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Vietnam’s Public Diplomacy Post Covid-19

22 Mar 2023
By Dr Vu Lam
National Assembly Building of Vietnam. Source: xiquinhosilva/

Even without an official name or recognition, public diplomacy has actively contributed to Vietnam’s nation branding by engaging with both domestic and international publics. In this branding, Vietnam’s fast and efficient response to Covid-19 and its active diplomatic agenda have been prominent.

Public diplomacy (PD), in a conventional sense, refers to a country’s efforts to engage with foreign publics, with the aim of promoting its values, culture, and policies. With a foreign policy of global and regional integration after Doi Moi (1986), Vietnam’s PD, in absence of an official nomenclature, shares the same connotation. In today’s networked and informational era, Vietnam’s PD also aims at the Vietnamese public at large, including the diaspora community, for the sake of national solidarity, political legitimacy, and economic investment. As an example, Vietnam has for years been one of the largest recipients of personal remittances. After all, the convergence of domestic and international engagement, thanks to networked, multilayered communications, is at the core of the new public diplomacy.

As diverse as it has become, Vietnam’s PD strategy has three long-standing, fundamental instruments. The first is cultural diplomacy. Vietnam promotes its identity through cultural events and exchange programs, such as festivals, art exhibitions, and cultural performances. These events highlight the best Vietnamese culture can offer, ranging from dance, cuisine, arts to heritage sites. As the most outward-facing instrument, cultural diplomacy is well centralised and coordinated, with the recent release of a successive national strategy for the next decade. This new strategy is tasked to support economic and political diplomacy by attracting foreign investors and tourists, among other things.

The second is people’s diplomacy. As one of the earliest PD instruments in the one-party state, people’s diplomacy has evolved from relationship building between friendship organisations, to a moniker of PD itself. There is still disagreement among Vietnamese PD actors, with one group regarding people’s diplomacy as limited to mass and vetted organisations, and the other side identifying people’s diplomacy as the Vietnamese version of PD.

The final instrument is public information and communication. Commonly labelled as “propaganda” in Vietnamese, this instrument makes use of various channels, such as social media, press, and cultural centres to communicate targeted messages to publics at home and abroad, and to counter negative narratives about Vietnam. While this can aim externally or internally, information communication technology breakthroughs have converged audiences at home and abroad into a networked public sphere. Together with people’s diplomacy, this informational instrument has been consistently employed by the regime since the 1940s.

All these instruments are intertwined and often bring into play various public-facing initiatives. Recently, such terms as digital diplomacy, sports diplomacy, and medical diplomacy have been used to reflect the specific settings of such diplomatic activities (the pandemic, a sports event, or the rise of social media). But it is reasonable to assume that if there is a public-targeted component in those endeavours, they fall under the banner of public diplomacy.

This reality has two implications: For PD, one-way messaging is cost-effective, prompt and wide-reaching, especially with the rise of social media. But it is intended for short-term effect, as information flows at a lightning-fast pace.

Cultural diplomacy provides the most accessible arena for state and non-state actors, partly because cultural assets are better points of sale than political values. One-way messaging does help promote Vietnam’s cultural identity, but cultural diplomacy also has a relationship building component aiming at long-term effect. Long-term targets are nonetheless often harder to reach and measure.

Performance-wise, some have considered Vietnam to be an “underdog” PD actor. Part of the reason is because of its relatively recent engagement with international partners outside of the now-defunct communist camp. Vietnam’s international isolation during the Cold War and its focus on rapid economic development following its transition to a socialist-oriented market economy in the 1980s also resulted in limited resources and capacity for PD.

Furthermore, Vietnam’s PD efforts have been overshadowed by the influence of major and regional powers, such as Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. In a sense, the competition for attention is tangible among PD practitioners, especially in Asia. Additionally, Vietnam’s image in the international media has been affected by negative stereotypes and perceptions related to its political system and human rights record.

Public diplomacy in the context of Covid-19

Despite these challenges, Vietnam has made significant strides in recent years in terms of nation branding. The country has invested in telecommunication channels, cultural exchanges, and economic diplomacy to promote its image and interests abroad. Vietnam has also actively participated in regional and global organisations to enhance its international profile.

Vietnam’s success in controlling the Covid-19 pandemic, except for the perceived mismanagement of the Delta outbreak at the end of 2021, has also generated positive attention and praise from the international community, which has helped to boost its image and reputation as a responsible and proactive member of the international community. Vietnam has reported relatively few cases and deaths compared to other countries, with a total of around 11,526,786 confirmed cases and less than 43,186 deaths as of February 2023. Hanoi’s response to the pandemic has been focused on early detection, aggressive contact tracing, quarantine measures, and strict border controls.

Vietnam’s PD during Covid-19 banked on promoting the narrative of a responsive government punching above its weight by securing a sustainable vaccine supply, providing medical assistance to other countries, highlighting its success in controlling the pandemic, and showcasing its economic appeal.

Vietnam re-opened its borders in March of 2022, partially in response to fears of economic decline resulting from the pandemic. Despite such concerns, the country witnessed a decade-high GDP growth rate by year-end. Experts believe its success can be largely attributed to the government’s successful vaccination campaign and a swift return to “business as usual.” That is also the narrative that informational PD wants to develop, consistent with state-affiliated social media accounts, which prominently featured the government’s statements and actions with strong adjectives like “decisive,” “drastic,” and “insightful.”

Cultural diplomacy for nation branding

Cultural diplomacy has continued to support nation branding. Some notable achievements include the election of Vietnam to the Intergovernmental Committee of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (2022-2026); the reception of the first-ever visit by UNESCO Director-General; and four more Vietnamese heritages recognised by UNESCO.

Southeast Asia (SEA) Games 31 was an important chance for Vietnam as the host to raise its national profile. By all measures, it was a big success. Hanoi impressed with its organisation, infrastructure, and pandemic control measures during the event. Regional delegations and media heaped praise on the country for elevating the status of this regional sports event.

The unexpected virality of some upbeat musical products shows that Vietnam should tap into the potential of popular music the way South Korea does with K-pop. This form of cultural diplomacy would require a longer-term strategy and investment.

As of 2022, cultural diplomacy did fall short on one key metric: tourism. International arrivals did not meet the target of five million for 2022, the cause of which is hard to pinpoint. A shortage of human resources and quality tourist products, notwithstanding strict visa policies, may have had an impact. It is noteworthy that Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia all met their own tourism targets for the year. So, setting the right expectation may also help.

In all, public diplomacy, even without an official name, has a significant presence in re-imagining and promoting Vietnam’s national brand.

Dr Vu Lam is a political scientist specialising in diplomatic studies and Southeast Asian affairs. The views expressed here are solely his own and do not represent those of his workplace.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.