation in society, leading to chaos and disruptive forces, the latter has been responsible for loss of jobs and incomes and a rise in nativist tendencies.
But the continued adoption of new age technologies is a force that cannot be reversed. On the contrary, it is necessary to achieve a higher qualitative growth trajectory. In fact, if Vietnam is to become a high-income developed nation by 2045, it has to go up the economic value chain through incorporation of cutting-edge technologies like the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, etc. And this would certainly produce a very different society from the one we know today. In order to ensure that these societal changes are least disruptive, leadership needs to be both strong and reform-minded.
This is precisely what Vietnam’s leadership combination between general secretary Trong and the new premier reflects for the coming era. And if Vietnam succeeds and prospers, Southeast Asia and Asean too will be able to fulfil its potential as the next global growth hub. After all, Vietnam is a country that wants to continue improving its integration with the international community, uphold international rules – as exemplified by its desire to uphold UNCLOS as the basis for determining rights in the South China Sea – and invites all positive investments in the Southeast Asian region. Hence, Vietnam’s success is a key factor in stability of Southeast Asia. And it is in this context that the new premiership will be watched closely by the world.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.