There’s been a spate of high-profile elections in south-east Asia and thereabouts recently that have deservedly gained plenty of attention.

Most prominently have been the spectacular victory by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in Myanmar and the decisive victory by the Democratic Progressive Party in winning both the presidency (for the third time) and control of the legislature (for the first time) in Taiwan in early January.

Just as important in their own way, if less visible, has been the changing of the guard, or at least some of it, in Asia’s two “other” single-party communist dictatorships, Vietnam and Laos, during their once-every-five-year party congresses.

The political environment in Vietnam in particular is very important to Australia, both in terms of the country’s ongoing economic modernisation and growth, as well as the potential part it has to play in the developing non-Chinese defence alliance. This is anchored by the US, Japan and Australia and includes the Philippines and South Korea as well as potentially Taiwan and Vietnam and other south-east Asian nations.

With 93 million people, Vietnam is behind only Indonesia in terms of population and therefore economic potential. It is also, importantly, a founding member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.

By and large, both Vietnam and Laos follow the model set out by the former Soviet Union and later adopted by China’s Communist Party. A Central Committee is selected in an opaque backroom process, which then votes for a Politburo, which effectively runs the country.

Vietnam’s system still hews much closer to the collective decision-making that Deng Xiaoping had planned for China but which that country’s latest leader, Xi Jinping, has all but thrown out as he grabbed the top three spots in China’ hierarchy: head of the party, the military and the government in one fell swoop between November 2012 and March 2013.

In Vietnam, the party secretary, premier, president and head of public security are held by different people and will continue to be so — albeit by at least two different leaders after the congress that concluded on January 28.

Surprising to some neophyte observers in the West, former premier Nguyen Tan Dung failed in his bid to be elevated to the party secretary’s job. He narrowly survived the Vietnamese Communist Party’s Central Committee’s first ever no-confidence vote in 2013. The pro-business Dung — although not necessarily pro-reform as characterised by some observers — was widely seen as corrupt by dint of his family’s accumulation of extraordinary wealth. His daughter, Nguyen Thanh Phuong, is known as The Princess (this is not a compliment), and his son-in-law gained the franchise to bring McDonald’s into Vietnam. Vietnam has princelings too, although Dung’s family are more openly rapacious than most.

Perhaps even more pointedly, Dung is from the south of the country and as yet no official from the south has yet ascended to the top job — despite it now being 50 years since Vietnam was unified following what the locals call the American War.

There are certainly some parallels between Dung and disgraced Chinese politburo member Bo Xilai; both openly campaigned for top jobs in the party, and both have been rubbed out. It is unlikely, people familiar with the way of the Vietnamese Party have suggested, that Dung will face either the party’s disciplinary system or the courts — although nothing is ever certain — but those who have clung to his coattails and profited from their connections would be felling more than a little nervous by now.

Dung’s failed big for the top has left Nguyen Phu Trong, 72. in for another term as party chief, a job he appeared to take with reluctance.

“My age is high, health is limited, knowledge is limited. I asked to step down, but because of the responsibility assigned by the party I have to perform my duty,” he said

But there is fresh blood with Nguyen Xuan Phuc — who has impressed diplomats over the years as greyer than Dung but nonetheless a solid hand — the country’s premier-in-waiting (all positions need to be ratified by the national assembly), and Tran Dai Quang, former public security minister and Vietnam’s new president. Of interest, too, is the planned appointment of Nguyen Kim Ngan as chairman of the National Assembly, the other key party position. She has the rare distinction of being the first woman in such a senior position in the country.

Overall there are few signs that Vietnam will continue on its path of steady, rather than hyper-driven, modernisation, hopefully avoiding the dreadful debt bubbles that are casting such a cloud over China’s economy. The country, while it has a deep-seated loathing of China, is also likely to continue its canny diplomatic three-step between China, Russia and, increasingly, the United States (no better way to get under Beijing’s skin).

In the meantime, there’s little doubt that Australia is alive to the increasingly complex vagaries of regional alliances. With no fanfare, Australia’s HMAS Darwin made a a “goodwill” visit to Thailand and held naval exercises with Thailand’s military junta, a group initially excoriated by the Coalition government the day it executed its coup d’etat on May 22, 2014. Since then, realpolitik has gradually taken charge. Thailand is an important cog in the US-led alliance in the Pacific and since the coup the junta has been duchessed with some fervour by Beijing in the face of continuing opprobrium by the US, which has overplayed its hand. Australia appears to be playing a useful role in settling things down.

It will be interesting to see if Canberra and its Joint Chiefs play a similar role with Vietnam, and it’s worth noting that, very much under the radar, then public security minster Quang was one of the very last international leaders to pay a visit to Tony Abbott in Australia before he was taken out by Malcolm Turnbull. The regional defence game is very much afoot.

Peter Fray

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