Vaccine Diplomacy and Jab Geopolitics

(Photo: Yahoo Finance)

BY James Pitt Regular Contributor

At the end of February, Ghana received 600,000 doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. They were the first recipient of vaccines through COVAX, the global scheme to provide vaccines for lower-income countries, coordinated by the World Health Organization, Gavi (The Vaccine Alliance) and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. COVAX’s aim is to give away 2.6 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine by the end of 2021, to make sure that COVID-19 isn’t just eradicated in the West and the richer world but globally.

Whilst not technically a Western organisation, the biggest state donors to COVAX have been the US, Germany, the UK, Japan and Canada, and the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is the one primarily being used for COVAX donations. COVAX therefore mainly represents Western aid and development efforts.

But there are concerns among many in the developing world that COVAX, and the West, aren’t doing enough to have be effective in eradicating the virus globally. Recipient countries are only being given enough vaccines to inoculate a slim fraction of their population, with little prospect of more arriving soon – Kenya, for example received 1 million doses for its population of nearly 53 million.

There is no doubt that COVAX, and the states supporting it, have been slow off the mark. Rich Western states, particularly the UK and US have been seen as selfish – their governments deciding to vaccinate their own populations first, buying up huge amounts of vaccine supplies, while other countries, particularly China, have committed to vaccinating citizens of poorer countries alongside their own populations rather than after.

China’s efforts to vaccinate the citizens of developing countries has been underway for some time, and both India and Russia have also been donating or selling large amounts of vaccines. These countries do, however, appear to be using their vaccine donations to advance their strategic aims. After four years of ‘America First’ under Donald Trump, the pandemic has given China an opportunity to frame itself as a responsible global leader and to incorporate health into its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Joe Biden has repeatedly promised a return of American leadership, stating that “America is back” but if China can successfully vaccinate half the world and not be seen to put its own citizens over those of poor and middle-income countries, it may seriously undermine that message, and with it the international order which Biden hopes to maintain.

China has, by far, been the most proactive of any country in sending jabs abroad, having so far sold or donated hundreds of millions of vaccines to several small or developing countries. It has helped that their Sinopharm vaccine was approved in some countries as early as December last year. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, two early backers of the Sinopharm vaccine are well on their way to achieving herd immunity and the resumption of life as normal, acting as great adverts for Chinese vaccines. As a result of its speed and generosity, China is forging bonds in regions of importance, such as the Middle East, which will undoubtedly cause headaches in Washington.

China also recently promised to send a quarter of its vaccines to African countries – a continent which they have already given a great deal of attention and which is instrumental to the BRI – coming after the recent COVAX deliveries.

Southeast Asia has been another region on which Beijing has placed significant importance, as it vies with the US for dominance in the region and Chinese vaccines have been welcomed in most countries of the region. The president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, was at the airport last month to see the vaccines arrive, singing the praises of China and Xi Jinping, signalling that China’s efforts may be paying off, given that just a few years ago, the Philippines were a staunch ally of the US.

Interestingly though, some countries have refused to be drawn in. Singapore was sent a delivery of the vaccines despite the fact that they hadn’t yet been approved for use – displaying the extent of China’s keenness to have its vaccines adopted globally. They were received with very little fanfare, after deliveries of the (American) Moderna and (German-American) Pfizer-Biontech vaccines were warmly welcomed by Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

The Sinovac vaccine, like the Sinopharm vaccine, has received wildly varying efficacy rates from different countries’ regulators and is yet to be approved for use by the WHO, so it is unsurprising that Singapore, a country famed for its pragmatism, would like to take its time in deciding the safety and efficacy of vaccines for itself.

Chinese vaccine donations have been met with scepticism in Africa particularly by some, wary of China’s motives. John Nkengasong, the head of the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Atlantic Council that “Africa will refuse to be that playing ground” for countries to use vaccines to further their political aims and gain influence.

But states’ desires to vaccinate fed-up citizens, put an end to crippling economic crisis and to not fall behind internationally on vaccinations just seem too strong for many – regardless of uncertainties over efficacy or of the donor/vendor states’ intentions. The EU has had a disastrous vaccination campaign so far, wrought with embarrassment, and so, somewhat surprisingly, the Russian ‘Sputnik V’ vaccine is being accepted in Europe, with some countries, including Italy, even striking deals to manufacture it domestically later on in the year.

Troubled by the number of Chinese vaccines being sent around the world, particularly on its doorstep, and as the world’s biggest vaccine producer, India began its own international rollout – though, as a democracy, it still wants to pursue an ambitious programme at home, as the government aims to vaccinate 300 million citizens by August. India has focussed its donations on Central, South and Southeast Asia. They have given away 500,000 jabs to Afghanistan, a country in which India has invested millions in recent years to counter Pakistani influence. Additionally, India has sent vaccines to other Asian countries, including Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and even Cambodia – a country that has a very close relationship with China.

However, the Indian government’s domestic obligations this week forced it to temporarily ban exports of AstraZeneca vaccines made by the India Serum institute, as the country faces a spike in infections. This will severely limit its ability to compete with China in its international rollout and will also be a blow to COVAX, which has been relying on Indian-made AstraZeneca vaccines. This may be welcome news in Beijing, but it represents a huge setback for the global effort to end the pandemic and it’s the people of developing countries who will really lose out.

Moreover, the US appears to be taking China’s vaccine diplomacy very seriously and has reportedly been in talks with its Quad partners, formulating a plan to counter China’s efforts. The Quad partnership consists of the US, Australia, India and Japan and looks as though it will play a significant role in American foreign policy under Joe Biden, as China and Asia have become the main strategic focus of the US. This is something to watch going forward, though the Indian vaccine export ban will be a big setback.

It certainly looks as though vaccines are becoming the new weapon of great power politics, as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether or not China and Russia can successfully use vaccines to undermine Joe Biden and his vision of renewed American leadership remains to be seen, though, and this is something that will be playing out for the next couple of years. As America tries to keep hold of its power and maintain the international order which has dominated for so long, and as China attempts to prove itself as an alternative global leader, this could have really fascinating consequences for the future of global governance and world order.

Nonetheless, attention should be given to the tragic fact that many in some of the poorest countries will go without being vaccinated for a very long time due to the fact their country is not deemed strategically important enough. Whether or not it’s inevitable, it is sad that citizens of developing countries find themselves at the mercy of such competition between rich and powerful states, when it is they who have suffered the most from the vicious onslaught of COVID-19.

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