Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc waves to the crowd upon arrival to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit and related meetings in Clark, Pampanga, northern Philippines November 12, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. Photo: Reuters / Erik De Castro

The global offensive against Covid-19 took center stage at the recent 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). The UN’s urgent pandemic messaging was underscored by all nations, but especially by Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who recognizes that this global health storm has created obstacles for developments affecting the economic, political and social life of the world, especially in small and developing countries. 

“The pandemic sounds a warning bell of the shocking destruction that may be caused by non-traditional security challenges such as diseases or climate change if they are not addressed,” Phuc said. At the UN podium, his voice was unwavering about the global perils associated with a failure to contain the virus and for the promotion of fair and equitable access to vaccines and medications.

While this is an international issue and not just for a single country, Vietnam, once a recognized leader in the early curbing of the transmission of Covid-19, has been forced to adopt draconian lockdown measures to respond to the widening virus spread, especially in Ho Chi Minh City.

While developed countries are taking measures to control the virus, the urgent task of the world currently is to prevent this health crisis in developing countries, because as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has made clear, “No one is safe until everyone is safe.”

Vietnam continues to be in short supply of available vaccines and has one of the lowest Covid-19 inoculation rates in Asia, with just under 2% of its 98 million people fully vaccinated.  

It’s no wonder that Phuc’s speech reinforced the need for the expansion of vaccination coverage, the network and supply of vaccines administered to small countries, developing countries, and support for countries to aid in their recovery post-pandemic. 

At a virtual Covid summit held during the UN session, President Joe Biden committed the United States to send an additional 500 million Covid-19 vaccines around the world, increasing the total doses to more than 1.1 billion. Global leaders know that to beat back this pandemic, all nations, rich and poor, must be engaged.

This pledge has arrived at a critical moment, since Hanoi is struggling to rein in a surge of new cases attributed to the Delta variant. “For the pandemic to be repelled, it is essential that we stand in solidarity, uphold a high sense of responsibility, and step up cooperation,” Phuc said.

Despite a resurgence of Covid-19, Vietnam’s self-image was boosted in its rotating role as a member of the UN Security Council and presidency in April, and ability and confidence to steer signature events and peace-building efforts. Its expressed leadership abilities mark the second time that the emerging nation has served as president as a non-permanent UNSC member for the 2020-21 tenure.

The Security Council is the most powerful UN body, composed of 15 members, five that are permanent – China, France, Russia, the UK and the US – and 10 that are non-permanent, elected every two years.

“Covid-19 is not the sole challenge that we are facing today. Increasing tensions among major powers has led to a divisive and unstable international system,” Phuc said. 

He also alluded to China, like Biden, but without naming Beijing as contributing to “disputes over territories and resources in many areas and in a disregard for international law.” This veiled irresolute reference plainly ignored China’s assaults on the United Nations mission.

Vietnam was first elected as a non-permanent member for the 2008-09 term, and acted as the council’s president in July 2008 and October 2009. In 2020, Vietnam for the second time in history became a non-permanent member after securing 192 out of 193 votes. 

Vietnam’s ascendancy in international security has been broadly witnessed in its role in hosting the 2017 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit and the 2019 Hanoi Summit, a meeting bringing together North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and then-US president Donald Trump. Although the summit failed to bridge any resolution on the disarmament of a global nuclear threat, Hanoi emerged as a recognized peace-builder. 

Vietnam’s remarkable repositioning as a middle power and evolving role as a peace-builder demonstrates the nation’s growing confidence to play a key mediation role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on regional security issues.

Over the past three decades, Vietnam has garnered recognition as a responsible member of the international community. The nation has successfully adopted market institutions that have led to more than two decades of impressive economic performance.

The nation’s successful march to the UN was accelerated by the remarkable steps taken from 1995 to 1999, including the normalizing of diplomatic and trade relations with the United States, and cooperation with multilateral donors like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

Notably, Vietnam has leveraged greater integration with the international economic system, including through ascension to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Despite spending a half-century at war, Hanoi has lost no time in supporting UN initiatives that highlight the fundamental principles of international laws and the Charter in addressing international conflicts through peaceful means. 

A central part of its openness and engagement with the world has been the country’s willingness to acquire a more prominent voice and position in the United Nations. This has been most evident in its successful efforts to join UN peacekeeping operations.

Vietnam recognizes the urgency in supporting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the Paris Climate Agreement (COP21). The country’s leadership faces the present dangers of climate change seen in the East Sea (aka South China Sea), \landslides in the northern mountains, and rising sea levels in the Mekong Delta, the rice bowl for its citizens and home to more than 20 million Vietnamese.

Vietnam is in complete accord with the UN in recognizing that poverty and environmental issues are interconnected. Human impact on the ocean and on coastal communities has been profound, ranging from the destruction of marine ecosystems and lost biodiversity. 

“Cooperation in mitigating and preventing the dire impacts of climate change has become more crucial than ever before,” Phuc added in his speech. 

Vietnam faces some of the greatest and most urgent threats of biodiversity degradation, extreme weather, and sea-level rise from climate change of any country in the world. However, a number of new initiatives are starting to address these challenges, ranging from a national transition to green energy to a UN-backed push for sustainable development.

Hanoi’s political leaders have pledged to restructure Vietnam’s economy to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions.

Phuc also referenced the lead-up to toward the Conference of the Parties (COP-26), a global UN summit on climate change scheduled to take place in Glasgow in November. “We need to make every effort to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, in which developed countries should take the lead,” urged the Vietnamese president.

Along with Covid-19, climate change ranks among the highest concerns among all Southeast Asians. Also, the Philippines and Vietnam were the countries worst hit by extreme weather events in 2020, including super-typhoons Goni (Rolly) and Vamco.

With the dual challenges of Covid-19 and climate change, the transition to a new normalcy will require the cooperation of the wealthy nations helping the poor and developing countries. 

Vietnam is pledging to stake its own future on making proactive and responsible contributions to the United Nations peacekeeping charter, to uphold international law and to achieve sustainable development goals. According to President Phuc, “The prerequisite to fostering recovery and growth in the post-pandemic era is to sustain peace, security, and stability in each country, each region, and the world at large.” 

James Borton

James Borton is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and the author of Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground.