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Vietnam takes Sinopharm vaccines to ease Ho Chi Minh City’s woes

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Pandemic offers Beijing opportunity to firm ties with strategically important neighbor

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused huge disruptions and grief in Vietnam and badly hit the economy. In politics, it might produce a side effect of improving the country’s bumpy relationship with its giant neighbor and occasional nemesis, China.

China has announced donations of 5.7 million doses of its Sinopharm vaccine. The shot is not the preferred one for many Vietnamese, but it is helping to fill local supply gaps and is playing an increasing role in Vietnam’s inoculation campaign, which started later than those in some other countries.

As of early this month, Sinopharm accounted for 28% of all doses supplied to Vietnam, up from only 9% at the end of July, according to the World Health Organization. Sinopharm’s share of Vietnam jabs was second after British-Swedish firm AstraZeneca, at 48%, while Pfizer and Moderna of the U.S. stood at 11% and 8% respectively. The Sinopharm total was 17.7 million doses.

Vietnam is trying to make vaccines domestically, but these are not yet in sight. And now authorities are bracing for possible fresh outbreaks in rural areas, after many workers fled Ho Chi Minh City for their hometowns following the end of harsh lockdowns.

With the Chinese donations and some warm words exchanged between the governments and the communist parties of the two countries, Vietnam may prove a case where Beijing’s vaccine outreach translates into diplomatic gains.

“With its vaccine diplomacy, Beijing has been trying to exert its soft power in the face of widespread reactions to [the Chinese] administration’s wolf warrior diplomacy,” Ngo Vinh Long, professor of Asian history at the University of Maine, told Nikkei Asia.

Koji Sako, senior economist at Mizuho Research & Technologies in Tokyo, said that as tensions between the U.S. and China are expected to remain for the foreseeable future, it is “strategically important” for Beijing to attract Hanoi.

Bilateral economic ties have long been important — China supplies raw materials to Vietnam’s pivotal industrial sector and, in 2019, 32% of Vietnam’s total imports came from China, up from 24% in 2010, according to Hanoi’s General Statistics Office. But many Vietnamese shun Chinese products and the country remains a challenge for Beijing to influence, given their history of conflict including the Sino-Vietnamese war in 1979.

“Since Vietnam has been low in vaccination rates, China saw a chance to make conciliatory moves toward Vietnam,” Sako said.

In 2020, when Vietnam seemed to have kept COVID-19 under control, it managed 2.9% economic growth while other Southeast Asian countries plunged into recession. But starting in late April this year, the pandemic ravaged Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s economic engine, claiming more than 15,000 lives. In the latest quarter, Hanoi said Vietnam’s economy shrank 6.17% from a year earlier as long lockups in the city paralyzed factories and put more than 244,000 people out of work. Nationwide, 4.7 million Vietnamese lost their jobs during the third quarter.

To cope with the crisis, Vietnam has needed every safe and effective vaccine dose it could get, leading to increased use of Sinopharm — known locally as Vero Cell.

Pham Phuong Trinh, an office worker in Ho Chi Minh City, received her first Sinopharm jab in August when the death rate from COVID-19 was rising. Like many of her compatriots, she would have preferred AstraZeneca or one of the U.S. shots, but they were not available to her.

“People were dying of the virus, and there was no choice,” Trinh said. “I had to take the Chinese vaccine, even though I felt the effectiveness was much lower than others.”

A debate over the effectiveness of Chinese vaccines has raged since they first became available in late 2020. But many experts say they generally do a good job of preventing COVID-19’s most severe consequences.

Availability of the Chinese vaccine was also good news for 35-year-old mother of three Truong Hong, one of more than 100,000 migrant workers who fled Ho Chi Minh City earlier this month to get away from the delta variant of COVID-19. Hong needed a jab to be allowed to leave the city for her central hometown on Oct. 1, when a strict lockdown was eased. She had wanted out of the commercial capital since losing her job in a plastics factory in June. Her husband, back in his hometown, could not work following a factory accident last year.

Hong and others in a Ho Chi Minh City dormitory she stayed in were told to go to a vaccination center, and take what was available. Initially, she did not know she was getting a Chinese jab.

“We were not aware of taking the Chinese vaccines,” Hong said. “What we knew was that without taking the jabs, we wouldn’t be allowed to leave the city.” Hong and her brother then rode double on a motorbike heading to their hometown in Quang Binh Province, 1,100 km away. “After more than a day and a night, eating only one piece of bread, going through rain and sun, we reached our hometown safe and sound, even though I fainted twice on the way,” she said.

It was only in early June that Vietnamese health authorities approved Sinopharm’s jab for emergency use, as their reluctance to accept Chinese shots gave way to the harsh reality that Vietnam was lagging behind other Asian governments in the vaccine hunt.

“We never thought of such a large loss in Ho Chi Minh City,” Deputy Minister of Health Nguyen Truong Son said, acknowledging the government had been unprepared to deal with the deadly outbreak. “Delta variant accounts for 100% of the cases in Ho Chi Minh City,” state media reported earlier this month.

Sinopharm vaccines were initially indirectly provided through the COVAX facility, a global vaccine-sharing program backed by the WHO. On June 20, Hanoi announced it would accept Beijing’s first donation of 500,000 doses.

As Ho Chi Minh City’s woes deepened in September, Beijing announced a second donation of 2 million doses in August. It quickly followed up with a promise of another 3 million, ahead of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Hanoi in early September.

“China firmly supports Vietnam in fighting and defeating the COVID-19 epidemic,” Wang said while conveying President Xi Jinping’s greetings to Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam.

At the meeting with Wang, Trong conveyed his greetings to Xi, saying that both Vietnam and China adhere to the socialist road and to Marxist-Leninist ideals and beliefs, according to China’s Foreign Ministry. “The relationship between the two countries is a comprehensive strategic partnership of comrades and brothers,” he stressed.

The visit came soon after U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’ trip to Vietnam on Aug. 25, when she added a pledge of 1 million doses on top of 5 million the U.S. had announced earlier. This month, the total of U.S. donations rose to 9.5 million doses.

Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at Australia’s University of New South Wales, says China “has been forced to play catch-up after the visits to Vietnam by U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Vice President Kamala Harris. China, therefore, has chosen to play the COVID card and to emphasize socialist solidarity. Vietnam is the winner because it has not compromised its independence or self-reliance.”

Watching Hanoi’s interactions with Washington and Beijing closely, some in the Asian diplomatic community noted that it was Nguyen Xuan Phuc, second in the line of Vietnam’s leadership, who received Harris in Hanoi. In contrast, Hanoi’s supreme leader Trong and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh welcomed Wang, who was not a member of the Chinese political bureau.

Vietnam authorities have not detailed the distribution of Sinopharm jabs, but Ho Chi Minh City’s Center for Disease Control said more than 2.9 million citizens had received the shots — showing the city has been a major beneficiary. A total of 76.9% of its 7 million residents were fully vaccinated as of Oct. 15.

However, the overall rate of fully vaccinated people in the country of nearly 100 million stood at 18% as of Oct. 14, according to Our World in Data. One major worry now is that the former Ho Chi Minh City workers who left the urban center could be spreading COVID-19 elsewhere.

At the same time, with vaccinations ramped up thanks to the contribution of foreign doses including the Chinese jabs, the authorities hope to bring people back to the Ho Chi Minh City area — and back to work — to spur the economy. From 288,000 in September, the number of workers employed at key industrial parks and export processing zones in the city plunged to 135,000.

At a press conference on Oct. 8, the city said it was still lacking 40% of its workforce.

“Hanoi’s GDP growth target of 6.5% certainly cannot be reached in 2021,” Le Dang Doanh, an independent Hanoi-based economist, told Nikkei Asia. “During the fourth quarter, efforts must be mounted to reach a growth rate of about 5%, in order to reach GDP growth for the whole year at about 3%.”

The World Bank this month lowered its 2021 GDP growth forecast for Vietnam to 2% to 2.5%, from 4.8% in August.

As Vietnam continues to fight its COVID and economic battles, its relationship with China may evolve further still.

“Vietnam-China relations are full of ups and downs throughout 3,000 years, with a thousand-year period when Vietnam was subjugated under Chinese reigns,” explained Ha Hoang Hop, a visiting senior fellow at Singaporean research group ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. After their war in 1979, they had to wait until 1991 to normalize bilateral relations. In 2014, trust plunged as Beijing towed a giant oil rig to Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.

Beijing’s assertiveness, Hop said, remains the biggest obstacle to boosting bilateral ties.

Alexander L. Vuving, professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, said that since the 1979 conflict, the relationship reached its recent “high point” in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the countries signed two border treaties. Ties have not reached that level of warmth since.

“China’s approach to Vietnam and other regional countries is a mixture of intimidation and inducement,” Vuving explained. “[In the past] millennia, they experienced the best and the worst of a relationship. This makes the Vietnamese experience of living and dealing with China one of the richest in the region.”

Looking ahead, Hanoi might need more foreign vaccines, not only to brace for possible outbreaks stemming from the Ho Chi Minh City exodus but also to provide booster shots, which authorities are mulling once the population is largely vaccinated with two doses. Health authorities also want to inoculate children between 12 and 17 years old. China could offer many of those doses.

Beijing, Vuving said, understands well the old adage, “a friend in need is a friend indeed.”

By Tomoya Onishi & Kim Dung Tong & Grace Li – Nikkei Asia – October 19, 2021

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