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  • Vietnam in 2019:A Return to Familiar Patterns
  • Paul Schuler (bio) and Mai Truong (bio)

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While Vietnam is often proclaimed to be at a "crossroads", in retrospect the period between 2014 and 2016 was genuinely an inflection point. Given heightened anxiety over Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and a desire to join the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), Vietnam signalled a greater desire to side with the United States than ever before. This led to a flurry of high-profile visits of Vietnamese leaders to the United States as well as an unprecedented agreement to allow independent trade unions in exchange for TPP membership.1 It also led to a reduction in political repression.

With President Donald Trump's decision in 2017 to pull out of the TPP, the dynamics have changed. Nearly three years after that decision, Vietnam has returned to its previous political and foreign policy orientations. As this chapter will discuss, the top contenders for power have returned to the previous hedging strategy of maintaining friendly ties with the United States while avoiding antagonizing China. The most likely successors to General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong have maintained a generally balanced approach to political reforms and alignment with the United States. In short, it does not appear that there will be an elite-led liberalization on the horizon. If there is a question about significant elite-led political reforms in Vietnam, it is whether it is going to further centralize power in the hands of the party. On this question, we also believe that Vietnam is likely to revert to its previous collective-leadership pattern.

Although party-led political reform is largely off the table, this does not mean social pressures that could possibly force change from the outside have remained static. A number of important developments continue to challenge the [End Page 393] regime. On the South China Sea, Vietnam's relationship with China continues to represent a volatile mobilizing issue for collective action. The environment also remains a potent social concern. Additionally, social media continues to inject a new dynamic into these issues, providing both the opportunity for citizens to challenge the regime but at the same time allowing the regime to respond more quickly and shift blame to local governments.

In addition to these social issues, the structure of Vietnam's economy also continues to change in important ways that provide opportunities and challenges for the regime. Foreign direct investment surged in the wake of US trade disputes with China, and economic growth remains robust. At the same time, the trade wars may not have had a universally beneficial effect. In particular, farmers, who rely more heavily on the Chinese market than on the United States, have suffered a decline in imports from China, damaging their profits.2 Additionally, although the tragedy involving thirty-nine Vietnamese citizens in the United Kingdom has complex roots, it has brought attention to potential differences in economic conditions outside Vietnam's major industrial areas. A final important economic change is the continued rise of large domestic conglomerates, particularly Vingroup, which has generated increased attention, both positive and negative, from political elites and civil society.

This chapter reviews each of these developments. It focuses first on elite politics in the wake of the lost opportunity of 2015 and 2016. It then turns to the major issues inflaming public opinion, including the South China Sea and the environment. Finally, the chapter focuses on the structure of Vietnam's economy and the degree to which the rising tide continues to lift all boats. In particular, it will look at whether the trade war and Vietnam's growth have disproportionately impacted urban versus rural areas. The overarching message from this review is that while elite politics and management of dissent has returned to the pre-TPP equilibrium, social and economic changes may challenge that pattern.

Politics: A Return to Familiar Patterns

Prior to the 2016 Party Congress, political change seemed a real possibility. In part because of Chinese pressure in the South China Sea, Vietnam was more firmly committed than ever to joining the TPP. The greater degree of alignment towards the United...


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