By Lewis Stern
Previous posts at cogitASIA have focused on key ministers in the civilian leadership of Vietnam’s cabinet and the future governance challenges for the Vietnamese Communist Party, yet there were also important developments in Vietnam’s military leadership this year. The January 2011 11th National Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VNCP) elected 19 military officials to the Central Committee, including Deputy Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh, and re-elected incumbent Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh to the Politburo. Re-election of Thanh, assuring his continued tenure as defense chief for a second term, represents the selection of the chief architect of Vietnam’s military modernization, providing a highest level stamp on continued revitalization. But the appointment of Deputy Defense Minister Vinh to the Central Committee is also a significant indicator that the Vietnam People’s Army (PAVN) intends to continue its program of modernization and offer a career path for geostrategically savvy officers.
For the most part, the senior military officers currently elected to the Central Committee are military leaders who came of age during a transitional moment in the PAVN’s history, survived the institutional downsizing that followed the embarrassment of the withdrawal from Cambodia, and endured a prolonged period during which PAVN was essentially a military without a mission.
What does this new military leadership say about the trajectory of the PAVN and the emergence of a leadership that can drag the Vietnamese army into the 21st century? Lt. General Nguyen Chi Vinh’s rise is a highly useful reference in gauging this trend.
Deputy Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh has been a very public voice since the December 2009 rollout of the Defense Ministry’s White Paper. Throughout Vietnam’s tenure as ASEAN Chair, Lieutenant General Vinh was called upon to explain defense policy, enhanced defense engagement with the U.S., and Vietnamese policy regarding the South China Sea. In fact, from December 2009 through late 2010, Vinh’s name seemed to appear in major Vietnamese newspapers and journals on an almost continuous basis, offering comments on U.S.-Vietnamese relations, on Sino-Vietnamese ties, on the South China Sea conflict, and on Vietnam’s commitment to ASEAN’s development as a major voice in regional defense and security issues.
It’s worth pausing to assess his career trajectory in the Ministry of National Defense (MND). Vinh, born in 1957 and commissioned as a communications officer in 1979, worked for over twenty years in the MND’s Research Department, the military intelligence agency. By 1995 he was the Director General of General Department 2 prior to assuming the role of Vice Minister, making him PAVN’s defense intelligence chief. Vinh defended his doctoral thesis for a PhD in International Relations in 2003 at a Russian college, and in December 2004 was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general. In February 2009 he became Deputy Minister of Defense. Subsequently the State Academic Credentials Council awarded him the rank of Assistant Professor of International Relations in 2010.
Deputy Minister Vinh serves as an example of a younger generation of PAVN leaders who saw neighboring armies enter into lucrative relationships with foreign partners that yielded world class training, interoperability, and opportunities for orderly modernization through foreign military sales programs, national level programs aimed at capability development (SAR, HADR, PKO) as the VPA’s own capabilities dwindled and became less relevant to the challenges facing the region in the late 1990s-early 2000s.
Vinh’s role throughout Hanoi’s tenure as ASEAN chair was to push the notion that the ADMM-Plus enhanced the legitimacy of ASEAN as a regional cooperative bloc, promoted the engagement of the U.S. and Russia in East Asia, and provided a platform for practical cooperation between ASEAN and its partners on key security issues, especially on non-traditional and transnational challenges.
What appears to be emerging in Vietnam is a career path for policy-focused officers. The PAVN has run out of combat tested senior officers. Veterans of the Vietnam War (the “American War,” from the old PAVN perspective) and senior officers who served on the northern border or in the Cambodian conflict have aged out of the service; since the late 1990s the PAVN has had a more rigorously and systematically enforced retirement system and age cap for senior service. Deputy Minister of Defense Nguyen Chi Vinh’s election to the Central Committee represented the elevation of a strategic thinker, a new type of leader, a “policy general,” so to speak, whose career was shaped by the need for senior defense leaders steeped in contemporary geo-political issues.
Dr. Lewis M. Stern is a retired OSD official and an adjunct Professor at Mary Baldwin University.