Southeast Asia

Explained: Why is Europe giving Vietnam so many COVID-19 vaccines?

Published : September 04, 2021 18:58 IST

The Vietnamese government has been criticized for not rushing to procure vaccines in early 2021. Photo: Thanh Hue/REUTERS

E.U. nations have an interest in helping Vietnam, as it's the bloc's largest trade partner in Southeast Asia.

Italy and Romania last week became the latest European countries to donate COVID-19 vaccines to Vietnam. In previous weeks, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and France all gave doses to Hanoi. DW estimates that E.U. states have so far donated or pledged to provide a combined total of 2.6 million inoculations to Vietnam, a key actor in Asian politics.

On top of that, Vietnam is a large recipient of vaccines donated by the COVAX scheme, which has received roughly a third of its overall funding from EU states through their "Team Europe" initiative. "European states likely have a different mix of motivations that combine national interest and altruism," said Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor from the University of New South Wales in Australia. "Providing donations of COVID vaccines to Vietnam is a logical response to these drivers."

Push for domestically produced vaccines

As of August 30, just 2.6 per cent of Vietnam's population had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the lowest rate in Southeast Asia. This is in large part because early this year the Vietnamese government chose to focus on developing its own domestic vaccines — an effort that has had varying success. The communist government in Hanoi expects these domestically produced vaccines to be available by early 2022.

Pundits have also accused the Vietnamese government of hubris after it appeared to be in no hurry to procure vaccines when they became available. Vietnam recorded just 1,465 infections and 35 deaths in 2020, while its economy was one of the few in Asia that saw growth last year. But the pandemic has torn through the country in recent months, made worse by the spread of the more contagious delta variant. Around 96 per cent of Vietnam's total of 470,000 cases were recorded after July 1.

Calls for foreign aid

Vietnamese officials at home and abroad have been very active in lobbying for vaccine donations, said Le Hong Hiep, a senior fellow at the Vietnam Studies Program at the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute. "Over the past few months, in every meeting with foreign counterparts, Vietnamese leaders all asked them to help Vietnam deal with the pandemic, especially by sharing vaccines," he said.

In a meeting with Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc on June 1, Ambassador Giorgio Aliberti, head of the E.U. delegation to Vietnam, reportedly promised to assist in securing vaccine donations from European governments. Aliberti told DW that "recent donations by a number of E.U. member states reflect, of course, the difficult situation of the pandemic [in Vietnam] in recent months and the request of support by the Vietnamese government."

E.U. 'repaying' early pandemic charity

There is also a sense that Europeans are now repaying the charity Vietnam showed when the pandemic was raging through their countries last year. "In the early days of the pandemic, when Europe was in a worse situation, Vietnam was donating PPE and masks to many countries, including the European countries," noted Huong Le Thu, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

In April 2020, for instance, Vietnam donated more than 550,000 face masks to France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Britain. Numerous Vietnamese friendship associations and diaspora groups in Europe also played key roles in donating protective equipment and raising money for local relief efforts when the pandemic surged through Europe.

Vietnamese groups were particularly active in countries like the Czech Republic, France, Germany and Poland, which have the largest Vietnamese diaspora communities in Europe. All four of these countries have now donated vaccines to Vietnam.

Economic motives in mind

But analysts suspect European governments are not driven by altruism alone. The E.U. has an economic interest in Vietnam recovering from the pandemic as quickly as possible, and this necessitates widespread vaccination. Vietnam is now the E.U.'s 15th-largest trading partner and its largest in Southeast Asia, an area of the world where Brussels is keen to develop economic and geopolitical interests. The E.U.-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement — the second trade pact that Brussels has signed with a Southeast Asian country following an earlier free trade agreement with Singapore — came into effect in mid-2020.

Le Thu of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute noted that U.S. companies including Nike, Adidas and Apple, whose supply chains in Vietnam have been affected by the surge in infections in the country, have lobbied the U.S. government to donate vaccines to Vietnam. The U.S. has subsequently provided millions of vaccines to the country.

European drive to gain influence in the region

Along with having economic importance, Vietnam is also one of the key actors in geopolitics within the Indo-Pacific region, in which European states are now desperate to find a foothold. Donating vaccines to Vietnam is "part of a larger geopolitical push by European countries to gain influence and good standing from the Vietnamese government," said Tuan Le Anh, deputy CIO and head of research at Dragon Capital.

Vietnam has been the most vocal opponent of China's aggressive activity in the South China Sea, where Hanoi and Beijing both claim the same disputed territory. The likes of Germany and France have recently engaged in freedom of navigation exercises in the maritime area, while Brussels is expected to release its strategy paper on the Indo-Pacific this month. Having a strong and lasting friendship with Vietnam is key to the E.U.'s ambitions in the region.