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The conclusion of the 13th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam, which was cut short due to a recent COVID-19 outbreak, signals an unstable international image as the Central Committee voted to make Nguyễn Phú Trọng the Secretary-General for a third term. His appointment indicates to the international community that Vietnam is still unwilling to fully embrace democracy despite its economic success.

After an unprecedented 2020, the election was nothing short of groundbreaking. The Central Committee is the highest governing body of the Communist Party of Vietnam that is responsible for electing members of the Politburo and the presidency, premiership, and national assembly chair. Mr. Trọng was granted not one, but two exemptions. The mandatory retirement age in Vietnam is 65. Mr. Trọng is now 77, who also suffered from a stroke last year, so his health is also in question. Being that this is going to be his third term, despite being only allowed to serve two terms, some compromises were made because the Committee was unable to promote any other candidate.

Other candidates for the presidency, premiership, and national assembly chair, also received exemptions to some degree. Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc was granted an age exemption since he is 67. What is unfortunate is that there are no southerners and women in leadership positions.

Not only are there no women in positions of leadership, but the 13th Committee also has one less female as a member compared to the last term. For ethnic minorities, there are 13 representatives, 4 fewer members than before. There is however an increase in membership for career politicians who are holding leadership positions in the provinces, ministries, and related departments. This could indicate a further centralization of power among the current ruling elite.

A week prior to the 13th National Congress, the government jailed three independent journalists and each received ten-year sentences for anti-state propaganda. Many critics of the government said that these accusations are baseless. This is not the first account in which the government has instituted a crackdown. The government is very keen on monitoring social media activities, especially on Facebook, to ensure critical comments and criticisms cannot surface. Under the previous Trump administration, Vietnam was able to suppress speech and gatherings free of Western criticisms.

Factoring all the changes and circumstances, the next five years will be challenging for Vietnam on the international stage. Critics of the Communist Party point to the 13th Congress as Vietnam’s step to becoming more authoritarian. Such developments could hinder Vietnam’s gradual positive image as a growing middle-power.

Moreover, the new leadership will need to manage its relationship with the Biden administration, especially when Vietnam’s human rights and environmental record are in question. The European Union also criticized Vietnam for such actions on human rights, although they recently entered into a trade agreement amidst a shift to look for other trading partners other than China. And Vietnam will need to balance its relationship with China alongside that of the United States. Vietnam will need America’s help as it confronts China over maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

Despite these potential challenges, Vietnam is standing on the verge of becoming a more dependable international partner for years to come. The pandemic halted economic activity worldwide. Despite this, Vietnam recorded almost a 3% economic growth rate. From an international leadership standpoint, the Lowy Institute ranks Vietnam second, right behind New Zealand, due to their success in managing the pandemic. Vietnam also assumed the chair of ASEAN as well as became a unanimous non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2020. Vietnam is growing in confidence and it believes it can be a trusted and reliable partner.

At the start of the 13th National Congress, Secretary-General Trọng emphasized Vietnam’s exceptional growth and development. If Vietnam wants to keep on its current path, it needs to balance between stability and development, conservativism and reform, sovereignty and global integration. Everything is going to the advantage of Vietnam; its only downfall will be its domestic management.

I'm a recent graduate at Seton Hall University with a Bachelor of Science in Diplomacy and International Relations minoring in Asian Studies and Economics. I'm interested in Vietnam affairs as well as UN humanitarian development.