By James Pearson
HANOI (Reuters) - Vietnam's ruling Communist Party gathered for its first national congress since 2016 on Monday with a mission to select new leaders and shape policy for the next five years and beyond.
The event, the 13th congress since the Communist Party of Vietnam was established in 1930, brought nearly 1,600 delegates from across the country to Hanoi. On a foggy morning in the capital, they paid a ceremonial visit to the mausoleum of founding revolutionary Ho Chi Minh before meetings began.
Vietnamese officials traditionally visit the mausoleum ahead of important meetings and national events.
Amid stringent coronavirus testing to preserve Vietnam's comparative success in keeping the pandemic at bay, delegates will pick a new leadership team in nine days of meetings, mostly behind closed doors, aiming to bolster both the country's ongoing economic success and the legitimacy of the Party's rule.
Delegates to the congress, foreign dignitaries, support staff and media attending the event were all tested twice for the coronavirus in the days leading up to the gathering. According to the health ministry, a total of 10,000 people have been tested in conjunction with the congress.
That approach echoes the tough quarantine measures, testing and tracing that have contributed to Vietnam having far fewer virus cases than most other countries: it has reported just over 1,500 COVID-19 infections and 35 deaths in total.
In turn, that has helped Vietnam's economy outstrip much of Asia in the past year. One of the last five Communist-ruled countries in the world besides China, Cuba, Laos and North Korea, Vietnam is already eyeing average annual gross domestic product growth of 7.0% over the next five years.
But a new leadership will be faced with the challenge of balancing relations with China and the United States, for which Vietnam has become an important strategic partner, in a world economy that's become detached from previous certainties.
In the months running up to the meeting there has been intense competition for a limited number of top posts. Vietnam officially has four 'pillars' of leadership: the Party chief; the state president; the prime minister and the National Assembly Chair.
Vietnam's two-term Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, 76, has been struggling with bad heath but is expected by analysts to continue for a third term. Trong wasn't seen in images/footage of the mausoleum visit released by state media, and wasn't mentioned in a report on the event by state news agency VN News, but was seen attending a meeting later.
While a 2016 power struggle and subsequent crackdown on corruption in government has deepened factional fault lines across Party ranks, most analysts expect continuity in Vietnam's economic, domestic and foreign policy-making after the congress.
The main candidates for the new positions to be determined at the congress are all widely known in Hanoi's political circles, but were officially declared top secret in December to discourage potentially critical debate.
The Communist Party retains tight control of domestic media and tolerates little criticism.
(Reporting by James Pearson; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)