Both Vietnam and the United Nations are facing challenging times. The COVID-19 pandemic and its associated problems have put mounting pressures not only on the heath sector but also other critical areas such as economics, security, and international cooperation. Multilateral institutions, including the U.N., have tried to deliver public goods to the world, such as its vaccine distributions via the COVAX program, but the real demand is far from being met.
While the global theater is full of dramas being played out, including new episodes of great power competition, Vietnam is struggling to overcome the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. From being a success story in 2020 and early 2021, Vietnam is now falling behind in certain areas of its fight against the pandemic. Indeed, given the unpredictability of the pandemic, no country can fully rely on the effectiveness of its policy responses.
Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc thus came to the United Nations last week with big puzzles to solve. Among his main goals was to seek greater international cooperation in the fight against COVID-19. Vaccines and access to vaccines must be at the top of the global agenda. Vietnam has received millions of doses, but millions more are needed. To resume socioeconomic activities sooner rather than later, the government has left no stone unturned in seeking out vaccines through both diplomatic and commercial channels. President Phuc thus had a good reason to stop by Pfizer’s headquarters on September 23 to discuss vaccine deals. But Vietnam’s approach to the United Nations extends far beyond the issues of the day.
First, while the ongoing pandemic is severe, it will not last forever. In the words of Yuval Noah Harari, not only the pandemic itself but also the resultant economic problems, such as the disruption to supply chains, can be solved effectively by global co-operation. Humankind has overcome multiple health and economic crises before. The world’s governments, including Vietnam’s, understand that national and international governance are multi-directional and multi-layered. Coping with the pandemic is just one of the challenges that it faces.
Second, despite the current difficulties, Hanoi is confident that it will surmount the crisis and thus needs proactively to prepare itself for other strategic goals, the most important of which is economic development. Last week, Hanoi eased its COVID-19 social distancing requirements. Over the longer term, Vietnam has set an ambitious (and feasible by several economists’ calculation) deadline to become a high-income developed country by 2045. With its development programs and its Sustainable Development Goals, the United Nations provides necessary resources and tools for the realization of this objective.
The global body is also a critical venue through which Vietnam can work on its security concerns, such as the tensions in the East Sea (South China Sea). The United Nations has been a regular recipient of Vietnam’s diplomatic notes and speeches expressing the latter’s interests and principles regarding the South China Sea.
Third, it has been an open secret that U.N. halls are used for purposes other than multilateral exchanges. Bilateral engagements matter and Vietnam is no exception in seeking to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the U.N. General Assembly. Sideline meetings for President Phuc organized by the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, D.C. and Vietnam’s Permanent Mission to the U.N. were an intensive part of the trip’s agenda, from meeting world leaders to the business community to influential figures such as President Moon Jae-in of the Republic of Korea to John Kerry, the Biden administration’s climate change tsar.
It should be noted that in-person meetings have gained a higher premium in international diplomacy since all the interruptions in travel caused by COVID-19. Cyber diplomacy helps but “patting on the shoulders” is also needed in human relations. Moreover, as one of the most “globalized” countries in the world and with a network of 189 diplomatic relations, Phuc should have numerous issues in the bilateral relations to attend to. Prior to the United Nations’ meetings, he had an important visit to Cuba, Vietnam’s special friend, which commits, among other things, to more bilateral coordination in vaccine production.
Fourth, looking from the other side of the street, many other countries’ and business leaders might also want to come to talk to the Vietnamese President. One key driver behind that imperative is the resumption of the global supply chain of which Vietnam has become an increasingly critical link. An article published by Bloomberg last month even described Vietnam as being “on the front lines of the battle for global supply chains.”
Today, one can easily see global brands establishing their production bases and sectoral headquarters in Vietnam. These include Nike, Adidas, Samsung, Apple, and Intel. The annual U.N. General Assembly has always offered business opportunities, and this time the Vietnamese leader needs to deliver a message of assurance amid the pandemic and lurking dangers of factory closure and production discontinuities. Therefore, it is logical that Phuc met a number of representatives of multinational corporations including GE, CFM International, AviaWorld LCC, Cantor, Fitzgerald, Weidner Asset Management, Steelman Partners, The Delong, Valero, and AGP.
Finally, similar to other small and medium-sized countries, Vietnam must always want to deepen its belief and investment in multilateralism. Vietnam has sent its top diplomats to the U.N., ASEAN and other multilateral institutions because it thinks multilateralism is of strategic importance. The intensifying power rivalry between major powers and the unstoppable increase in the level of interdependency between nations, as could be seen in the COVID-19 pandemics and the impacts of climate change, demand more rather than less multilaterally coordinated efforts.
Against that backdrop, some recent studies point out that middle powers can contribute effectively to solving issues related to regional and global governance as such. As an emerging middle power, Vietnam has been highly active in providing ideas, platforms, and resources to multilateral undertakings from ASEAN connectivity programs to U.N. peacekeeping operations.
Phuc goes to New York this time to set the stage for the wrapping up of Vietnam’s 2020-2021 tenure as a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. Vietnam’s membership will be remembered for its heightened focus on critical topics such as protection of civilians and essential infrastructure works in conflict areas, the safeguarding of women and children during armed conflicts, the settlement of bombs and mine left by war, U.N. peacekeeping operations, climate change, and peace and security challenges.
For the above reasons, President Phuc’s presence at the 76th U.N. General Assembly is not simply a case of business as usual. Former Deputy Prime Minister Vu Khoan, one of Vietnam’s finest diplomats, once said that to be effective in diplomacy, one has to be able to set goals that reflect both the intimate interests of the nation and the trend of the times. With such an arrangement, Phuc’s visit will stand a good chance of fulfilling both of these aims.