Vietnam's ruling Communist Party on Thursday opened an eight-day congress to name the country's new set of leaders, who will determine the pace of critical economic reforms, the fight against corruption and relations with key trading allies, China and the United States.
Held every five years, the Communist Party of Vietnam's Congress has brought together 1,510 delegates representing the country's 63 provinces, ministries and party organizations. This is the its 12 congress.
It ends Jan. 28 when the names of the general secretary, the prime minister, the president, the chairman of the National Assembly and other top functionaries will be announced. The general secretary is the de facto No. 1 leader of the country, although Vietnam professes a collective leadership through a Politburo that handles day to day affairs and a larger Central Committee that meets twice a year to decide policy.
In his opening remarks, General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, who is expected to retain his post, said "big opportunities have opened up. However, there remain many difficulties and challenges."
He said the country faces four main challenges, including the "danger of being left further behind economically," the degradation of communist ideology, corruption, red tape and wastefulness.
Vietnam is one of the last remaining communist nations in the world, with a party membership of 4.5 million, but like its ideological ally China, the government believes in a quasi-free market economy alongside a strictly controlled society that places several restrictions on its 93 million people.
The gathering comes as China and Vietnam tangle over a $1 billion deepwater oil rig in disputed territory in the South China Sea. Vietnam closely tracks the movement of the oil rig, which in mid-2014 caused the worst diplomatic breakdown between the neighbors in decades, when China parked it for 10 weeks in waters Vietnam considers its own.
This week Vietnam said Beijing had steered the rig, the Haiyang Shiyou 981, into a stretch where jurisdiction is unclear.
The congress is not expected to hold any major surprises. Despite the veil of secrecy that the party pulls around its inner workings, it appeared Wednesday that an internal power struggle had ended before the congress, and the tussle was won by Trong, 71, who is expected to keep his job, albeit for half the five-year term in an apparent compromise with his rival, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.
Over the next week, the congress will review and set national and party policies, and select a Central Committee. On one of the last days of the congress, the new Central Committee will meet to select a Politburo from among its ranks and pick one of them as party general secretary.
The country's three other top leaders — the prime minister, president and National Assembly chairman — are nominated, but their actual selection is done by the National Assembly, which is elected about six months after the Congress.
No media are allowed to cover the proceedings.