By James Pearson and Phuong Nguyen
HANOI (Reuters) - Vietnam's ruling Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong hailed booming economic development and containment of the COVID-19 pandemic as major achievements on Tuesday as he presided over the opening of a key party congress in Hanoi.
Over nine days of meetings, mostly behind closed doors, delegates will pick a new leadership team, aiming to bolster Vietnam's ongoing economic success - and the legitimacy of the Party's rule. Party congresses take place once every five years.
"Our country has been developing rapidly and sustainably, consolidating people's confidence in the Party, the state and the socialist regime," said Trong, reflecting on the Party's record since 2016.
"Growth quality has improved, the economy has been stable, inflation has been kept under control," said Trong, 76, speaking in an expansive, 75-minute address to 1,600 delegates from across Vietnam.
Trong has suffered from health complications over the last few years, but if - as observers expect - he continues as Party chief, he will become the longest-serving General Secretary since Le Duan, the leader who took control and ruled with an iron fist after the death of Vietnam's founding revolutionary, Ho Chi Minh.
A feature of the last five years has been a crackdown on corruption spearheaded by Trong - officially dubbed a "blazing furnace". Trong said on Tuesday many cases of corruption cases had been detected, investigated and prosecuted, boosting people's support for the campaign: "Corruption has been gradually contained and prevented," he said.
Government critics have described the crackdown as politically motivated.
In the months running up to the meeting there has been intense competition for the limited number of top posts in the country's government. Vietnam officially has four 'pillars' of leadership: the Party chief; the state president; the prime minister and the National Assembly Chair.
The country has seen its economy outstrip much of Asia in the past year, keeping the coronavirus pandemic at bay thanks to stringent quarantine measures, testing and tracing: it has reported just over 1,500 COVID-19 infections and 35 deaths in total, far fewer than most other countries.
Referring to the pandemic, Trong said, "In the context of rapid and complicated global evolution, we have been focusing on consolidating national defence and security,"
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.
Despite the buoyant expansion - Vietnam's economy grew 2.9% last year even as regional peers buckled under the pandemic - Trong acknowledged issues to be resolved for future prosperity.
"Our country is still facing several difficulties, challenges and shortcomings," Trong said, looking ahead to the next five years and beyond.
"The economy is not yet highly resilient and self-reliant, the efficiency of many state-owned enterprises is low and the growth of the private and foreign-invested sectors is not yet sustainable," Trong said.
Without mentioning them by name, Trong also addressed tensions with China over the latter's increasing aggressiveness in claiming vast, potentially energy-rich, swathes of the South China Sea which overlap with Vietnam's exclusive economic zone.
Vietnam is "determined and persistent to protect its independence and sovereignty ... rightly and effectively handling relations with large countries and neighbouring countries," said Trong.
"Thank you, and apologies for going on for a bit long," Trong said, concluding his speech.
(Reporting by James Pearson and Phuong Nguyen; Additional reporting by Khanh Vu; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)