A new front for a new Cold War
The Cold War was a period in history in which the two major post-World War II superpowers, the USA and the USSR, competed with each other for spheres of influence in a bipolar international system. It was characterized by both promoting their respective ideologies of capitalism and communism on smaller states, resulting in the formation of alliances such as NATO and the “Soviet Satellite States,” while the superpowers engaged in tit-for-tat political, economic and military action.
Recent events in the 21st century, brought on by competing ideologies and exacerbated further by the COVID-19 pandemic, have raised questions on whether a second Cold War between the US and China could be on the horizon. The rapid rise of contemporary China has credibly threatened the US’ status as world leader, a position held since the demise of the USSR. While the US-Soviet Cold War was characterized by a nuclear arms race, a second Cold War between China and the US would be fought on multiple fronts, and is currently manifesting in the area of biotechnology.
This essay will focus on both US and China’s attempts at vaccine diplomacy by selling or donating each nations’ respective domestically produced COVID-19 vaccines to smaller states that lack the resources to produce their own – a phenomenon reminiscent of Cold War tactics wherein the vaccines that a particular state decides to use would be perceived as alignment with a particular superpower and an increase in her sphere of influence.
About the vaccines
In brief, the US manufactured vaccines in the international market are largely breakthrough mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer and Moderna. These mRNA vaccines have a 95-96% efficacy against the original COVID-19 virus, and have also been found to be largely effective against COVID-19 variants, such as the widespread COVID-19 Delta variant originating from South Asia. However, due to their high cost (US$20 per shot), Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are largely unaffordable for many developing countries.
By contrast, Chinese vaccines such as Sinovac and Sinopharm utilize the traditional method of inoculating patients with an inactivated virus. These vaccines are found to only be 50-51% effective against the original COVID-19 virus, and there is insufficient data to prove that they are effective against COVID-19 variants. However, Sinovac and Sinopharm are the choice vaccines for many developing countries due to their low cost of acquisition.
COVID-19 vaccine diplomacy
The ability of the superpowers to engage in vaccine diplomacy is closely related to how they have handled the pandemic domestically. The Chinese have a saying, “人不为己，天诛地灭，” or ‘every man for himself.’ In this situation, both the US and China can only be well-equipped to lead the world out of the pandemic once they have first recovered from the pandemic themselves. Hence, the challenge in vaccine diplomacy for both the US and China is the ability to strike a balance between vaccine supply for their domestic populations and adequate supply for global distribution.
US pandemic management
The US grappled with extremely high daily infection numbers when vaccines first emerged earlier in 2021. When President Biden first took office in January 2021, the country was at its peak infection rate at approximately 400,000 daily cases. Hence, it was imperative that the US government produce as many vaccines as possible for the domestic population to vaccinate America out of the pandemic. This vaccination strategy has seen dramatic improvements in US COVID-19 cases through mid-July, and the US economy has largely reopened by the end of summer as the majority of the population becomes fully vaccinated. Nonetheless, the COVID-19 Delta variant has started wreaking havoc in recent weeks – particularly among the unvaccinated population – as exemplified by a CDC update to its recommended mask wearing practices in which the authority now advises the population to wear a mask indoors in areas with moderate or high COVID-19 transmission – regardless of vaccination status.
However, high domestic vaccination rates translated to little ability for the US to supply vaccines to the rest of the world. The US has just recently reached its benchmark of providing at least one dose of the vaccine to more than half of its domestic population, and this delay in vaccine exports was perceived as a realist policy that served US self-interest first. Given that former President Donald Trump had set precedence with his “America First” approach to foreign policy, smaller states who had hoped that President Biden’s election would see a shift to a more global orientation were left disappointed. Developing countries began turning to China for vaccines, and China was ready to supply them quickly. This dealt a setback to American competitiveness as the leading global power.
China’s pandemic management
On the other hand, China has been able to control infections with comparative success since the initial outbreak in Wuhan at the beginning of the pandemic. Reported domestic infection numbers have been muted due to quick and decisive border closures and strict lockdowns of infected locations. Even today, swift lockdowns of compromised communities and cities still occur upon resurgence. China’s early control left little immediate need to vaccinate her domestic population, and instead provided her the maneuverability to export vaccines to developing countries earlier and in larger quantities than the US.
Currently, while the US enjoys slightly higher domestic vaccination rates than China, the rate at which China is vaccinating its population is considerably higher than that in the US where vaccination efforts have stalled. As of the second week of August, China is estimated to deliver nearly 23 million shots per day, or to 1.65% of its domestic population, compared to under 1 million shots per day in the US, or less than 0.30% of its domestic population.
Poignantly, the relatively low efficacy of the Chinese-made vaccines, Sinovac and Sinopharm, compared to the more effective American vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, have resulted in fresh outbreaks of COVID-19 Delta variant in major Chinese cities, causing restrictions, and in some cases lockdowns, to be reimposed. The Chinese vaccines have also been found to be less effective against variants of COVID-19 than their US produced counterparts, which will limit China’s ability to fully open borders over the long-term.
Modern Cold War comparisons
The combination of high daily inoculation rates domestically as well as an early delivery of vaccines worldwide has indeed enhanced China’s global image as a rising world power, presenting the opportunity to increase her global sphere of influence and tip the balance of power in her favor. By comparison, the perception of US ‘protectionism’ in reduced vaccine exports in a bid to speed up domestic vaccinations hurt her competitiveness in this global vaccine ‘arms race,’ while also damaging her international reputation. Nonetheless, the Biden Administration has made up for lost time by delivering 110 million vaccines worldwide as of mid August 2021, and investing US$4 billion to support the COVAX campaign, an initiative akin to the mutual ‘building of arms’ seen during the historical Cold War.
Similar to the Cold War, where proxy wars were fought in the Korean Peninsula and Vietnam, so too can we draw similarities to the US-China competition today. The recognition of Taiwan as an independent state has become a key point of tension in US-China relations, and the island has since become a proxy arena for the “vaccine Cold War” between China and the US. The Biden Administration has delivered 2.5 million vaccines to Taiwan, a move that indeed stoked tensions with the Chinese government after being perceived as a statement of intent and support for the Taiwanese government.
America’s answer to China’s speed in distributing vaccines was to promote and brand the American made vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, as higher quality and more effective compared to those manufactured by the Chinese. The US is hence priming and promoting herself as the world leader in modern medical technology as opposed to China, who is sticking to the traditional ‘outdated’ method of vaccine production. In a tit-for-tat response, the Chinese media has run disinformation campaigns against US vaccines, with some media outlets (falsely) claiming that recipients of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have had serious adverse side effects in a bid to denigrate the reputation of US pharmaceutical companies and the associated mRNA technology. The state-owned Chinese media has then promoted the domestically produced Sinovac and Sinopharm as the most effective vaccines against COVID-19. These were similar tactics used by the USSR in its engagement with the US during the historical Cold War. Ironically, given the Chinese produced vaccines’ lower resistance to the now-circulating Delta variant, these disinformation campaigns have now limited the ability of Chinese policymakers to distribute vaccines with higher efficacy rates among the domestic population, thereby delaying the nation’s ability to reopen borders.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the global race to vaccinate have become an unlikely arena in which to kick-start a ‘new Cold War’ between the US and China. However, unlike the historical Cold War where the consequence was the formation of a world order characterized by mistrust, tension, and unpredictability, the competition between the US and China is one that would see the two nations co-lead the world in recovering from this pandemic through their own unique foreign policy strategies. In a twist of irony, there is merit in this competition, albeit unintended on both sides.
Nonetheless, COVID-19 will have taught smaller countries that there is benefit in diversifying their global stakes, both economically and in foreign relations. In a post-COVID world, it can be predicted that smaller states will adapt their foreign policy approach to become less reliant on one particular superpower and instead make an attempt to cultivate positive and productive relations with multiple powers. Smaller states may even enhance diplomatic ties amongst themselves in the event that neither superpower can be relied on solely. Hence, the dynamics of the ‘vaccine Cold War’ between the US and China is one that may exemplify the new power rivalry dynamic between the US and China in a post-COVID-19 world.
While the US-China power rivalry in the global vaccine race has borne fruit, a sustained ‘Cold War’ style conflict between the nations in other areas may diminish the credibility, reputation, and trust of both superpowers needed to emerge as reliable world leaders. Smaller states, many of which have matured since the days of the Cold War, understand the importance of diversifying political alliances. Hence, it is only to the benefit of China and the US to utilize the silver lining of this ‘vaccine Cold War’ and foster a new power dynamic based on strategic competition that encourages global collaboration for the sustainable development of the world. In this way, both the US and China will be perceived by the rest of the world as reliable and credible co-leaders in the international system.