By INS Contributors

KUALA LUMPUR (April 13)--As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, Vietnam has emerged as Asia’s shining star, turning in one of the best economic performances in 2020 even as economies worldwide are struggling with sluggish growth and uncertainty.

Vietnam’s growth has been largely attributed to its effective handling of the pandemic, with the authorities widely praised for their effective measures in limiting the economic and health impact of the virus on the country.

Despite its success, the country’s leaders have remained cautious as Vietnam and the region are still faced with a wide range of challenges that must be carefully navigated to ensure continued success.

The Southeast Asian country is also undergoing a leadership transition with the 11th session of the National Assembly (NA) or legislature, currently underway amid some debate in the media whether Vietnam is an emerging middle power in Asia with the new leadership having the responsibility to carry the country through what remains a difficult time for the region and the world.

Success with containing COVID-19

Vietnam’s chairmanship of ASEAN has been widely viewed as a success having put forth a well-coordinated and cohesive plan towards directing the bloc in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The country is credited with acting quickly due to its experience in dealing with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003 and human cases of avian influenza between 2004 and 2010.

This meant that Vietnam has intimate experience and infrastructure in dealing with viral outbreaks, and despite millions becoming infected throughout ASEAN, Vietnam with its 96 million population has confirmed less than 3,000 cases and less than 40 deaths.

The country has also wisely invested heavily in a wide ranging and robust public healthcare system, with public health expenditures per capita increasing an average rate of 9 percent per year between 2000 and 2016. These investments have benefited its people even before COVID-19 with rapidly improving health indicators.

Economic boom despite challenging global environment

Effective management of COVID-19 has allowed the country to outperform all its regional counterparts, without a single quarter of economic contraction at a time when many economies globally were weighed down by the pandemic.
The Vietnamese economy grew 2.9 percent last year from a year ago, according to government estimates released in late December, outperforming even China which posted 2.3 percent growth during the same period according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

“Swift introduction of containment measures, combined with aggressive contact tracing, targeted testing, and isolation of suspected COVID-19 cases, helped keep recorded infections and death rates notably low on a per capita basis.

“Successful containment, along with timely policy support, also helped limit the economic fallout and the size of the emergency response package. In 2020, the Vietnamese economy expanded by 2.9 percent, one of the highest growth rates in the world, backed by the early rebound of domestic activities and robust export performance, particularly higher-tech exports of electronics as people around the world worked from home,” the IMF said in its country focussed report.

Effective chairmanship of ASEAN, strong showing at UNSC

Vietnam can also count on its success in managing the complex issues affecting countries the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) during its time as chair of the bloc in 2020, having successfully overcome a variety of economic, health and territorial challenges despite unprecedented difficulties.

Besides developing collective effort against the COVID-19 pandemic, and establishing joint groups related to public health emergencies, Vietnam undertook major initiatives under its chairmanship including cooperation on transnational crime, public security and coordination among the ASEAN law enforcement agencies.

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, and the inability for officials to travel and meet in face to face meetings, the country quickly adapted to the new normal and new operating conditions, getting approval of more than 42 documents during the September meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers.

It even managed to increase the activities and responsibilities to the ASEAN Regional Forum under the Hanoi Plan of Action -II (2020-2025), with discussions on the East Sea, Vietnam’s term for the South China Sea being one of the major highlights discussed during the ministerial meetings.

Vietnam will also serve as United Nations Security Council (UNSC) president starting Thursday, its second time in the seat during the 2020-21 tenure after having become, for second time in history, a non-permanent member of the UNSC after securing 192 out of a total of 193 votes, a record high number of votes.

Vietnam's work at the UN Security Council has been highly valued by the member states, the diplomatic media and the international press, with the country has actively participated in matters concerning the principles of independence, self-determination, responsibility and balance, the UN Charter and international law.

New Line-Up to keep country moving forwards

In the face of a challenging situation in several countries in the region due to domestic political, economic and social instability, Vietnam stands out as a place of calm in a storm of uncertainty with a strong government in place that has managed to keep people, employed, taken care off and overall in better shape than some of their regional counterparts.

Fresh from the success of managing the COVID-19 pandemic, Vietnam named Nguyen Xuan Phuc as the Southeast Asian’s country’s president for a five-year term starting this week.

The 66-year-old had previously served as Vietnam's prime minister for the last five years, overseeing a period of strong growth for the Southeast Asian nation but his successful handling of the pandemic set him apart from other leaders, some of whom have struggled to overcome its effects.

The country is in the midst of its twice-a-decade leadership transition, with 76-year-old Nguyen Phu Trong re-elected in January as party general secretary, the most important of the four roles.

The just-elected NA chair is Vuong Dinh Hue, a 64-year-old professor of economics who had served previously as deputy prime minister and finance minister and currently holds the party post of Secretary of the Hanoi Party Committee.

The biggest attention will be on Pham Minh Chinh, 62, a current Politburo member and Head of the Central Organising Committee. Unlike previous prime ministers, Chinh has never been a minister or deputy prime minister, so his rise is an impressive elevation. Coming from a security-related background, he is also known to be a firm and decisive leader, especially his decisiveness is seen as a quality needed for a head of government.

His success in the period time of leading Quang Ninh, one of the most dynamic economic province, brings new hopes and beliefs for the Southeast Asia country on its journey to become a new Asian tiger. He will have the unenviable task of steering the country towards the dual goal of rolling back and containing the pandemic while maintaining and promoting economic growth. For the new leadership, this goal is foremost.

Malaysia-Vietnam ties

Economic and trade co-operation between Vietnam and Malaysia has been growing in recent years and Malaysia could become one of the biggest export markets in ASEAN for Vietnam, especially in the post-pandemic period.
Recognising this, the Vietnam Trade Office in Malaysia and the Vietnam Malaysia Business Association (VMBIZ) signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on enhancing cooperation to boost trade and investment between the two countries’ businesses in September last year.

Vietnam exports to Malaysia was estimated at US 4.06 billion during 2018 while Malaysia exports to Vietnam was US 8.38 billion during 2019, according to the United Nations COMTRADE database on international trade, with electrical and electronic products and iron and steel forming the bulk of Malaysian imports from Vietnam.

The two countries are expected to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) this year to strengthen cooperation in maritime security, search and rescue and other related issues. This is especially important as the South China Sea is increasingly turning into a hotspot for the geopolitical interests of the US and China. China stakes claim to 90% of the South China Sea based on the U-shaped nine-dash line. The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration, in a binding decision issued July 12, 2016, rejected China’s maritime claims as having no basis in international law.