To change or not to change. That will be the question confronting Vietnam’s Communist Party elites when they congregate next week for a meeting that will shape the country’s future. At stake is the selection of new leadership, who will determine how to navigate the tricky juncture of whether to further modernise the single-party state, or to dig their heels in and uphold the party’s supremacy. Past leaders have found themselves stuck between these opposing currents. But expectations are high that Vietnam will be forced to carry out reforms if the party is to survive, while steering the country closer to the West and away from China, once a close ideological ally but now an increasingly assertive neighbour. Analysts claim these reforms will be difficult – almost impossible – without a strong leader. So when the delegates cast their votes later this month, many will be watching to see whether liberal-leaning Prime Minster Nguyen Tan Dung can win the conservatives’ trust and become the new party chief. “This is probably the most consequential party congress in two decades,” said David Brown, a retired American diplomat who was posted in Vietnam and lived there for a decade. At the five-yearly party congress, scheduled to run January 20-28, more than 1,000 delegates from around the nation will meet in the capital city of Hanoi to discuss policies deemed important for the country. “There will be a lot of reports, which will be listened to and applauded,” Brown said. “It’s very unlikely there will be much that’s not already scripted.” However, the competition for the next leadership is likely to remain intense until the last possible minute. READ MORE: Vietnam’s ‘stormy’ leadership tussle bares nation’s conflict over liberalism and taking a hardline over South China Sea dispute, analysts say Last month, a party plenum was held to discuss the leadership issue. Originally planned to be four days, the plenum stretched to eight days. And at the end, the party decided to postpone the congress due to the lack of consensus on who should be the next party chief. Disputes over leadership have complicated previous transitions and underscored the political dilemma facing Vietnam, said Alexander Vuving, an associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Honolulu. “[The party] is stuck between two currents,” Vuving said. On one hand, the country must modernise its economy to boost the party’s legitimacy, Vuving said. But to do so, the country will need to forge closer ties with the West and risk undermining its ideological basis. This is probably the most consequential party congress in two decades David Brown, former American diplomat On the other hand, there is stubborn resistance to opening up, Vuving said, in order to maintain the party’s hold power. “With two opposite currents like these, you can’t decide who the leader is,” Vuving said. “The only leader who can fit into both will be a very weak leader, with weak personality and unable to make decisive answers.” But many believe the country can no longer afford to shy away from bolder changes as it celebrates the 30th anniversary of economic reforms, also known as Doi Moi, this year. The economic liberalisation propelled Vietnam from being one of the poorest countries in the world to lower-middle income status. Its per capita income jumped from around US$100 in 1986 to more than US$2000 by the end of 2014, according to the World Bank. Vietnam is one of the fastest-growing economies in the region, with a GDP growth rate of 6.68 per cent last year. Critics argue that the country’s economy has become increasingly difficult to manage due to problems at home and abroad. But the leadership reshuffle could provide a window of opportunity to tackle these issues. The country’s economic model has given rise to problems, such as an over-dependence on exports and foreign investment, dominance of the often ineffective state-owned sector over the private one, and rent seeking at the expense of further reforms, said Le Hong Hiep, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. The slowing global economy has exacerbated the problems. To further complicate the issue, escalating tensions over the South China Sea have set Vietnam a difficult task of reducing its economic reliance on China. READ MORE: Beijing rejects Vietnam protest over South China Sea landing Hiep said Vietnam will need further institutional reforms to tackle corruption and enhance the government’s accountability and efficiency. Dealing with a more aggressive China will also require a more dynamic foreign policy, he added. “All these will largely be impossible if the party can’t elect a strong, unified and efficient leadership,” Hiep said. One candidate who cuts such a profile is the current prime minister, who many describe as a powerful, pragmatic, reformist and English-speaking politician. It is therefore no surprise that Dung has been widely touted as the front runner to become the party’s next general secretary. Hiep argued in an essay for the Eurasia Review in May that Dung could command the top job thanks to his vast influence in the party’s Central Committee, which elects the Politburo and the general secretary. In 2012, the Central Committee reversed a Politburo decision to discipline Dung for his mismanagement of the economy. The following year, it elected two close allies of Dung to be additional Politburo members, vetoing the other two candidates endorsed by the current party chief, Nguyen Phu Trong, a figurehead in the party’s conservative wing. Last January, Dung topped a vote of confidence on 20 party officials held by the Central Committee. And many believe that if elected, Dung would be able to place his close allies in key party and government positions, affording him a unified team to work with – something the current leadership does not have. Yesterday, the Central Committee held its last meeting before the party congress and decided to introduce additional “special candidates” for re-election for the four key positions – the party general secretary, prime minister, National Assembly chairman, and state president, according to Vietnam’s Tuoi Tre News . Hiep said this will mean more than one current leader will be exempt from age or term limits, further intensifying competition. It is also significant because Dung turns 67 this year, meaning he would otherwise be two years older than the party’s mandatory retirement age. So although the introduction of “special candidates” could pave the way for Dung to take over as the party’s chief, Hiep said, it could also allow Trong to remain in charge. Nonetheless, the anticipated rise of Dung, Brown argued, could be a timely challenge for the party. After years of reluctance to embrace changes, the party may soon have a strong enough leader willing to shake up the system. “In the last three party congresses, all they have done is to redistribute the senior positions… they ensure everybody got a piece for factional balance,” said Brown. “Now we have a situation – Dung is challenging the system.” Dung could still lose out because of his pro-reform approach. “The challenge for him is that a segment of the party’s leadership sees his rise to the general secretary position as risky, fearing that his liberal leaning [position] may ultimately turn him into a Vietnamese ‘Gorbachev’,” Hiep said. Even if the current party chief, Trong, is succeeded by a conservative, analysts argue the party would still be under pressure to pursue reforms, albeit at a slower pace and with less substance. “If substantive reforms are not adopted, Vietnam will have to struggle at least another five years, especially in economic terms, and the longer the problems persist, the harder it may become for them to be addressed,” Hiep said. But one trend that analysts said is already in motion, and is irreversible regardless of who becomes the next party chief, is the country’s shift in foreign policy. For decades, China has been an important political and economic partner, with both ruling parties boasting of close brotherly ties. Even when the latest round of tensions on the South China Sea territorial disputes began brewing in 2008, Vietnamese authorities remained cautious in managing the relationship with Beijing, despite growing anti-China sentiment within the country. Matters took a dramatic turn when China parked a giant drilling platform, HY981, in disputed waters in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in May 2014. The country’s diplomatic dictum, the “three nos” policy – not allowing foreign countries to set up military basis, no military alliances, and no ganging up on a third country using another country – came under review during an emergency meeting of the Central Committee in May 2014, according to Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert and Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales. Although the two countries quickly patched things up after a few months of diplomatic spats and violent protests, many analysts said mutual trust had been lost. Vietnam has since sought to develop closer ties with other nations – in particular the United States and Japan – in an effort to hedge its bets against China. “Vietnam’s relationship with China passed the point of no return with the oil rig crisis,” Vuving explained. A Vietnamese diplomat said one issue likely to be discussed at the party congress is how the country can reduce its economic dependence on China. Many have interpreted Hanoi’s participation of the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact as a move in this direction. But China remains the key market and raw materials supplier for Vietnamese products. So, according to Thayer, Hanoi must tread carefully. “Each country [other regional powers] feels they have equity in Vietnam, and if it [Vietnam] doesn’t look after its interests it could lose out and be disadvantaged,” Thayer said. Vietnam’s diplomatic balance, Vuving said, would shift slowly but surely: “Closer, but not too close to the US, a bit further, but not too far, from China”. “It’s going to be a pivot to the west, but in salami-slicing style,” said Vuving, using a term that has been used to describe China’s aggressive approach in the South China Sea.