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Vietnam: Citizens Must Pay Trillions Of Dong For The Party Congress, Regardless Of Party Membership

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The 8 Party Congress (2020-2025 term), Party Bureau of the Bac Ninh Province People’s Committee, February 2020. Photo Source: baotintuc.vn.

By the most conservative estimates, the amount of money citizens pay to fund Party congresses at just the local level is enough to keep the Government Inspectorate running for more than 25 years. 

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Local party committees throughout the country have begun organizing party congresses to elect “elite” representatives to attend the 13th National Party Congress, an event which occurs every five years. They will elect members to the Party’s Central Committee, from which the Secretariat and the Politburo will be drawn, as well as those positions seen as stepping stones to Vietnam’s top leadership posts. 

However, these strictly party affairs actually draw from the government’s budget, tapping into taxpayer money that could be used for state administration or policies supporting people’s livelihoods. 

This article will summarize a number of counter-intuitive but actual political realities that Vietnamese citizens have faced for decades and will most certainly continue to face if fundamental changes do not occur. 

Total expenditures undisclosed, possibly quite large

Before diving deep into legal issues, we’ll provide a general overview on how budgets are used for Party congresses. Currently, costs associated with organizing Party congresses remain ambiguous. 

The general scope of regulations in the Law on Access to Information excludes transparency regarding the operational finances of political and socio-political groups.

On the other hand, the State Budget Law contains Article 15, which stipulates responsibility for publicizing the state budget.  However, the law only regulates this responsibility in regards to governmental bodies rather than political organizations.

Finding information on the costs of organizing the Party Congress specifically, and the costs of running party organizations more generally, forced me to try my luck with reports from the Ministry of Finance, the state management body directly responsible for the budget and national expense.

Accordingly, we found that the Ministry of Finance established a separate website that was quite easy to navigate and use. However, the detailed budget information provided was not helpful for readers, regardless of what they were looking for. 

Take this example from April 15, 2020:  the Ministry of Finance issued an estimated implementation of the 2020 Quarter I budget, that is, the time period during which finance plans and preparation costs for Party congresses are laid out beginning in May. 

However, the roster of expenditures only lists three accounts: normal costs (the highest, at 343 trillion dong, or US$14.7 billion), interest and debt costs, and salary reform costs. The estimate clearly is of no use to citizens who want to inspect and oversee financial transparency. 

Because of this opacity, I’m forced to look for sources of information at lower levels and with broader scope. Such a manner of research will reduce the ability to generalize regarding the financial “voraciousness” of Party congresses. However, this seems to be the only way to actually get an understanding of such expenditures. 

For example, this past April, official correspondence from the Lang Son Province People’s Committee sent to the Ministry of Finance asked for financial support in organizing the province’s Party congresses for the 2020-2025 term. The amount requested ran upwards of 85 billion dong for these fleeting party events.

More specifically, the provincial People’s Committee requested nearly 10 billion dong for the provincial Party Congress and 66 billion dong for district-level congresses. There were even expenditures totaling more than 10 billion dong to “renovate and repair service projects for the Party Congress at all levels” (these fixed expenses should have been calculated separately according to the law; it is unknown how this is permissible). 

More importantly, it must be remembered that Lang Son is a mountainous and sparsely populated province, with few party members and a cost of living that ranks among the lowest in the country.

In another document that I found from the Quang Tri Township People’s Committee (a district-level body), promulgated on February 28, 2020, the amount of money this committee requested that the provincial Finance Office send to the Central government in Hanoi for approval for its locale reached 5.7 billion dong.

According to the document, money spent to cover the expenses of representatives and guests for the two-day Party Congress at the commune-level alone would amount to almost 800 million dong, propaganda work in service of the congress would be 150 million dong, and money “for direct supplement payment” would be nearly 300 million dong.

Another district, Huong Hoa, requested 2.5 billion dong in funds for district-level Party congresses and 5.1 billion dong for commune-level ones, totaling approximately 7.6 billion dong.

Quang Tri Province has 10 district-level administrative units, Lang Son has 11. The population of Quang Tri is about 600,000 and Lang Son about 800,000; both provinces have among the smallest populations in the country, and both economies perform below the national average.

Therefore, if I use the figure for Lang Son (85 billion dong) as the average for each province, then I can extrapolate that the total costs for organizing Party congresses in all 64 cities and provinces is nearly 5.5 trillion dong, not including the central Party organizations and the National Party Congress. And this is a conservative estimate.

According to the data Luat Khoa Magazine has gathered in previously articles, this amount is enough to keep the Government Inspectorate and the Government’s Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs operating for more than 25 years, with enough left over to fund the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development—one of Vietnam’s pivotal ministries—for up to a year (the 2020 estimate is 5.3 trillion dong.

Laws about the Party’s funding are regulated by the Party’s Central Office.

This is not some kind of sensational headline to attract readers; it’s the truth. 

In the State Budget Law mentioned above, Articles 36 and 38 tell us that both local and central budgets are also responsible for funding the activities of political organizations (i.e. the Communist Party of Vietnam). 

In Items 7 and 8 of Article 8, which covers the state budget’s principles of operation, the operational expenses of sociopolitical-industrial organizations, social organizations, and socio-industrial organizations are handled according to principles of self-sufficiency; the state budget only covers tasks the government assigns. The state budget was created to help political and socio-political organizations balance their operational books. 

That’s the extent of what the State Budget Law says about the Communist Party of Vietnam’s coffers.  

Government Decree 163/2016 provides a bit more detail to the State Budget Law, stating in Article 9 that the government “entrusts the Ministry of Finance to lay out specifics in the management and use of the state budget for Vietnamese Communist Party bodies.”  

The Ministry of Finance’s Circular 40/2017 has regulations on business expenses and conference organizing fees which give us a bit of hope in understanding how the budget is used for Party activities more generally and Party congresses at all levels more specifically, by providing us a legal basis on paper.

But right in the circular, the Ministry of Finance affirms that the use of the budget for “the National Party Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Party congresses at all levels up to the national level, conferences of all bodies under the Vietnamese Communist Party” will be implemented separately according to levels of jurisdiction, but it does not specify which levels. 

So  we’re left to ask, which level or levels of jurisdiction ultimately decide the budget for the Party congresses?

I gradually realized that it was difficult to find any kind of legal basis managing how the budget is used for Vietnamese Communist Party activities.  

The “legal” basis often cited in related documents mostly stems from Decision #99-QĐ/TW, issued May 30, 2012 by the Party Central Secretariat, promulgating regulations on Party business expenses, of Party organizations at the fundamental level and those directly above (“Decision 99”). 

Expenses of all Party congresses up to the 13th National Party Congress this year are regulated by Decision 3989-QĐ/VPTW, issued August 16, 2019 by the Central Party Office. 

As of now, I haven’t been able to find the entire text of Decision 3989, possibly because it was only circulated internally. But this, perhaps, demonstrates best the contradictory manner in which the Vietnamese Communist Party handles budget transparency.

Particularly with Secretariat’s Decision 99, we can see that this document contains regulations that seem to carry more force than even legal documents issued by the National Assembly.

In essence, Party organizations have jurisdiction over establishing and assigning expense estimates, as well as allocating funds and also regulations for balancing the books – all while using the state budget; this decision also regulates tasks by the people’s committees at all levels, as well as other government bodies responsible for ensuring funding for Party activities.

A concrete example in Item 1, Article 5 of Decision 99, states: 

“Based on approved estimates, people’s committees in communes, wards, and townships are responsible for guaranteeing operating expenses at the committee level, must balance the books according to regulations in the State Budget Law, and must report to their committee level and the committee level directly above.”

As such, when speaking of jurisdiction and general scope, documents issued by Party organizations are no less valid than laws passed by the National Assembly or decrees issued by the government.

***

The problems that I’ve expounded on above are not new. They’ve existed in this political system over the whole of Vietnam for more than 40 years. However, when trillions of dong are spent simply for the Communist Party to pick its own board of leaders, then taxpayers all over the country should accelerate discussions on why this phenomenon keeps occurring.  

One budget nurturing two states—how can this be seen as the only way to manage Vietnam’s public finances?

The original Vietnamese version of this article was written by Bui Cong Truc and published on Luat Khoa Tap chi. Translated by Will Nguyen.

Politics

Hong Kong’s Next-door Ally

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Photo courtesy: ADN Chronicles

The Vietnamese Magazine would like to thank the Asia Democracy Chronicles under the Asia Democracy Network for kindly giving us the permission to re-publish this article. 

Why Vietnam strongly supports the former British colony’s fight for freedom

Many Vietnamese citizens hold Hong Kong freedom fighters Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Agnes Chow Ting in high regard. The Vietnamese cheer when a government expresses support for the former British colony’s fight for freedom. And they mourn whenever there is a crackdown—or a pro-democracy activist gets arrested or dies.

Many Vietnamese consider Hong Kong’s young activists (from left to right) Nathan Law, Joshua Wong, and Agnes Chow Ting as icons of democracy.

One might ask, why does Vietnam support Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement? The answer lies in the two country’s shared history and similar political movements.

Bloody battles

Vietnam’s long history of battling China spans more than 2,000 years. It’s fair to say that the country’s history is basically one of surviving next to China. After all, Vietnam was colonized by China for about 1,000 years before it finally gained its independence in 938 AD. Most national heroes worshipped as gods in Vietnam today are those who fought China over the past 200 decades, such as Hai Ba Trung (1st century, fought the Han dynasty), Ba Trieu (3rd century, fought the Eastern Wu dynasty), Ly Nam De (6th century, fought the Liang administration), Phung Hung (8th century, fought the Tang dynasty), Ngo Quyen (10th century, fought the Southern Han dynasty, ended China’s 1,000-year domination over Vietnam), Ly Thuong Kiet (11th century, fought the Song dynasty), Tran Hung Dao (13th century, fought the Yuan dynasty), Le Loi and Nguyen Trai (15th century, fought the Ming empire, ended a 20-year domination over Vietnam), Nguyen Hue and Bui Thi Xuan (18th century, fought the Qing dynasty).

Today, some of the most central and important avenues in major cities of Vietnam are named after these national heroes.

In 1979,  Chinese troops invaded Vietnam, waging a two-month bloody strike along the 600-kilometer border that the two nations share. This was followed by battles along the borders for another 10 years. Not many countries in the world have had such a long and complicated history with China as Vietnam does. As a result, the anti-Chinese sentiment seems to be deeply rooted in Vietnam’s culture.

Fast forward to today: The territorial dispute over the South China Sea—which also involves Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei—is also a factor behind this sentiment. China claims almost all of the area bounded by its nine-dash line. Vietnam claims sovereignty over islands in the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands, as well as an exclusive economic zone that overlaps with China’s claims.

In 1988, China and Vietnam clashed in the South China Sea when China’s warships attacked and killed 64 Vietnamese soldiers and seized the Johnson Reef. Another battle in recent history was in 1974, when South Vietnam’s navy lost some islands in the Paracel Islands to China’s hands after a bloody battle that left 74 casualties and dozens of others injured. Skirmishes still break out between the two countries, something the Vietnamese frown on.

Vietnam’s long history of battling China spans more than 2,000 years. Its ongoing territorial dispute with the latter over the South China Sea also explains the Southeast Asian nation’s anti-China sentiment and partly accounts for its support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

Amid territorial disputes over these islands, Vietnamese people bear the brunt of China’s economic activity in their country. Poor-quality products from China (electronics, clothes, food, etc.) are being sold in Vietnam, and while people complain about shoddy goods from the mainland, they have not found a way to stop the sales of these goods within their borders. More than 91,500 Chinese workers were also living across the country as of January 2020, sometimes making up China towns and clashing with local people.

A Chinese-built section of Hanoi’s new urban railway “has come under fire after reports of deferred deadlines, cost overruns, and dangers to passers-by from falling materials,” reports the Financial Times. Given these trouble at sea, some people even suspect China of wanting to destroy Vietnam’s economy.

Pro-democracy sentiment

Although Vietnam is no longer a communist country and has a market-driven economy, the Communist Party remains the only legal political party. The party requires all Vietnamese to study communism and to worship communist leaders such as Ho Chi Minh, Karl Marx, and Vladimir Lenin.

The society created by the communist regime is marked by corruption and inequality. Yet by an ironic twist of fate, it saved the Vietnamese people from the starvation that the party itself created before it began an economic reform program called Doi Moi in 1986. It abandoned the centrally planned economy model to open up the country to private businesses and foreign investments – a system which it eventually called the “socialist-oriented market economy”. Although Vietnamese people acknowledge that the country has improved significantly economically, severe corruption and deep inequality are among the biggest threats to the regime’s legitimacy. Vietnamese people are well aware that bad governance is the root cause of a slew of major challenges afflicting their lives such as unsafe food, land disputes, low wages, heavy pollution, low-quality education and healthcare, poor infrastructure, wrongful convictions, and a wide range of other human rights abuses.

The state of public governance in Vietnam is similar to China’s – a combination of a communist one-party rule that suppresses human rights and a party-controlled market economy that favors members and sympathizers of the party. It is a system that puts a premium on economic development at the expense of fundamental freedoms.

But while the pro-democracy bias may seem to overlap with the anti-communist sentiment, these are not exactly the same for Vietnamese people. Some of them oppose the communist regime but embrace other authoritarians at the same time. Many Vietnamese admire South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee, Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, and Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who was known for his authoritarian leadership style. This, while they lean toward democratization and support democratic movements such as the ones in Hong Kong, Burma, and Venezuela.

Mass movements

Mass protests introduced a radical change in a repressive regime like Vietnam. More than 30 years after the Vietnam War, joining a mass protest had been taboo in Vietnam, with the attendant risk of going to jail for decades. Few people dared to gather in the streets. Society had been frozen by fear.”

However, reports that China established administrative units in disputed areas in the South China Sea in late 2007 angered the Vietnamese public. Suddenly, mass protests against the Chinese government broke out in the capital city, Hanoi. More protests followed in Ho Chi Minh City in early 2008.

This confused the Communist Party. They had dealt with protests before, but those involved economic issues. These protests were about protecting the country’s territorial integrity, which was at the core of the nationalism that the party had spent its whole history building. Decades of fighting—from the independence struggle with the French before 1945, the Dien Bien Phu victory in 1954, the Vietnam war with the United States, and 10 years of conflict with China starting in 1979—helped build the communist party’s legitimacy.

Eventually, the party cracked down on the protests. Party members could not tolerate any form of social mobilization that could potentially challenge their power.

However, the lamp of freedom had already been lit in the hearts of many Vietnamese. They realized that they must have the right to demonstrate, the right to speech, the right to participate in politics to protect their country, all of which are being suppressed by the Communist Party. For the first time in the country’s history since 1975, Vietnam saw a protest movement in 2011, which lasted for almost three months, from June to August.

In 2014, more anti-China protests flared up across the country, involving not only activists but also workers, farmers, and students, due to China’s deployment of the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig to Vietnamese waters. A similar mass movement happened in June 2018 when the Parliament attempted to pass a special economic zones bill that were seen to open up three strategic areas in Vietnam for China.

In 2014, Vietnamese people took to the streets to protest China’s deployment of an oil rig in the disputed South China Sea.

It is significant to note that most of the mass protests in Vietnam for at least the last decade have been anti-China. All protests have been severely suppressed by the government.

Movie magic

The silver screen has also influenced Vietnam’s perspective on Hong Kong. Hong Kong films have been overwhelmingly popular in Vietnam for decades. These include “The Legend of Condor Heroes” (1994), “Detective Investigation” (1995), “Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils” (1997), “Triumph in the Skies” (2003), among others. It’s not easy to find a Vietnamese over 30 years old that has never watched a Hong Kong film or is unfamiliar with Hong Kong film stars.

Beyond movies, Hong Kong is also a popular tourist destination among Vietnamese, especially during summer and New Year’s holiday.

Until the late 1980s, Hong Kong played the role of a “port of first refuge” for Vietnamese people fleeing political persecutions and abject poverty in their country following the end of the Vietnam War.  In 1989 alone, more than 300 Vietnamese boat people landed in Hong Kong daily. The peak of the migration wave was when Hong Kong became home to 200,000 Vietnamese asylum seekers.

Supporting the democratic movement in Hong Kong came naturally to these refugees, who feel forever indebted to the now beleaguered city.

Hong Kong served as the “port of first refuge” for Vietnamese people fleeing political persecutions after the Vietnam War.

There’s no doubt that Hong Kong pro-democracy movement fits perfectly into the Vietnamese people’s worldview, which has been shaped by the latter’s long and complicated history of dealing with China and communism, as well as nationalist and anti-government fervor.

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Human Rights

Legal Briefing On Democracy Activist Pham Thi Doan Trang’s Arrest

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Photo Courtesy: Pham Doan Trang Facebook.
Photo Courtesy: Pham Doan Trang Facebook.

Pham Thi Doan Trang, a leading democracy activist and a prominent Vietnamese journalist, was arrested on October 6, 2020 in Ho Chi Minh City by Vietnamese police.

Here is a legal briefing updated on the morning of October 9, Vietnam time.

What allegations has the Vietnamese government made against Pham Thi Doan Trang?

Doan Trang is charged with “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under Article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code, and “making, storing, spreading information, materials, items for the purpose of opposing the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under Article 117 of the 2015 Penal Code (revised in 2017).

This is a bit complicated. Why are they charging her with two crimes under two separate penal codes? Here is the context:

The 1999 Penal Code (revised in 2009) was replaced by the 2015 Penal Code. The 2015 Penal Code went into effect on January 1, 2018 after being revised in 2017.

The two crimes that Doan Trang is charged with are almost the same. Here is the text:

Article 88. Conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam

1. Those who commit one of the following acts against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam shall be sentenced to between three and 12 years of imprisonment:

a) Propagating against, distorting and/or defaming the people’s administration;
b) Propagating psychological warfare and spreading fabricated news in order to foment confusion among the people;
c) Making, storing and/or circulating documents and/or cultural products with content against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

2. In the case of committing less serious crimes, the offenders shall be sentenced to between 10 and 20 years of imprisonment. 

Article 117. Making, storing, spreading information, materials, items for the purpose of opposing the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam

1. Any person who for the purpose of opposing the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam commits any of the following acts shall face a penalty of five to 12 years’ imprisonment:

a) Making, storing, spreading information, materials, items that contains distorted information about the people’s government;
b) Making, storing, spreading information, materials, items that contain fabricated information that causes dismay among the people;
c) Making, storing, spreading information, materials, items to cause psychological warfare.

2. An extremely serious case of this offence shall carry a penalty of 10 to 20 years’ imprisonment.

3. Any person who makes preparation for the commitment of this criminal offence shall face a penalty of 1 to 5 years’ imprisonment.

What does this mean?

Here is the date you need to remember: January 1, 2018. That’s the day the new and current penal code took effect.

The only reason Doan Trang is charged with the same crime under both the old and current penal codes is that the government has been “investigating” her activities both before and from January 1, 2018.

Some people suspect that Doan Trang is linked to the Dong Tam case as she authored and distributed two Vietnamese-English reports on Dong Tam (in February and September 2020). Some others think her case is mainly about her role at the Liberal Publishing House, a samizdat publisher founded in February 2019. But the two charges suggest that the police take the case further than that.

What did Doan Trang do before 2018?

Her famous book titled “Politics for the Common People” was published in 2017, and there was a report on the environmental disaster in central Vietnam in 2016. She has been involved in international advocacy work since 2013 and she also played a role in the environmental protest movement in Ha Noi in 2015, as well as other activities

Who is in charge of the investigation?

The Investigation Bureau of the Ha Noi Police. 

Although the arrest was jointly conducted by Ha Noi Police, the Ho Chi Minh City Police, and the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), the lead agency is the local government of Ha Noi.

According to the MPS website, the Investigation Bureau of the Ha Noi Police was the organization that opened the case and filed charges against Doan Trang. The People’s Procuracy of Ha Noi later approved these motions. It is unclear when the motions were filed and approved.

Where is Doan Trang now?

The latest information from the mainstream media is that Doan Trang has been transferred to Ha Noi. Ha Noi Police confirmed the information with the Tuoi Tre newspaper.

Where exactly is Doan Trang being detained? Her family told us that they were informed by Ha Noi Police in the evening of October 8 that she is being detained at Detention Center No. 1 (also known as the new Hoa Lo Prison) in Tu Liem district of Ha Noi.

How long is the pre-trial detention expected to be?

According to Article 173 of the Criminal Procedure Code, as the crime Doan Trang is charged with falls under either the very serious or extremely serious categories of both penal codes, the time limit for detention is four months, and can be extended once for three months.

However, if Doan Trang’s case is categorized as an extremely serious type, the procuracy can extend the detention twice, for four months each time.

The process may be prolonged due to requests for further investigation from the Procuracy or the provincial-level court of Ha Noi. In this case, it could become very complicated as with the case of blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh, who was detained for 22 months before going to trial.

When will Doan Trang be allowed to meet with attorneys and receive family visits?

It’s unclear whether or not Doan Trang will be allowed access to legal representation and to receive family visitation.

According to Article 74 of the Criminal Procedure Code, “the head of the Procuracy is authorized, when confidentiality of investigations into national security breach is vital, to sanction defense counsels’ engagement in legal proceedings after investigations end.”

Articles 88 and 117 fall under the national security chapter of the Penal Code, and therefore access to lawyers is not guaranteed. Even if a lawyer is granted permission to assist Doan Trang, his or her access to the accused, in practice, is not always guaranteed.

Family visitation, according to Article 22 of the Law on Temporary Detention and Custody, depends on the decision of the head of the detention facility. If the investigative agency requests the detention facility not allow the detainee to meet with relatives, the facility head may accept the request, and Doan Trang will not be able to see her family before trial. It’s highly unlikely the facility head would reject such a request by the police.

Here is what the law says:

Article 22. Meetings with relatives, defense counsels and consular access of persons held in custody or temporary detention

[…]
4. The head of a detention facility may not allow a visitor to meet a person held in custody or temporary detention in the following cases, for which he/she shall clearly state the reason:

a. The visitor, who is a relative of the person held in custody or temporary detention, fails to produce his/her personal identity papers or papers proving his/her relationship with such person, or the case-settling agency has requested in writing the detention facility not to let such person meet with his/her relatives for the reason that such a meeting may seriously affect the settlement of the case; the visitor, who is a defense counsel, fails to produce his/her personal identity paper or paper on the defense for the person held in custody or temporary detention;
[…]

If visitation is granted, Doan Trang’s family can visit her once a month, with each visit lasting no longer than one hour.

What’s next?

We don’t know when the investigation will be completed or when Doan Trang will be presented before the court. However, here is what we can expect:

  • The People’s Procuracy of Ha Noi will issue an indictment prosecuting Doan Trang.
  • The trial will be conducted by the People’s Court of Ha Noi, a provincial-level court.
  • After the trial, if Doan Trang appeals, the case will go up to the People’s High Court in Ha Noi, a tribunal higher than provincial level and lower than the supreme level. Usually, political cases stop after the appellate.
  • There is no chance that the case will be brought to the People’s Supreme Court, the highest tribunal of the land, as it requires motions filed by either the prosecutor general or the chief justice, both controlled by the very ruling Communist Party that wants to silence critics to protect their monopoly.

Contact Trinh Huu Long: long.trinh@liv.ngo.

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News

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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