Globally, the United States ranks first in COVID-19 vaccine development, followed closely by China, indicating that both countries are more than capable of providing immunizations for their citizens. While 55 percent of the US population has received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, 48 percent is already fully vaccinated. On the other hand, China has fully immunized 16 percent of its population, with 45 percent receiving at least one dosage. This means that the US had administered 100 doses per 100 people, and China 78.
However, the same cannot be said for most countries around the globe, particularly low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), which have struggled to provide sufficient vaccines to their populations. In low-income countries, only 1.1% of the population have received one dose of COVID-19 immunizations. Most countries with less than ten doses administered per 100 people are in Africa and the Middle East, though many Asian and Latin American countries are facing low vaccination rates as well. A variety of factors – from income inequality to vaccine manufacturing delays – have set these nations back significantly in their recovery efforts.
In response to this issue, the WHO Director-General stated, “Vaccine equity is the challenge of our time.” To help in the fight against vaccine inequity, COVAX, a multilateral initiative directed by the WHO, aims to provide fair and equitable access to COVID-19 immunizations by deploying 2 billion doses across the globe. In addition, the United States and China have similarly established large-scale vaccine diplomacy programs given their strong success in immunizing their populations. Working through COVAX but also bilaterally, both nations are on a mission to score good will by narrowing the global vaccine gap.
Chinese Vaccine Diplomacy Remains Stable
Vaccines from China have been selling quickly. Around the world, 800 million Chinese-produced vaccines were purchased, of which 300 million have been delivered. From its vast reservoirs, Beijing has donated 25 million doses, which amounts to approximately 3% of total vaccine purchases. As of late June 2020, Beijing pledged 10 million vaccine contributions to COVAX, though none have been delivered yet. Instead, China is primarily donating vaccines through bilateral agreements. 65 percent of Chinese vaccine donations are bound for the Asia Pacific region, 25 percent to African countries, 5 percent to Latin America, and 5 percent elsewhere.
Chinese vaccines received WHO approval in May and June of this year, many months later than US counterparts. Although China is electing against donating most of its vaccines through COVAX, it has still designated most of them to countries of the global South, which currently holds the lowest vaccination rates. Additionally, China has partnered with many companies to produce its vaccines outside the mainland, which will allow it to ramp up production timetables as global demand continues to outpace supply.
Beyond donations, China is also hopeful that most of its vaccine sales will head towards struggling nations. By marketing its vaccines as a public good, China is focusing its vaccine purchases towards LMICs. For example, Indonesia has purchased the most Chinese-produced vaccines globally at more than 140 million doses, while Brazil and Turkey have purchased 100 million each, followed by Chile, Mexico, and Pakistan. By focusing on the global South via donations and sales, Beijing seeks to narrow the global vaccine gap through multiple coordinated efforts.
The other pillar of Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy has been consistency. In early 2020, when the pandemic started to take hold globally, China was praised as a responsible power by providing PPE and medical donations to countries in need. While it has since come under criticism for widespread QC-associated issues with its donated goods, China has maintained this strategy in relation to its vaccine donations. By doing so, China aims to boost its image as a responsible power and a reliable partner for other countries when needed.
America’s Vaccine Diplomacy Picks Up Pace
On June 3rd, the White House announced that the United States will donate 80 million vaccines, with 75 percent going to COVAX and the remaining 25 percent going to Latin American, Asian, and African countries through bilateral partnerships. Washington’s announcement arrived at a particularly impactful time, as COVAX vaccine supply was hit by India’s ban on vaccine exports. The White House later announced a new donation of 500 million vaccines to LMICs on June 10, of which 40 percent would be delivered throughout 2021 and the remaining 60 percent through the first half of the following year.
US involvement with multilateral institutions saw unprecedented volatility during the Trump administration. Washington’s withdrawal from the WHO amid the pandemic jeopardized the US’ longstanding image of a normative player in multilateral organizations and undermined the strength behind its standing as the largest funder of the organization. However, the Biden administration immediately signaled a different approach to US foreign policy and quickly overturned Trump’s decision to withdraw from the WHO – since recommitting to its image as a strong participant in multilateral institutions.
In comparison to China’s efforts, America has been relatively late, considering its temporary departure from the WHO, relatively low amount of PPE donations during the pandemic, and other isolationist moves. Nonetheless, the United States is now hitting the ground running with promises to provide huge donations. Altogether, the current American vaccine diplomacy program could pay dividends in casting aside the previous administration’s image in the multilateral arena and reinforce long-term US commitments.
US-Chinese Vaccine Diplomacy: A Race to the Finish
Vaccine diplomacy is far from over; in fact, it has just begun. While it may be too early to draw any hard-and-fast conclusions, Washington appears to be stepping up in vaccine donations quickly and will soon amass the largest contribution ever given by a single country. As for China´s pledged 10 million vaccines to COVAX, it looks likely to fall far behind Washington’s contributions, as the majority of Beijing´s vaccine donations have so far been channeled through bilateral agreements to strategic partners rather than through multilateral accords.
While China has won goodwill from its PPE donations throughout the pandemic and its quickly growing vaccine distributions, recent US efforts are working well to score back favor. At the end of the day, there is hardly a good quantifier for what the final prize will be; nonetheless, both nations are in a strong position to win global influence for their efforts.