ASEAN nations are increasing production of face masks and other medical equipment. By exporting them all over the world, Vietnam stands to make diplomatic and economic gains.
By John Pennington
The coronavirus pandemic has given rise to plenty of new terminology, a recent example being ‘face mask diplomacy’. China led the way by exporting face masks, testing kits, ventilators and thermometers, but as this type of ‘diplomacy’ develops, a new challenger has emerged: Vietnam.
By donating hundreds of thousands of face masks to its Southeast Asian neighbours and European countries as well as selling protective equipment to the US, Vietnam has earned the gratitude and trust of world leaders. Forty Vietnamese firms are now producing masks and Vietnam claims it has additional capacity if required.
Countries that controlled the coronavirus are in a strong position
Vietnam handled the COVID-19 outbreak well. By quickly instituting quarantine measures and effectively tracing contact with those infected, the government has been able to claim zero deaths and only 268 infections as of April 16.
“Vietnam appears to have gained in confidence by managing to deal successfully with the coronavirus,” said Carl Thayer, professor emeritus at the Australian Defence Force Academy. Whereas China must counter perceptions that it did not react quickly enough, others are looking to Vietnam to see what lessons they might learn.
There is a correlation in the wider region between those that kept the disease under control and those now pushing face mask diplomacy. Taiwan earned praise for its efforts to contain COVID-19 and now challenges China by exporting masks to Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam. Like Vietnam, Taiwan has stepped up domestic production of face masks and pledged to donate 10 million face masks.
As China faltered, Vietnam made progress
Although Wuhan, where the coronavirus originated, is now slowly returning to some form of normality, China is fighting a public relations disaster. Beijing stands accused of hiding the extent of the initial outbreak and underreporting infections and deaths.
The European Union (EU) pushed back against Beijing’s diplomatic attempts and posturing towards the US. The availability of Vietnamese products gave countries a viable alternative. With the nation about to sign a free trade agreement with the EU, face mask diplomacy could further boost Vietnam’s economy as well as its diplomatic standing in the region.
By supplying Laos, the Philippines and Thailand, China attempted to reward its allies and pressure its rivals. Vietnam (and Taiwan’s) ability to step in and donate equipment to other countries in the region weakens China’s position and ensures supplies get to where they are needed.
However, both are also using their newfound position to gain influence. In supplying Cambodia and Laos, Vietnam may restore some ties to countries that have moved closer to China in recent years. Taiwan has prioritised nations that recognise its claims for sovereignty.
Vietnam’s focus on quality not quantity has paid off
Neither Taiwan nor Vietnam can compete with China in terms of manufacturing capacity. China’s face mask export numbers are in the billions and it has now donated equipment to more than 100 countries.
However, quantity does not trump quality. China suffered embarrassment as frustrated EU vendors sent back hundreds of thousands of faulty items.
At the same time, Vietnam won praise for the quality and functionality of its exports. US President Donald Trump publicly thanked them after his country purchased 450,000 hazmat suits.
As a result of issues with its equipment, China put in place further quality control processes. Stringent checks will delay its export processes. That could be another boost for the likes of Vietnam; rather than waiting for China, countries may look elsewhere for what they need. “Vietnam cannot hope to match China in the volume and dollar value of its aid but Vietnam can provide assistance where it counts,” added Thayer of the Australian Defence Academy.
Others in Southeast Asia are also stepping up production
Countries must do everything they can to get hold of or produce as much medical equipment as possible. While imports are one option, plenty have converted factories or built new plants to assist the effort.
In Thailand, food production giant CP is now producing face masks. This mirrors approaches across the globe, from Formula One teams designing ventilators to fashion houses making masks and breweries launching hand sanitiser lines. Thailand’s masks will be for internal use and they are not yet expected to appear on the export market.
Myanmar is inviting investment for face mask manufacturing and other pharmaceutical projects and reportedly has seen no decline in money coming in despite the outbreak. Further investment in Myanmar’s manufacturing sector could well save lives.
Vietnam is making a difference and reaping the rewards
Just a short while ago, the idea of Vietnamese-manufactured products competing with Chinese ones on the global market would have seemed far-fetched.
But the playing field has been levelled; those that kept the outbreak under control are now capitalising by exporting medical equipment and sharing knowledge. They stand to earn the rewards as other nations try to recover lost ground while still guarding against a second wave of infections.
Vietnam and China remain at odds over the South China Sea and maintain cordial if not close relations. While Vietnam’s primary objective is to save as many lives as it can, it is not missing the chance to boost its influence in spheres where China has, until now, held sway. COVID-19 presented Vietnam with a diplomatic opportunity to challenge Beijing and Hanoi readily accepted.