While there are indications that the Vietnamese government is serious about tackling corruption even in the top ranks of its military, obstacles remain in the fight to eradicate graft. This poses questions about Vietnam’s ability to effectively handle future security threats.
On 18 April 2022, five generals and two other senior officers of the Vietnam Coast Guard (VCG) were arrested by the Criminal Investigation Agency under the Ministry of National Defence pending investigations of different corruption charges, including embezzlement. Those arrested include Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Son (former VCG Commander), Lieutenant General Hoang Van Dong (former VCG Political Commissar), Major General Doan Bao Quyet (former VCG Deputy Political Commissar), Major General Pham Kim Hau (former VCG Deputy Commander and Chief of Staff), and Major General Bui Trung Dung (former VCG Deputy Commander).
This is the latest in a series of recent corruption scandals that have led to the fall of dozens of senior officers in Vietnam’s military and public security forces. In the military alone, at least 20 generals have been disciplined or prosecuted since 2016. The highest-ranking officer that has been prosecuted is Nguyen Van Hien, a former navy commander and deputy defence minister. Hien was sentenced to three and a half years in prison in late 2020 for allowing three military-owned plots of land in Ho Chi Minh City to be illegally transferred to private investors, causing losses of nearly US$40 million to the state.
The arrest of the five VCG generals and the disciplining of three generals at the Military Medical University who were implicated in the Viet A corruption scandal a few weeks ago are further feathers in the political caps of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) and General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, who since 2016 have conducted a high-profile graft-busting campaign. However, what has been exposed so far may only be the tip of the iceberg, as corruption in the military, believed to be widespread and deep-rooted, is generally difficult to detect and eradicate.
The Vietnamese military is involved in a wide range of commercial activities, facilitated by its dominant role in Vietnamese politics. This sometimes causes civilian authorities to defer to military officials’ requests, including for resources and preferential treatments, which creates opportunities for corruption to thrive. The existence of military-owned businesses, both genuine ones and front companies set up to support intelligence gathering and operational purposes, also makes rent-seeking activities by corrupt individuals difficult to detect due to the blurred distinction between commercial and defence-related activities.
As information about the military’s activities is normally treated as sensitive or confidential, this provides a layer of protection for corrupt military officials. For example, although some of Vietnam’s arms deals are believed to involve kickbacks for the generals from suppliers, there have been no official investigations into such allegations.
The military’s primary mission is to defend the nation against foreign aggressors, but it also plays an important role in safeguarding the ruling regime. This makes dealing with corruption in the military a sensitive issue for the CPV, as it involves a delicate balancing act between upholding discipline and integrity within the armed forces and maintaining the top brass’s loyalty to the Party. Although the Party has claimed that there is no ‘no-go zone’ in its fight against corruption, its need for military loyalty may have discouraged the Party from thoroughly addressing corruption within the military, especially where top officers are involved.
Corruption diverts much needed resources from investments into Vietnam’s military modernisation efforts, which have slowed since 2016. Corruption also decays officers’ and the rank-and-file’s morale and undermines their combat readiness. Some alleged corrupt practices, such as stealing fuel from military vessels and misreporting patrol routines, even expose the country to potential security threats, especially in the context of the intensifying South China Sea dispute and China’s frequent incursions into Vietnamese waters.
Now facing rampant corruption, its ability to deal with potential military and security threats might be seriously challenged.
Corruption is also an invisible enemy that can eliminate even the most experienced and capable military leaders, threatening to weaken the military’s overall command capability. Commenting on the arrest of the five VCG generals, one Facebook user bitterly remarked, ‘Ukraine announced it had killed eight Russian generals, and Vietnam has also had five of its generals eliminated, even without any fighting.’
The prosecution of the VCG generals indicates that the anti-corruption campaign will likely continue in the coming years, and more high-profile corruption cases involving military officials can be expected. However, without addressing the root causes of corruption, it is unlikely that corruption in the military will abate.
Apart from improving civilian oversight on military spending, stopping the military from engaging in profit-seeking commercial activities, and raising the incomes of military personnel, it is imperative for Vietnam to eradicate the practice of ‘power trading’ in the military. While there has been no official investigation, the practice of paying bribes to get promoted is known to be a common one in both civilian government organisations and the armed forces. Once they are promoted, the bribers have to look for ways to recoup their ‘investment’, thus entrenching and worsening the initial corruption. It is probably not a coincidence that corruption in the military appears to have escalated since 2006, when the number of military generals started to jump sharply. In 1975, when the Vietnam War ended, the Vietnamese army had only 36 generals, but by 2018, peace-time Vietnam had 415 military officers holding general ranks.
The Vietnamese army prides itself on having defeated three major powers. These feats were achieved when corruption was almost non-existent among its ranks. Now facing rampant corruption, its ability to deal with potential military and security threats might be seriously challenged. Corruption has now emerged as the worst enemy of the Vietnamese military, against which a clear victory remains elusive.
Le Hong Hiep is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Vietnam Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.