On June 4, the Vietnamese government approved its first Chinese-made vaccine for use against COVID-19, as the country struggles to contain its worst outbreak of the disease.
The announcement made China’s Sinopharm vaccine the third shot to be endorsed in Vietnam, alongside the AstraZeneca vaccine and Russia’s Sputnik V. The government has not announced any purchases of the vaccine, but unofficial reports indicate that China has pledged to provide Vietnam with 500,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine.
The decision came as Vietnamese authorities struggled to contain a stubborn fourth wave of COVID-19 cases, the country’s worst so far. This wave had caused over 6,500 infections as of June 9, accounting for about two-thirds of the total number of infections in Vietnam.
The outbreak has laid bare Vietnam’s glacial vaccine rollout, which has seen just over 1.3 percent of its population vaccinated as of June 7, according to the Our World In Data tracker, the lowest in Southeast Asia. Le Hong Hiep of Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute has put the slow distribution down to a combination of complacency, born of Vietnam’s world-beating containment of the virus for most of the past year, and difficulties in gaining access to sufficient supply of vaccines.
Another important factor that he identifies is Vietnam’s plan to prioritize the development of its own COVID-19 vaccines over acquiring supplies from overseas, which was intended to help “reduce reliance on imported vaccines and provide a nationalistic boost to its international image.”
This also explains the country’s reluctance to approve any Chinese-made vaccines, which have been purchased in large numbers by most of Vietnam’s Southeast Asian neighbors.
Vietnam’s government, entwined with China economically, and facing the hard edge of Chinese power in the South China Sea, has long sought to reduce its reliance on its giant northern neighbor.
This is all the more the case given the profoundly suspicious and fearful view that many ordinary Vietnamese have of China, with whose communist party the Vietnamese Communist Party retains close political and historical links.
Vietnam’s communist leadership has shown great caution in becoming further indebted to a nation that many Vietnamese – including many within the party and government – view with suspicion.
For this reason, Vietnam has been rhetorically supportive but standoffish toward China’s headline Belt and Road Initiative, and was also the first Southeast Asian nation to exclude the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei from any involvement in its 5G infrastructure. As with COVID-19 vaccines, it has chosen instead to develop its own homegrown 5G alternative.
But the complexity of creating vaccines has contributed to the country’s lack of progress and is threatening to ruin the successful containment efforts.
Approving the Chinese-made vaccine for emergency use is thus an indication of the Vietnamese government’s alarm, and an awareness that widespread vaccination is the only surefire guarantee of victory over the virus.
Yet it remains clear that Hanoi will not purchase any more Chinese vaccines than is strictly necessary. On June 3, the Ministry of Health announced that Vietnam had secured commitments by relevant suppliers to provide 120 million doses this year, including shipments from Moderna, Sputnik V, AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and the global COVAX Facility.
Even if Vietnam’s government ends up accepting a few small shipments of Chinese-made vaccines, it will likely function much as the government’s claimed support for the BRI – as a nod to the two communist nations’ close ties. But even then, popular anti-Chinese sentiment is such that there are serious questions as to whether ordinary Vietnamese would agree to receive the Sinopharm jab.