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May 3, 2019 | 20:34 GMT

3 mins read

Vietnam: The President's Health -- and the Country's -- Could Be in Trouble

(Stratfor)
The Big Picture

Over the past decade, Vietnam has become one of Southeast Asia's most dynamic emerging economies thanks to its large and inexpensive labor pool, favorable investment policy and foreign relations, and stable political environment. But with the country heading to a leadership transition in 2021, new uncertainties in the Vietnamese political system could jeopardize its hard-won economic successes.

What Happened

Vietnamese President and Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong has still not made a public appearence after rumors emerged that he was in precarious health two weeks ago. On May 3, Trong missed a major ceremony attended by other top government officials to pay tribute to the late Vietnamese President Gen. Le Duc Anh. Trong, who also heads the state funeral organizing committee, had been expected to attend the event — fueling speculation regarding the severity of his illness.

Why It Matters 

Uncertainty over the health of Vietnam's supreme leader also risks creating uncertainty in the country's political landscape, especially given the unusual strength of Trong's position in the political system. In October 2018, Trong took on the unprecedented double role of both state and party leader. This consolidation of the country's longtime collective leadership has since helped stablize Vietnamese politics by calming intraparty rivalries as the Communist Party heads into a leadership transition in 2021 (when Trong is due to retire).

Trong's possible incapacitation or death could produce renewed political infighting, making the political transition not previously foreseen until 2021 far more turbulent.

Should he still be able to govern to some extent, his dual role might be split up and handed off to trusted allies. But such a shift is unlikely to cause a sharp change in policy direction in the short term due to Trong's relative success in sidelining political opponents and building a general party consensus on economic and foreign policy. 

However, his possible incapacitation or death could produce renewed political infighting — making the political transition not previously foreseen until 2021 far more turbulent. This could in turn disrupt Trong's pragmatic outreach to China, as well as his plans to gradually privatize state-owned enterprises in the country. Should these challenges escalate into a serious succession crisis, it could also jeapardize — at least temporarily — Vietnam's investment climate by undermining the country's appeal at a time when regional competition to be the most business-friendly destination is heating up.

Background

Concerns over Trong's health first emerged when the 75-year-old leader was reportedly rushed to the hospital on April 14. Posts on social media claimed he had everything from the flu to a stroke, and that he had been flown to Japan for treatment. His failure to meet visiting U.S. senators on April 20, followed by his noted absence at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on April 25, have since spurred more rumors — all of which could be put to rest, should Trong address the next meeting of the Vietnamese Central Committee in May, or respond to U.S. President Donald Trump's invitation to visit the United States.

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