Hanoi's old fox emerges from shadows

To some who know him, Nguyen Chi Vinh is Vietnam's shrewdest strategic thinker. Others are blunter. The deputy defence minister, they say, is the wiliest of old foxes.

Either way it is no mean feat in a nation that, while it may lack the technocratic classes of its neighbours, is full of strategic obsessives. Even schoolchildren are steeped in the history and tactics of victories against much larger foes; of ancient battles against Chinese occupiers and Vietnam's wars of the 20th century - against French colonialists, the Americans, the Khmer Rouge and then the Chinese (again).

Senior Lieutenant General Vinh's battlefield, however, is international relations - and the shifting sands of a region adapting to China's rise. In recent years he has emerged from the shadows of years within Vietnam's military-intelligence apparatus to work its military diplomacy, something new for one of the region's most secretive institutions.

For Hanoi, that means simultaneously attempting to improve relations with both China and the US, and other large powers, all the while shoring up Vietnam's sovereign claims in the intensifying South China Sea dispute.

Two years ago he shuttled back and forth across the region to bring to fruition the first meeting of Southeast Asian defence ministers with their peers from major regional powers, including China, the US and Russia - a formal gathering that will take place every three years. It is a possible first step in a meaningful security arrangement to help keep peace in a dangerous region.

More recently, Vinh has kept up the pace, meeting dozens of regional military officials and foreign envoys. Earlier this month he helped host the visit of US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta to meet his boss, Vietnam's Defence Minister Lieutenant General Phung Quang Thanh. Last week he met China's ambassador to Vietnam, Kong Xuanyou, in a closed door meeting in Vietnam.

Even as the two sides work to boost co-operation, a war of words continues over rival South China Sea claims. Recent days saw both Chinese and Vietnamese officials trade protests over the issue.

The nuances behind Vinh's handling of Vietnam's increasingly complex internationalism were evident in a rare interview with the Sunday Morning Post just ahead of Panetta's visit, which started with a historic return to the highly strategic port of Cam Ranh Bay. Vinh put Panetta's mission in the context of a cautious and gradual improvement in ties between the former enemies and appeared far more eager to talk up military links with Beijing, despite the tensions of recent years.

'Both countries are aware that the increase in defence relations can prevent confrontation and conflict,' he said, after saying that military ties had boosted broader Sino-Vietnamese ties.

He later spoke of a 'very determined' desire to defend sovereignty to buttress an 'equal relationship'.

At other times he has been decidedly more barbed. Two years ago he warned that Vietnam had all 'capabilities' to defend itself, while at a conference in Singapore last year, soon after Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie issued a 'solemn pledge' on China's peaceful intentions, Vinh warned that if any party escalated the dispute 'we would not just stand back and watch'.

Not surprisingly, Vinh-watching is now a growth industry among regional envoys and military analysts as they try to figure out exactly where he stands. Does he tilt more towards China or more towards the US?

With a steady gaze and a slightly sad expression, his features give little away. He speaks in precise, carefully phrased sentences and will cunningly answer a particularly curly question with a silence and a slight nod. A constant flow of cigarettes point to tensions behind his outward calm. Vinh is also known to relax with long conversations over whisky.

One foreign envoy said that Vinh, far from being the dour apparatchik of old, was a deep thinker, quite prepared to challenge conventional wisdom with logic rather than dogma. Shrewd, he was able to be genial, clever and engaging while giving little away.

A secret US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks addresses questions about Vinh's rise and views.

Penned by then-US ambassador to Hanoi Michael Michalak in early 2010, it notes Vinh taking a benign view of China's rise during discussions with visiting Americans, noting that Beijing could be a force for regional stability. But it adds: 'Vinh expressly rejected China's expansive claims in the South China Sea and, when pressed, insisted that Vietnam 'knows how to fight and win' and would 'do what is necessary to safeguard its territory'.

'If Vinh is China's shill, he hides it well,' it says in closing.

The issue of which way he might tilt obscures one vital point, however. As one foreign envoy put it: 'He exudes authority and professionalism and is always looking to promote and defend Vietnam's national interests.'

The mystique that has built up around Vinh stems, in part, from history. The 55-year-old is linked to the earliest days of Vietnam's communist revolution through his late father, General Nguyen Chi Thanh.

Thanh was Vietnam's second-ever general, after the founding father of the country's military, General Vo Nguyen Giap. In command of communist forces in American-backed South Vietnam, Thanh constantly pushed for all-out engagement against the US as it built up its forces in the mid-1960s - a drive that pitted him against a more cautious Giap and other leading political cadres in Hanoi.

After an intense internal debate, Thanh, from tough peasant stock, won approval to launch across the south what would become the Tet Offensive of 1968 - an event which modern historians have come to describe as a major military defeat for Hanoi but a political victory that changed the course of the war, sapping US will. Thanh, however, never lived to see it, dying of a heart attack in 1967.

While that history hangs heavily, much of the speculation surrounding Vinh stems from his years of work in military intelligence, specifically the feared General Department Two - a section that has been the subject of considerable internal intrigue within Vietnam's tight political circles.

General Giap, now 102 and the oldest party elder, has been among those who have questioned its back-room power, lack of accountability and motivations, raising the prospect of a historic family feud.

While Vinh no longer heads the section - leading some to question quite how powerful he remains - he was formally promoted to the party's Central Committee last year. That move seemed to formalise his considerable clout, and may put him in the running for higher office.

Diplomats and other analysts believe that due to his background in intelligence, rather than combat, he is unlikely to be a future defence minister. But other political-military roles may beckon and given his relative youth, Vinh could be a future contender for the ruling Politburo - a position that would have been impossible without Central Committee experience first. 'He's come in from the shadows and is part of the open political loop,' said one foreign diplomat. 'That is important if he is to serve in even higher positions in future, and may ease the fears of his critics over the long term.'

Greg Torode, chief Asia correspondent