Vietnam Shifts Leaders, Keeps Key Economic Policies in Place
Pham Minh Chinh. (Photographer: Minh Hoang/AP Photo)

Vietnam Shifts Leaders, Keeps Key Economic Policies in Place

Vietnam’s National Assembly on Monday elected a little-known official to be the country’s next prime minister, tasked with reviving the economy in the wake of the pandemic while navigating growing U.S.-China tensions.

Pham Minh Chinh, 63, who rose through the ranks of Vietnam’s national security apparatus and has a PhD in law, was the only candidate for prime minister put forward by the Politburo. He also served on a powerful anti-corruption steering committee.

Chinh will be the main point person for Vietnam’s interactions with the world even though other members of Vietnam’s Communist Party are better known and seen as more powerful. General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, 76, was re-elected to a rare third term on Jan. 31 by the National Party Congress during the once-in-five-year leadership transition wrapping up this week.

Vietnam Shifts Leaders, Keeps Key Economic Policies in Place

Former Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, 66, was elected president earlier on Monday, allowing him to stay among the country’s top leaders. Vuong Dinh Hue, 64, a former minister of finance and ex-deputy prime minister, was approved as chairman of the National Assembly -- one of the four top positions in the government -- last week.

In a speech before parliament, Chinh said his administration will “drastically and persistently push for anti-corruption” measures while “continuing with economic reforms, developing the digital economy and focusing on solving difficulties for industries and businesses.”

Vietnam has a collective “four pillar” leadership structure made up of general secretary, prime minister, president and chair of the National Assembly, as the parliament is known. The leaders govern in consultation with the 18-member politburo with the prime minister holding significant influence over project funding and detailed policy implementation.

Chinh was first secretary at Vietnam’s embassy in Romania in 1989 and became deputy public security minister in 2010. He is also a member of the country’s Central Steering Committee for Anti-Corruption led by Trong.

The new prime minister was party chief of the northeastern coastal province of Quang Ninh, home to the World Heritage Site Ha Long Bay.

Analysts do not expect Chinh and the other leaders to veer from Vietnam’s long-held policies, including further opening its markets to the global economy and balancing relations with its powerful neighbor China and the U.S.

Chinh said Vietnam will “actively integrate into the international community” while the nation will also “resolutely and persistently defend its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Vietnam increasingly is sparring with China in the South China Sea. China claims more than 80% of the sea as its territory.

The new prime minister will also grapple with economic reforms required by new trade deals and the need to address bottlenecks in the manufacturing sector with improved infrastructure, including ensuring reliable energy, said Peter Mumford, Southeast & South Asia practice head at risk consultancy Eurasia Group. The government will also be pressed to deal with pollution that increasingly concerns the nation’s growing middle class.

Key priorities will include working closely with the Biden administration to resolve tensions around trade and Vietnam’s currency, Mumford said.

The party’s five-year plan continues to endorse “socialism with a market orientation.” Hanoi has signed more than a dozen free trade agreements in recent years.

The latest blueprint calls for average economic growth of 6.5%-7% during 2021-2025, versus 5.9% the previous five years and increasing per capita GDP to $4,700-$5,000 by 2025, from $2,750 at the end of 2020.

The leadership selection process occurs in secret and involves political compromises for party unity.

“You don’t have people vying for prime minister who have alternative economic policies,” said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “His job is to implement policies that have already been well thought out.”

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