At this time when the world is ambushed in the cloak of uncertainty due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus across the borders, Vaccine Diplomacy has come as a new bow in the quiver of geopolitical influence. Since almost a year back when the first case of Coronavirus was identified in Wuhan, China has gone from being an epicentre of the pandemic to the flag bearer of vaccine diplomacy. Vaccine nationalism hasn’t left china untouched, thus Beijing starts its own rapid production of Chinese vaccines and is enthusiastic about sharing vaccines especially with developing countries. But should Beijing’s philanthropic actions be praised or should be questioned, and what strategic and political significance does Chinese vaccine diplomacy have?
In May 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced at the WHO assembly that China’s goal during this pandemic is to provide vaccines and other medical logistic related help under the motto of “global public good”, thus since then, China has been offering support to the world. When the first wave affected many countries across the globe China in an attempt to improve its image propagated “Mask Diplomacy” where it projected itself as a part of the solution rather than the origin of the problem which across the world have become the major conception. China had kick-started the massive production of vaccines China’s Sinopharm, CanSino and Sinovac had produced 4 out of 12 vaccines which are approved by at least one country. Phase three trials for Chinese vaccines are being conducted across sixteenth countries including Brazil, Russia and Indonesia. Beijing has shipped its vaccine to more than eighty countries for market or emergency use. Countries that received China’s vaccine can be classified into two categories among which fifty countries are those who received it for free and twenty-three countries are those who paid for the doses. Pandemic has given Beijing the opportunity to expand the operation of BRI into the ‘Health Silk Road’. Vaccine Diplomacy comes as an opportunity for Beijing to expand its influence through soft power. In Asia, out of ten ASEAN nations nine countries are using Chinese vaccines. Among them Brunei, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar get the vaccines in form of donations and on the other hand Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore purchased the Chinese vaccines directly. Philippines on other hand received the vaccines as a donation but later they purchased them.
The Influence of Chinese vaccines on the markets are not only limited to SouthEast Asia but also spread through the continent of South America. Brazil contributed to the vaccine trial held by Sinovac, which led to increasing trust and credibility of Chinese vaccines. Most of the countries like Argentina and Bolivia chose Sinopharm to inoculate their citizens. In Central America, Mexico is one of the major “Chinese vaccine hubs’ ‘ whose market provided Beijing with a full-fledged spectrum for its vaccines. Besides South America, China had affluent sway of power when it comes to the Middle East and North Africa so much so that, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Vice President of the UAE, volunteers for the clinical trials conducted by Sinophram’s vaccine which projects the level of trust that UAE has towards China. When it comes to Sub-Saharan Africa then Chinese vaccines are predominantly distributed through the COVAX initiative. China, other than providing help through vaccines, is providing financial assistance as they pledged to donate $2 million over a span of two years and $1 billion loans to countries in Latin America and Caribbean countries for access to Chinese vaccines. Priority access to vaccines is given to those countries that participated in clinical trials. Sinovac Biotech also provided 50 million of its doses to Turkey.
“Chinese Vaccine Diplomacy” provides Beijing with a major strategic advancement in its foreign policy. One of the prime reasons why China is ahead in Vaccine diplomacy is because of the policy of ‘me first policies’ adopted by the US and EU because during the first and second wave they faced massive infection rate and it was adopted by the US and EU because they suffered from heavy infection rates and it was needed for them to inoculate as many citizens as they can. Developed countries made agreements with big pharmaceutical companies and miscalculated hoarding of vaccines led poor countries to a vulnerable situation and that void was filled by China because its pandemic situation improved and it was fully capable of sending vaccines abroad. Secondly, COVAX which is the global collaboration to counter vaccine nationalism has many loopholes and one of them is logistical hurdles and the second one is that some countries are negotiating their own deal with vaccine producers by paying more which can lead to delay of the vaccine in the poorer nations. China’s vaccine diplomacy has also led many countries of Latin America and the Caribbean to upgrade their relationship with China.
Through Vaccine diplomacy China wants to be a key player in the global health management system, But can Beijing be trusted with is a huge responsibility, Since the start of the pandemic, China has been withholding information whether it’s the underreported covid cases or downplaying severity of the infection. One of the major concerns is the lack of data provided by Beijing to WHO, regarding the efficiency of vaccines produced by China. Although WHO authorised Chinese vaccines for emergency use, a lack of data creates an environment of suspicion. Both Sinophram and Sinovac have self-reported the results of the trials but they haven’t been published in a journal because that would require vetting from third party experts. Whenever questions are being asked about vaccine efficiency and Trails data Chinese government officials and industry executives deflect the questions. Most importantly the vaccine efficiency data varies from place to place where vaccine trials were conducted for example Sinophram’s efficiency rate was recorded at 79% which is much lower than the trial results announced by UAE which they said was 86%. Even Sinovac’s vaccine had widely different results from three countries, for example, its phase 3 trials in Indonesia shows it as 65.3% effective, Turkey says it’s 91.25% effective and Brazil on other hand announced different efficiency rates in a week. But when another clinical trial of Sinovac was conducted it only showed a 50.4% efficiency rate.
China’s long past history of vaccine scandals and its lack of transparency has plagued many countries with doubts. Recently Countries like Mongolia, Seychelles and Bahrain who put faith in Chinese vaccinations have received a setback because of the sudden rise of covid cases in their respective countries. In these countries, more than 50 to 68 percent of citizens are fully inoculated. If we compare their data with countries like the US where more than 45% population is been fully inoculated by doses of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna had seen a 94% dip in cases over six months. In Mongolia which was heavily dependent upon Chinese vaccines started the inoculation program and eased the restrictions. Its 52% of the population were fully vaccinated but, last week it recorded more than 2,400 new infections. Indonesia, which was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Chinese vaccine Sinovac, has seen a surge of new delta variant cases. According to the data, 350 doctors and health care workers were recently infected despite being fully vaccinated and 61 doctors died between February and June. On another hand, UAE and Bahrain who approved Sinophram shot even before their phase 3 trials but they have also noticed the surge of COVID cases in their respective country population, thus they took the decision to give third vaccine booster shots of either Pfizer or more of Sinopharm. Although it is a proven fact that even after being fully inoculated you can still be infected by the infection, this argument doesn’t let the fact go away that comparatively Chinese vaccines have less effectiveness compared to Pfizer or Moderna.
Southeast Asian countries are also sceptical because of the distribution, effectiveness and pricing of Chinese vaccines. But if we compare to the last spring then since then China is not the sole provider of scarce medical resources, India, Australia, the US and Japan are also the key players of Vaccine Diplomacy, and as they are the members of QUAD whose one of the prime goal is to jointly produce one million doses solely for Southeast Asian nations. Specifically, if we talk about the United States that as the situation looks very promising in the US, Joe Biden’s aid of 2 billion does to poorer nations via the COVAX initiative projects its willingness to provide support to other nations. EU after facing heavy criticism for vaccine hoarding also expected to contribute to CO-VAX or any similar initiative across the world. Surprisingly, one of the tough competition to Chinese vaccines comes from Russian’s Sputnik V, whose data shows much transparency and has relatively higher trust. One of the key points which Beijing is ambitious for is to be a part of greater stakeholder in the Healthcare sector across the globe. Chinese Vaccine diplomacy can be seen as a moderately successful project but the dubious nature of the Chinese vaccine, lack of transparency of data and censorship restricts its capability towards being a “responsible shareholder”.