By James Borton
Global politics remain highly visible in the face of the current surge in COVID-19 Delta variant infections, unbalanced vaccine diplomacy campaigns, and climate change initiatives. In Southeast Asia, nations like Vietnam are caught in the crosshairs of vaccine nationalism, since both the U.S. and China are on the one hand touting their vaccines and pledging millions of doses, while on the other, falling short on delivery. The same scenario is unfolding at the UN Conference on Climate Change, or COP26, at which global leaders, including the United States, have shown far too much optimism about confronting climate change but have fallen short on details when it comes to reducing global warming.
Some Vietnam policy experts believe that the COVID-19 pandemic signals an opportunity to draw greater strategic cooperation between the two former enemies. The idea of vaccine diplomacy is simple: countries that produce vaccines can set up bilateral supply agreements with countries that need them, which often translates as a tool for soft power.
“Washington should not risk gifting China an easy diplomatic gain among a population eager for closer diplomatic, economic, military and people-to-people ties with the US,” claims Murray Hiebert, Head of Research at Bower Group Asia. He’s quick to also emphasize that the U.S. government ought to move heaven and earth to get one of its closest geopolitical partners (Vietnam) the vaccines it needs.
A year ago, Vietnam was heralded in its efficient response to the pandemic but in 2021 the Communist Party has struggled with the delays in ordering or securing pledges for deliveries of the needed vaccine.
The establishment of COVAX, an innovative sharing instrument led by the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Children’s Fund, Gavi, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, focused on COVID-19 vaccine manufacture and equitable and fair distribution.
A Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) article reveals that while COVAX was positioned to ensure global equity for the distribution of vaccines once they were produced, the reality is another story since vaccine inequity is driven by insufficient supply and unfair allocation. According to the Duke University Global Health Innovation Center, under the current framework, many low-income nations will have to wait until 2023 or even 2024 to receive sufficient vaccine supply.
For now, Vietnam’s government cautiously weighs the political significance of the number of vaccines received as opposed to what’s been promised.
So the ongoing battle of vaccine diplomacy between Washington and Beijing rests largely on the front line responses from Vietnam’s population of 98 million since public reactions on social media suggest a negative attitude towards Chinese vaccines in contrast to an enthusiastic embrace of Western vaccines.
The vaccine shortages have forced Vietnam to slow down its vaccination program in recent months, even as the Delta variant has infected over 984,000 people and killed more than 22,688 since the pandemic began.
Although Vietnam has commenced inoculating its citizens with COVID-19 vaccines across 19,500 centers, the country has administered about 92 million doses so far. With the assumption that every person needs two doses, that represents about 47.8% of the country’s population according to Reuters’ COVID-19 Tracker. With the mutant hybrid strain rising, alarm bells are ringing for sourcing the additional vaccine doses.
The earlier announcements from the top leaders of the Quad–the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia, who pledged more than 1 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses to the Indo-Pacific region by the end of 2022 sound promising. But this so-called pledge of a “new dawn” for the region is widely viewed as symbolic to counter China’s vaccine diplomacy
The data is clear: Southeast Asia is a major beneficiary of Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy since millions of donated and government-procured doses from China have gone to the region, specifically to Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand the Philippines and Vietnam.
As a result, the Biden Administration is taking steps to convince Hanoi and its citizens that America is a more desirable vaccine partner than Beijing. From Hanoi’s perspective, it’s imperative to get shots in the arms of their citizens since the tourism sector has been dealt a serious blow in an industry that represents about 10% of gross domestic product.
In 2020, the US and Vietnam celebrated the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Vice President Kamala Harris’s first Asian tour to Hanoi a few months ago signified Washington’s deep commitment to strengthening relations. After her visit, Vietnam received 2,873,520 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines from COVAX, made available by the U.S. This includes opening the new regional Center for Disease Control (CDC) office to enhance health security cooperation.
This health security cooperation is seen through COVID-19 technical assistance as part of the American Recue Plan Act (ARPA). The USAID and CDC are supporting Vietnam’s pandemic response with an additional $23 million to accelerate equitable access to and delivery of safe and effective vaccines and to detect and monitor COVID-19 and future disease threats.
Beijing has trumpeted its own vaccine nationalism campaign at the same time. President Xi Jinping announced last May that Chinese-made vaccines against COVID-19 would become a “global public good” by offering a $2 billion donation to combat the pandemic.
While China has promised priority access to Chinese vaccines, the pledges are undercut by their bullying tactics. For example, according to an Associated Press story, diplomats revealed that China had threatened to withhold vaccines to pressure Ukraine into withdrawing from a statement calling for more scrutiny of China’s treatment of the Uighur Muslims in its Xinjiang region.
Meanwhile, Vietnam’s health officials are attempting to speed up its vaccination program in an effort to loosen the coronavirus lockdown restrictions, especially in major cities to enable the tourism sector to open again and to avoid labor shortages and manufacturing disruptions.
For now, with the unequal distribution and access to vaccines, Hanoi demands less promises and more deliveries without strings attached.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Geopoliticalmonitor.com