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The U.S. Is Trying To Improve Relations With Southeast Asia — Using Western Vaccines


China won the first round of so-called vaccine diplomacy, flooding many nations with badly needed vaccines and PPE. Now the U.S. is entering the game at a time when the efficacy of China's vaccines is in question in places like China's backyard, Southeast Asia. Michael Sullivan reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: OK. Everyone is coming - is coming this way.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: On a muggy evening last month, a 737 charter arrived in the Lao capital, Vientiane, with a precious cargo - more than a million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine donated by the U.S.


PETER HAYMOND: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: The U.S. ambassador, Peter Haymond, told the Lao audience on Facebook that he was both excited and happy of the vaccine's arrival, enough of it to fully protect nearly 20% of the Lao population, a country whose relationship with the U.S. has been strained over the years, colored in part by the U.S. bombing campaign of Laos during the Vietnam war. Ambassador Haymond.


HAYMOND: This is arguably the single most impactful act - positive act - that the U.S. government has undertaken since the war here. We're showing that even a small, poor country on China's border with a troubled history with the United States retains importance as a partner.

SULLIVAN: And it's part of a larger effort by the U.S. to up its diplomatic game in Southeast Asia, largely ignored during the Trump administration. Kurt Campbell is the Biden White House point man for the Asia Pacific. At a recent discussion hosted by the Asia Society, he used a football analogy to describe Washington's efforts during the past several years.


KURT CAMPBELL: We had a terrible first half. And anyone who tells you that we didn't is just not paying attention. I think what we've seen subsequently, I think, is an improvement in the American response. We are deeply engaged to ensure that we will provide vaccines to Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

YUN SUN: I can see the cynical crowd will say, wow, this is too little and too late. Although, I think the more positive thinkers will say that, well, better late than never.

SULLIVAN: Yun Sun co-directs the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.

SUN: The region desperately needs more vaccines. That's the bottom line. So whoever can contribute vaccines will be welcomed.

SULLIVAN: Especially when the U.S. vaccines are widely viewed as far more effective against the delta variant, now surging across Southeast Asia. And the State Department says there's another advantage to its vaccines.

GAYLE SMITH: They are free. There's no condition.

SULLIVAN: Gayle Smith, coordinator for global COVID response and health security at the State Department, takes a dim view of the competition's transactional approach.

SMITH: Our view is that vaccines should be provided, particularly by the world's major producing countries, for free, with no requirements, with no strings and in such a way that we get everybody covered as quickly as we can.

SULLIVAN: So far, the U.S. has delivered millions of vaccines to Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand - all countries in the midst of devastating delta-driven surges - part of a plan to donate some 500 million doses to nearly 100 countries to help blunt the spread of the virus. But will it help win hearts and minds?

BILAHARI KAUSIKAN: I don't think it's going to shift the needle fundamentally.

SULLIVAN: Bilahari Kausikan is a longtime Singaporean diplomat and lecturer.

KAUSIKAN: Gratitude is not a relevant concept in international relations and never has been. Its effect is going to be ephemeral at best. I don't expect that vaccine diplomacy is going to be a game changer for either the U.S. or China one way or the other.

SULLIVAN: But, he says, you have to be in the game.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.