BY James Pearson
HANOI - Vietnam is challenging China’s dominance of coronavirus diplomacy with the donation of medical supplies to Europe and Southeast Asia and even winning plaudits from U.S. President Donald Trump for a shipment of protective suits.
China is looking to burnish its credentials as a responsible power by sharing expertise and donating masks and other protective equipment to countries seeing a surge in cases and to repair an image dented by the disease that originated there late last year.
Vietnam, despite its lack of resources compared with its giant neighbour, has donated 550,000 face masks to France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Britain, and 390,000 to neighbouring Cambodia and 340,000 to another neighbour, Laos.
It has also capitalised on the U.S. government’s purchase of 450,000 made-in-Vietnam DuPont hazmat suits by expediting the shipment of the protective equipment, and using it to highlight its medical donations in public statements and state media.
Trump thanked “our friends in Vietnam” on Thursday for that shipment.
Helped by a mass quarantine and aggressive contact-tracing, Vietnam’s health ministry has recorded 255 cases of the novel coronavirus and no deaths.
Vu Duc Dam, a deputy prime minister who has been widely praised for his role in leading the campaign against the coronavirus, said on Monday the outbreak was under control.
The next day, state media showed photos of European ambassadors receiving boxes of masks from Vietnam’s foreign ministry in a ceremony showcasing the donation.
“Vietnam appears to have gained in confidence by managing to deal successfully with the coronavirus,” said Carl Thayer, an expert in Vietnam’s diplomacy at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.
“While Vietnam is bracing itself against a second wave of the virus it is also beginning to look ahead to a revival of economic activity,” Thayer said.
Key to spurring that activity will be a much-anticipated EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA), said Thayer, which Vietnam’s rubber stamp National Assembly will ratify later this month.
AID ‘WHERE IT COUNTS’
There are now 40 firms producing 7 million fabric masks a day in Vietnam, the government said on Thursday. An additional 5.72 million surgical masks can be produced daily, it said.
Vietnam is not the only country keen to show that it is able to offer its support to the world, however.
Taiwan, which China claims as its sacred territory and locks out of most global organisations, is donating 16 million masks, mostly to Europe and the United States, earning the diplomatically isolated island rare prominence on the world stage.
The government of Taiwan, which like Vietnam has managed to keep its tally of coronavirus cases low, with just five deaths, has not drawn a direct link between its virus diplomacy and that of China, but has been keen to show how “Taiwan can help”, especially as it can make more than 13 million masks a day.
South Korea has also won attention for its campaign against the virus and on Thursday it hosted an online presentation outlining its containment measures for about 400 health officials and experts from 13 countries, including the United States, Mexico, and Italy.
“We’ve been getting requests from many countries for us to share our know-how,” a South Korean foreign ministry official told Reuters.
Vietnam has also not explicitly compared its virus diplomacy to China’s but it was quick to send supplies to old allies Laos and Cambodia, where its influence has waned in recent years while China’s has surged.
Even though Vietnam needs similar equipment in its own efforts against the virus, it has made donations to neighbours with large Vietnamese communities “on the basis of traditional friendship and relations”, foreign ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang told Reuters.
Vietnam could also be pushing the quality of its medical supplies in light of mounting returns to China of faulty equipment, said Thayer.
Vietnam’s biggest listed firm, Vingroup, said last week it would start producing up to 55,000 ventilators a month, including for foreign markets.
“Vietnam cannot hope to match China in the volume and dollar value of its aid but Vietnam can provide assistance where it counts,” said Thayer.