Almost one in five Cambodians has already received a dose of COVID-19 vaccine, catapulting the nation past wealthier, bigger Southeast Asian neighbors. Like the doses, the success story is labeled “Made in China.”
Already one of China’s closest allies, Cambodia began inoculations with a bigger donation of vaccines from China than any other nation in the region — in addition to Chinese vaccines it had already bought itself.
Cambodia’s early progress reflects Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy in a region where competition with US influence is intense, but has increased concerns among some Cambodians over the closeness of those ties.
The US announced its first major donations to Asia last week.
“The question is asked whether Cambodia is too dependent on China,” Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said in a speech. “If I don’t rely on China, whom should I rely on? Without the donations and sales of vaccines from China, we would not have vaccinated the Cambodian people.”
Only wealthy city-state Singapore has made more rapid progress in Southeast Asia relative to population.
About 16 percent of Cambodia’s 16 million people have had at least one vaccine dose, according to official data. Close behind are Brunei and Laos, another state with very close links to Beijing.
Much bigger Malaysia and Indonesia had only managed 7.6 percent and 6.6 percent respectively, with Thailand on 4.6 percent and the Philippines 4.2 percent, the latest official data showed.
In Vietnam, where anti-China feeling runs strong, little more than 1 percent of the population had been covered. Hanoi only approved a Chinese vaccine for emergency use on Friday last week.
“The Cambodian vaccination campaign depends on the use of Chinese vaccines, the road that Hanoi is not willing to take,” said Nguyen Khac Giang, a doctoral candidate at Victoria University of Wellington.
As Cambodia faced its worst surge of cases last month, China pledged full support “which not only embodies the two sides’ special friendship, but China’s responsibility for the China-Cambodia community of a shared future,” the Global Times quoted Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian (趙立堅) as saying.
More than 90 percent of the vaccines Cambodia has used so far are Chinese — from donations totaling 1.7 million doses as of late April and purchases of 4 million doses from Chinese drugmaker Sinovac. The only other vaccines used have been from the global COVAX program, set up to assist inoculation in less wealthy nations.
“China is the first country to give aid to Cambodia, they let Cambodians get vaccinated and the quality is good,” 19-year-old vaccinated waiter Song Sok Putheara said. “[But] they help us too much and too often, like they are holding hands and not letting us go.”
China’s ties with Cambodia have suited both governments.
China stepped up aid and investment even as Hun Sen was condemned by Western nations for alleged human rights abuses and the crushing of political opposition.
Meanwhile, Cambodia has backed China’s position on its extensive claims in the South China Sea against Southeast Asian rivals.
“Vaccines have become an act of political diplomacy to make and increase Chinese influence in the region, in the world and in Cambodia,” said Pa Chanroeun, president of the Cambodian Institute for Democracy think tank.
Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Chinese vaccine donations have not been as generous as in Cambodia, but purchased Chinese vaccines have been vital in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.
That China made its vaccines available on a large scale created a lot of goodwill, said Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a foreign policy expert at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.
While it would not erase strains, it would make a difference, she said.
“If you develop cooperation in low security-sensitive areas and then you develop trust, then that prevents conflict. I think that’s also the case with China and Indonesia,” she added.
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