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Vietnam’s Medical Diplomacy Hits a Snag

Published 05 Dec 2021
Trang Bui

Five years ago, Vietnam determined that by 2020 it would shift from being “a friend” and “reliable partner” to that of “a responsible actor in the international community”. An important element in this has been medical or Covid 19 diplomacy rather than cultural diplomacy. But in 2021, a resurgence of Covid 19 has raised doubts about whether this attempt to gain status as a responsible middle power in the Asia- Pacific region can be maintained.

Last year, Vietnam exported billions of face masks to 51 countries. The first and foremost recipients were close neighbors and ideological comrades of Hanoi (China, Laos and Cambodia), as well as 17 bilateral partners across the Asia-Pacific, Europe, and North America. Despite its relatively low manufacturing capacity compared to other countries, Vietnam’s timely and high- quality pharmaceutical support has made it a pioneer in conducting COVID-19 diplomacy. Often known as an aid recipient, Vietnam’s role as an aid donor in 2020 was impressive for an emerging power.

But a spread of the Delta variant of the virus in 2021, in Vietnam and elsewhere, has cast a shadow over the future of Hanoi’s attempt at medical diplomacy. Compared to having 1,465 infections and 35 deaths in 2020, the current death toll in Vietnam is more than 22,000 out of almost one million cases, and there is no sign that the pandemic will be brought under control soon. As well, vaccines have become the key to effective Covid 19 mitigation in most countries of the world, but it is unlikely that Vietnam will be able to engage in “vaccine diplomacy” because the government in Hanoi is struggling to vaccinate its own population. In Southeast Asia, Vietnam has the second-lowest vaccination rate – only higher than Myanmar, a country currently grappling with severe political upheaval. As of early November, only 60% of the Vietnamese population has received the first dose, and just 29% received two doses. Consequently, Hanoi will find it hard to incorporate vaccine diplomacy in its COVID-19 diplomatic toolkit.

Low manufacturing capacity and purchasing power cannot fully explain Vietnam’s slow vaccination roll-out. As a pandemic outlier and a prominent face mask donor in 2020, Vietnam had plenty of time to build up a stock of vaccines before the new outbreaks in 2021. However, underestimating the Delta variant and being overconfident with the early pandemic achievements, the government believed that the population could wait until a homegrown vaccine is developed and approved. Consequently, the government did not secure its vaccine supplies. Also, many Vietnamese people were initially hesistant to receive Astraceneza and  waited for a better vaccine to be available.

Trang Bui (Grace) is an International Relations and Communication and Media Studies student at the University of Wollongong. She is currently undertaking an Honours year, writing a thesis on Vietnam’s public diplomacy and nation branding during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Grace was an editor of student-led Frontier: UOW Journal of International Affairs, and interned at a consultancy firm, DevDAS, where she focused on the Australian aid and development in the Asia-Pacific region, specifically in Fiji and Timor Les-te. Her interests include Vietnamese politics, Asia-Pacific politics, public diplomacy and political communication.

Trang Bui is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.