Late last week, Vietnam handed over some assistance to Laos and Cambodia as the two fellow Southeast Asian states continue to manage the impact of the global coronavirus pandemic. While the development was in line with what Hanoi had previously signaled, it nonetheless put the spotlight on the dynamics of COVID-19 in mainland Southeast Asia which had belatedly come into full view after earlier speculation of underreporting in some countries.
As I have observed before in these pages, within Southeast Asia, following earlier speculation that the region’s coronavirus challenge had been underestimated, we have seen COVID-19 truly go regional over the past few week. Within mainland Southeast Asia, apart from Vietnam and Thailand which had already been dealing with the global pandemic earlier, Cambodia has reported growing cases while Myanmar and Laos.
That has in turn spotlighted the subregional dynamics within mainland Southeast Asia. This includes restrictions placed by countries among themselves in order to limit the spread of COVID-19, as well as ongoing efforts of collaboration on various aspects including border security. Officials from mainland Southeast Asian countries have been in touch with each other through various channels, including bilateral as well as regional ones with Vietnam holding this year’s annually rotating ASEAN chairmanship with several key meetings being postponed.
Last week, we saw evidence of this with the handover of Vietnam COVID-19 related assistance to Laos and Cambodia. Vietnam’s foreign ministry handed over a range of medical equipment to the two fellow Southeast Asian countries last Friday.
Per Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Foreign Minister Nguyen Quoc Dung handed over what was characterized as “gifts” – including specialized protective clothing, medical masks, testing systems, and test kits – worth over 7 billion Vietnamese dong (about $304,000) from the Vietnamese government.
The provision of such aid from Vietnam is not surprising. Despite the focus on China’s growing inroads in mainland Southeast Asia, Vietnam continues to play a major role in the subregion including through assistance to Laos and Cambodia. Furthermore, Vietnamese officials had indicated that such COVID-19 related aid was on the way, including during Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s telephone conversation with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith in late March where he had suggested that Hanoi could provide assistance in various forms including not just equipment, but also medical experts and the repatriation of citizens.
Nonetheless, the development is not without significance. It indicates Vietnam’s continued willingness to assert leadership in mainland Southeast Asia amid this global pandemic. More generally, it also reinforces the importance of paying attention to subregional dynamics amid the focus on U.S.-China dynamics or regionwide trends and developments.
Of course, it is still early days in the dynamics of COVID-19 in mainland Southeast Asia as well as Vietnam’s approach towards assistance in this regard. And we will have to await more developments to assess how exactly Hanoi is managing this with respect to its efforts abroad amid its own continuing struggle to fight the virus at home despite some early success. Nevertheless, the development last week was a reminder that this is an aspect to watch within the geopolitics of COVID-19 in Southeast Asia.