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Ranked 32nd Most Powerful Country in the World, Communist Vietnam Set to Assume Greater International Role in 2020

Ranking comes on heels of defense white paper release detailing foreign policy, assumption of ASEAN chairmanship and UN seat

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U.S. News and World Report ranked Communist Vietnam the 32nd most powerful country in the world in 2019, placing it ahead of nearly all of its peers in the region, with the exception of Singapore, which came in 20th. Of the 80 countries included in the survey, Indonesia ranked 47th, the Philippines 51st, Myanmar 53rd, Thailand 54th, and Malaysia 58th.

The magazine defines powerful countries as those who “consistently dominate news headlines, preoccupy policymakers and shape global economic patterns” and forms its rankings “based on an equally weighted average of scores from five country attributes that related to a country’s power: a leader, economically influential, politically influential, strong international alliances and strong military.”

Communist Vietnam rose two spots in the rankings from 2018, bolstered in particular by its high score for “strong military”. The country’s weakest attribute was its lack of “strong international alliances”, an area which is unlikely to improve, according to the country’s recently released defense white paper.

Communist Vietnam released its 2019 defense white paper November 25, in both English and Vietnamese. It has released such reports irregularly, in 1998, 2004, and 2009. Photo: VNExpress

The paper was the first of its kind released in more than a decade, and at its official launch November 25, Deputy Minister of National Defense Senior Lieutenant General Nguyen Chi Vinh highlighted the “4 No’s” that would guide Communist Vietnam’s foreign policy: “Vietnam will not join any military alliances, will not associate with one party to oppose another, will not allow foreign countries to set up a military [base] in the country…” and “will not use force or threaten the use of force in international relations” unless it is under attack.

In an interview with VNExpress, Vinh defended the country’s policy of no military alliances, stating that “Being a part of such an alliance means you have to completely align with one side and possibly have to confront the other, which means more enemies. Vietnam does not stand by any side but peace, reason, justice, and international laws.”

In writing the white paper, the Central Military Commission (CMC, the highest party organ in Communist Vietnam on military policy) and the Ministry of National Defense (MND) said they consulted with representatives of former senior military leaders, as well as with members of the public who expressed reservations about non-alignment.

The CMC and the MND defended their position, equating non-alignment with independence: “Countries that are members of such an alliance will be placed under the leadership of one country, normally a large and powerful one, and will have to adhere to that union’s principles, even when they are not entirely compatible with the country. Member nations of such a bloc will no longer be independent and have the autonomy to decide things on their own.”

Vietnam watchers have acknowledged that the country’s one-party regime is in a difficult position politically, and an active alliance with either the US or China would bring about its own set of challenges, some existential.

The country’s policy of pacifism, self-defense, non-alignment, and multilateralism, however, belies the strong language it uses against encroachment in the East Sea and even stronger language wielded against “hostile forces” in the domestic realm.

Without explicitly calling out China as the culprit of “unilateral actions” and “power-based coercion”, a section in the white paper makes Vietnam’s opposition clear:

New developments in the East Sea, including unilateral actions, power-based coercion, violations international law, militarisation, change in the status quo, and infringement upon Viet Nam’s sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction as provided in international law, have undermined the interests of nations concerned and threatened peace, stability, security, safety, and freedom of navigation and overflight in the region.

Communist Vietnam uses even less-restrained language for its domestic opponents, whom it considers to be at virtual war with:

The hostile forces who conspire with reactionaries and political opportunists inside the country have no given up their plots against the Vietnamese revolution. They focus on destroying political, ideological foundation with a view to eliminating the leading role of the CPV and the socialist regime in Viet Nam, “depoliticising” the VPA, sowing division in the entire nation’s great unity, and driving a wedge between the people and the CPV and the VPA.

“Hostile forces” and “reactionaries” “against the revolution” are blanket phrases that the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP or CPV) reserves for those who seek to end the Party’s monopoly on power. State media routinely uses these terms to describe activists, dissidents, and those who advocate multi-party democracy and liberal values. That the Vietnamese communist revolution ended in 1986 with capitalist market reforms has not abated the usage of these anachronistic and binary terms.

The VCP also implicitly acknowledges the threat social media and online sources of information pose to “national defense”, and similar to other authoritarian, one-party states, conflates Party security with national security. A cybersecurity law that sparked nationwide protests in 2018 went into effect at the beginning of 2019, and the end of 2019 has seen an upsurge of Vietnamese citizens arrested for writing Facebook posts critical of the communist regime.

According to the white paper, Communist Vietnam’s defense spending totaled approximately 5.8 billion USD in 2018, equivalent to 2.3 percent of GDP, an increase from 2.23 percent in 2010. For comparison, the United States spends 3.2 percent of GDP on defense, while China spends only 1.9 percent.

The full English copy of Communist Vietnam’s 2019 defense white paper can be found here, courtesy of Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor at The University of New South Wales, Canberra.

Communist Vietnam is also set to assume the rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) from 2020-2021, where according to Thayer, the country will be “in a position to exert strong leadership on Code of Conduct issues [in the East Sea] through bilateral consultations with other ASEAN members and by setting the agenda and issuing the Chairman’s statement at all relevant ASEAN meetings and at all ASEAN Plus meetings.”

Though ideologically aligned with China, Communist Vietnam has often been the lone member of ASEAN to speak up forcefully against Chinese activities in the East Sea, a trend which looks to continue. Vietnam’s deputy foreign minister, Nguyen Quoc Dung, commented at a lecture at The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore that he “hope[s…] during our chairmanship China will show restraint and refrain from these activities [that violate Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone],” adding that “it wasn’t that other ASEAN countries supported China’s actions, but that they did not protest in the same way.”

Disputed claims in the East Sea (also known as the South China Sea or the West Philippine Sea). Photo: The Economist

The ASEAN chairmanship rotates through its ten members annually, in alphabetical order. Communist Vietnam last served in the position in 2010.

Concurrently, 2020 will also see Communist Vietnam serve as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC), a position which it bid on and won by unanimous vote. The two-year term will begin in January 2020, and joining the country on the UNSC will be Estonia, Niger, Saint Vincent and Grenadines, and Tunisia.

According to The Diplomat, “during [Vietnam’s] campaign for the seat and in comments thereafter, officials have indicated that [their goals] would generally include areas such as promoting sustainable development and advancing preventive diplomacy, drawing on Vietnam’s own historical experience with war and peace as well as contemporary events such as its hosting of the second Trump-Kim summit.” Communist Vietnam last held a seat on the UNSC in 2008-2009.

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Freedom of expression

Reporters Without Borders Calls For The Release Of Pham Doan Trang

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Pham Doan Trang. Photo courtesy: Thinh Nguyen

On April 7, 2021, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released a press statement condemning the arrest of jailed Vietnamese journalist Pham Doan Trang

Phan Doan Trang, co-founder and editor of the online magazines The Vietnamese and Luât Khoa, and a recipient of the 2019 RSF Press Freedom Prize for Impact, was arrested at her home on the night of October 6, 2020. She was taken away by plainclothes policemen and has not been heard from since She has been denied access to a lawyer and her family has also been unable to contact her. Currently, she faces up to 20 years in prison under Article 117 of the Vietnamese Penal Code, under the charge of engaging in “anti-state propaganda”. 

Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, says: “The Vietnamese Communist Party’s current leadership… needs to understand that history will hold them to account for the crackdown on press freedom …. They can save face by freeing Pham Doan Trang and all of the other unjustly detained journalists.”

This is not the first time RSF has demanded her release. On October 7, 2020, just one day after her arrest, it published its first statement which echoes much of the same sentiments here. It has also launched an international awareness campaign to fight for her cause. 


Support from Other RSF Laureates 

Several other RSF awardees have called for Phan Doan Trang’s immediate and unconditional release. They have also released several videos in various social media outlets to show their support for her, and to help bring this situation to the attention of the international community. 

Tomasz Piatek, a Polish journalist and an RSF prize recipient in 2017, addressed Vietnam’s leaders:, “I am asking you to release my friend from prison immediately and stop harassing and tormenting her for writing the truth. If you want to present yourself to the world as politicians and leaders of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, you must immediately stop harassing your citizens and give your citizens the right to the truth.”

Swati Chaturvedi, an Indian journalist and Reporters Without Borders prize awardee in 2018, said, “RSF stands for the fight of all journalists. Please help and speak out for my colleague, my Vietnamese colleague Pham Doan Trang right now.”

Can Dündar, a Turkish journalist, documentary filmmaker and 2016 RSF laureate, similarly asked that the Vietnamese authorities release Phan Doan Trang and to respect the freedom of the media.

Inday Espina-Varona, a Filipina journalist and awardee of RSF’s Prize for Independence in 2018, stated that Pham Doan Trang “has been charged with disseminating information that opposed the state of Vietnam… [it is] every journalist and citizen’s obligation to criticise and when necessary to oppose policies and actions inimical to the welfare and rights of people… it is also the duty of journalists and citizens wherever we are in the world to stand up when those who seek to do the right thing are battered for their efforts.”


Statement from the Publication: 

The Vietnamese joins Reporters Without Borders and our other international allies in demanding for the expedient release of Pham Doan Trang. The trumped-up charges against her are clearly false and the only thing she is guilty of is providing Vietnamese citizens with accurate and independent information free from the manipulation and misdirection of the Vietnamese government and its selfish misguided agenda.

The fight for freedom, democracy, and a better tomorrow for Vietnam continues and we at The Vietnamese will do our part to see this through till the end. 

To show your support for this cause, kindly consider signing this petition for the swift release of our co-founder, colleague, and friend. 

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Vietnam Briefing

Vietnam Briefing: Meet The New State Leadership

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Pham Minh Chinh and Nguyen Xuan Phuc. Photo Courtesy: Nhu Y/plo.vn

We release the Vietnam Briefing every Monday morning.


The rumors were right. Meet the new state leadership

We reported correctly in our first briefing on February 8 that there were rumors that current Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Pham Minh Chinh, the head of the Party Central Committee’s Organization Commission and Vuong Dinh Hue, the secretary of the Hanoi Party Committee, would be named president, prime minister, and chairperson of the National Assembly, respectively.

What is happening in the last session of the National Assembly is proving the rumors are right.

Vuong Dinh Hue took over the chairperson position of the National Assembly on March 31 after his predecessor, Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, was released from duty the previous day by the legislative chamber’s resolution. The Communist Party quickly appointed the then-minister of finance, Dinh Tien Dung, to replace Hue as the party chief of Hanoi on April 3.

The National Assembly also relieved Nguyen Xuan Phuc from the prime minister post and Nguyen Phu Trong from the president post on April 3, paving the way for elections of Nguyen Xuan Phuc to be president and Pham Minh Chinh to be prime minister this week. Phuc was already nominated to the post on April 2.

When this entire process ends tentatively by the end of April 5, the political tradition of having a “gang of four” sharing four top seats of the party and the state will be restored.


Another journalist is arrested

Nguyen Hoai Nam, a former investigative journalist working for the mainstream media, was arrested on April 2 in Ho Chi Minh City. He is currently under pre-trial detention and is charged with “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, lawful rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens.”

Who is Nam? VnExpress says he was a former reporter at Thanh Nien (Youth), Phap Luat TPHCM (HCMC Law), Vietnam Television and Phap Luat Viet Nam (Vietnam Law). The news agency added that Nam had posted on his Facebook account several articles challenging police investigations into violations at Vietnam Inland Waterways Administration, which it said had  resulted in the arrest of its former deputy head Tran Duc Hai in 2019.

According to VnExpress: “The reporter implicated 15 people who had allegedly committed violations regarding the case, 12 more than determined by police. He went on to accuse the investigators of ‘letting the criminals off the hook.’”

The nature of the charge: 

  • The charge is based on Article 331 of the 2015 Penal Code, previously known as Article 258 of the 1999 Penal Code.
  • The criminal provision is widely condemned by both domestic and international human rights groups as vague and as used by the government to silence critics.
  • Activists ran a campaign called the “258 Campaign” to advocate for the abolition of the provision.

Four citizens convicted of spreading anti-state propaganda

Publicly saying bad things about the Communist Party might well result in being imprisoned for years in Vietnam. That’s what happened to four citizens in Khanh Hoa Province on March 30.

Nguyen Thi Cam Thuy, 45, was sentenced to  nine years in prison, Ngo Thi Ha Phuong, 25, to seven years and Le Viet Hoa, 59, to five years, VnExpress reported.

Another person, Vu Tien Chi, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in Lam Dong Province.

Just like Article 331 and Article 258, this criminal provision has received a high degree of criticism from human rights groups inside and outside of Vietnam.


Read more about Vietnam:

The US Department of State’s human rights report on Vietnam

“The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is an authoritarian state ruled by a single party, the Communist Party of Vietnam, and led by General Secretary and President Nguyen Phu Trong, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and Chairwoman of the National Assembly Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan. The most recent National Assembly elections, held in 2016, were neither free nor fair; there was limited competition among Communist Party-vetted candidates.”

Drinking coffee in the US? Worry about forests in Vietnam, study says

Mongabay | April 2, 2021

“The U.S.’s thirst for coffee drives forest loss in central Vietnam, while Germany’s craving for cocoa is doing the same in West Africa, a landmark study that tracks the drivers of deforestation across borders found.”

Vietnam Should be More Proactive in Global Governance

The Diplomat | March 30, 2021

“After its COVID-19 successes, Vietnam is well positioned to play a more energetic role on the global stage.”

The Vietnamese Recovery Is Made in America

Wall Street Journal | March 30, 2021

“Vietnam’s economy is growing again, on the back of a strong rise in exports. The Southeast Asian nation looks to be one of the most clear-cut international beneficiaries of the U.S. stimulus package.”

How The Vietnamese State Uses Cyber Troops to Shape Online Discourse

ISEAS | March 3, 2021

  • The operations of Vietnam’s public opinion shapers and cyber-troops reveal that the online discourse is manipulated to enforce the Communist Party’s line. 
  • Vietnamese authorities constantly grapple with the vexing question: How to strike a delicate balance between placating critical public sentiment online while ensuring that it does not spill over into protests against the regime. 
  • When it comes to methods, targets and motives, there appears to be significant crossover between public opinion shapers and the government’s cyber troops. 
  • The Vietnamese state cyber-troops have been encouraged to use real accounts to massreport content. This helps explain why it is the only Southeast Asian state to publicly acknowledge having a military cyber unit. 
  • The lack of political and technological wherewithal presents an uphill battle for these cyber-troops in influencing Vietnam’s online information environment.

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Vietnam Briefing

Vietnam Briefing: Another Congressional Candidate Arrested While Congress Elects New Leaders

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Nguyen Phu Trong and Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the commencement of the National Assembly Session on March 24, 2021. Photo courtesy: Vietnam News Agency

The Vietnam Briefing is released every Monday.


Another congressional candidate arrested

Independent journalist Le Trong Hung, a candidate for the National People’s Congress, was arrested on March 27 by Hanoi local police, VOA cited his family.

He had filed his candidacy earlier this year and his application was approved by election officials. 

Hung is known for running his social media-based TV channel called Chan Hung TV, that broadcasted information about victims of injustice, including  farmers who had lost their land and people who had been wrongfully convicted.

Besides Hung, another person arrested after declaring his candidacy is Tran Quoc Khanh, as we reported two weeks ago. The general election will be held on May 23, 2021.


The National Assembly is convening to decide top state positions

If things go as planned, Vietnam will have a new president, a new prime minister and a new chairperson of the National Assembly potentially by April 7.

Some other top seats of the National Assembly and the cabinet will also be considered.

It’s now officially announced that current Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc will be nominated to be president of the state. 


Tension in the South China Sea

Not only has China sent warplanes into Taiwan’s air space over the past week, but also hundreds of Chinese vessels have also massed in disputed areas in the South China Sea.

From Reuters:

“Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang on Thursday said the Chinese vessels at the reef, which Hanoi calls Da Ba Dau, had infringed on its sovereignty. 

‘Vietnam requests that China stop this violation and respect Vietnam’s sovereignty,’ Hang told a regular briefing. 

A Vietnamese coastguard vessel could be seen moored near the disputed area on Thursday, according to ship tracking data published by the Marine Traffic website. 

Hang said Vietnam’s coastguard was ‘exercising its duties as regulated by laws’, including international law.”


Rapping Vietnam Ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink tapped as Joe Biden’s top Asia envoy

He made headlines last month in Vietnam by rapping in both English and Vietnamese. Now he’s nominated for one of the top seats in the US State Department.

From The South China Morning Post:

“The US ambassador who made a splash in Vietnam by making a rap video may soon get a promotion – to be the top diplomat for Asia under President Joe Biden. Daniel Kritenbrink, a career diplomat who speaks Chinese and Japanese, was nominated by Biden to be the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, a White House statement said.”


Learn more about Vietnam:

Vietnam proves immune to China’s vaccine diplomacy campaign

March 27, 2021 | Nikkei Asia

“It would be a stretch to accredit that one comment as an accurate measure of public sentiment in Vietnam toward the Chinese-made vaccine. But in Southeast Asia, Vietnam has remained a prominent outlier to China’s fanfare vaccine diplomacy campaign.”

Biden can address Vietnam’s currency valuation without Section 301

March 27, 2021 | East Asia Forum

“While there were intense talks during the Trump administration — including a call between Trump and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc — there are no reports suggesting any ongoing talks with the Biden administration.”

China, Vietnam Lead Three-Speed Asian Recovery, World Bank Says

March 26, 2021 | Bloomberg

“A three-speed recovery is taking hold across East Asia and the Pacific, with China and Vietnam already beating their pre-pandemic levels of economic growth while other countries could take years more to heal, according to World Bank projections.”

Vietnam’s New Government Election: The Sooner the Better?

March 23, 2021 | Fulcrum

“There is little reason for the Community Party of Vietnam to repeat its “fast track” procedure to get a new government in place. The Party’s reputation is best served by its playing by the rules.”

Why Biden Sends Warships to the South China Sea, Just as Trump Did

March 22, 2021 | VOA News

“U.S. President Joe Biden is keeping pace with his predecessor in the frequency of American warships sent to Asia, analysts believe, a way to get a foothold in contested seas and routinize warnings aimed at the region’s strongest maritime force, Beijing.”

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