Hanoi’s notorious traffic was its usual bedlam Wednesday morning, as swirling eddies of motorbikes and taxis raced past harried commuters with psychotic abandon.
But away from the orderly anarchy, one man in the sprawling Vietnamese capital was waking up to unparalleled control: Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, who was confirmed by the Southeast Asian nation’s rubberstamp parliament as also its new President late Tuesday, making him the first person to hold both titles since founding father Ho Chi Minh in the 1960s.
“Many heavy tasks and duties are waiting ahead of us,” Trong told his confirmation hearing, vowing to be “absolutely loyal to the nation, people and the constitution.”
The 74-year-old Trong’s ascent — confirmed by 99.8% of lawmakers, with only one token dissenter — follows the death last month of President Tran Dai Quang and adds to the recent resurgence of strongman politics across the globe. It also undercuts Vietnam’s convention of consensus leadership. Of the traditional “four-pillar” top positions designed to diffuse power, Trong now holds half. (The remaining two are the posts of National Assembly chair and prime minister.)
Trong’s confirmation also raises questions regarding the U.S. role in Southeast Asia given his close ties with China’s communist leaders, and Washington’s perceived retreat from the trade-reliant region under the “America First” policy of President Donald Trump. “Standing up to China is even more difficult for Vietnam under Trump than it has been,” says Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy.
Nevertheless, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Daniel Kritenbrink was quick to congratulate the silver-haired Trong on his appointment. “We look forward to continuing to work closely with President Trong on further strengthening and expanding the U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership,” he said in a statement.
Trong’s merging of the two key leadership roles has raised comparisons with China’s strongman leader Xi Jinping, who late last year engineered the removal of presidential term limits, effectively allowing him to rule for life.
Like Xi, Trong has mercilessly pursued a sweeping anticorruption campaign, which has netted top figures from business, the military and within the paramount Communist Party.
But unlike Xi, who held various provincial administration jobs across China, Trong has little practical governing experience; prior to his confirmation, Trong’s main role was as the party’s chief ideologue. A Hanoi native, he was elected to the all-powerful Politburo in 1997, served as the party’s chief in Hanoi and was National Assembly chairman before gaining the post of general secretary in 2011. He was elected to a second five-year term in 2016 after facing down influential Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who was subsequently forced out of government.
While Dung was perceived as friendly with the West, Trong has instead prioritized better ties with Beijing, sending young cadres over to China for exchange programs. This can be, of course, problematic given the fervent Sinophobia that grips Vietnamese society following thousands of years of conquest and acrimony. Vietnam last fought a border war with China in 1979.
Anti-China protests flare up regularly across the 95 million-strong nation, despite heavy penalties for participants, most recently against plans for 99-year lease special economic zones (SEZs) likely to be dominated by China that opponents saw as selling Vietnamese sovereignty.
“Antipathy toward China is so extreme because it goes to the heart of Vietnamese identity,” says William Nguyen, a Yale graduate from Texas who was arrested at a protest against the SEZs and a draconian new cybersecurity law in Ho Chi Minh City on June 10 and subsequently deported.
This would seem to make Vietnam a natural partner in Washington’s efforts to counter China’s rise, despite the former foes’ own turbulent history. Earlier this month, White House National Security Adviser Gen. Jim Mattis condemned Beijing’s “predatory economic behavior” against smaller nations while en route to Vietnam for an official visit. “We remain highly concerned with continued militarization of features in the South China Sea,” he said on a flight to Ho Chi Minh City, according to AFP.
Vietnam has been among the strongest in standing up to China’s militarization of rocks and reefs in the strategic waterway, through which passes almost a third of all maritime trade, worth $5.3 trillion annually. Both nations have competing claims on resource-rich island chains.
However, Trump’s decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade group reenforced Vietnam’s reliance on Beijing. Bilateral trade between China and Vietnam is set to reach $100 billion this year, according to Vietnamese state media, with Vietnam experiencing a $22.76 billion trade deficit in 2017.
With Vietnam increasingly under China’s orbit, human rights are also unlikely to improve under Trong, who analysts say sees China’s authoritarian governance as a model to be replicated. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 119 people were in jail as of January for political crimes. A separate investigation by news wire AFP found more than 55 people had been jailed this year alone. Last week, dissident blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, known as “Mother Mushroom,” was deported to the U.S. after two years in prison.
“Before he was the president he was already the most powerful man in Vietnam and under his leadership many people were sent to jail,” says activist musician Mai Khoi, who won the 2018 Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent. “How can I think now he will give us more freedom?”
Correction, Oct. 24:
The original version of this story misstated Jim Mattis’ role in the Trump Administration. He is the Secretary of Defense, not the National Security Advisor.