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CvT: Vaccine Diplomacy Marks New Turn in US-China Competition

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Although the World Health Organization-led COVAX initiative aimed to see equitable distribution of vaccines among participating countries, the reality is that richer countries have been pushed to the front of the line. This makes it likely that poorer countries will be left behind as richer countries gradually achieve herd immunity and economic recovery.

Recognizing the opportunity this presents, China has been garnering attention for its “vaccine diplomacy,” or commitments to providing its COVID-19 vaccines to countries across the world. While other countries, such as India and Russia, are also working to provide doses, Western countries are missing from the scene. They have instead focused internally and decided to vaccinate their own populations before contributing to global supply. Referred to as “vaccine nationalism,” the West’s absence has allowed countries like China to take the lead.

China’s vaccine diplomacy

China is well on its way to fulfilling its earlier promises to provide COVID-19 vaccinations to many developing countries. According to The Associated Press, Beijing has pledged roughly half a billion doses of vaccines to over 45 countries throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Unlike the US, China is prioritizing sending vaccines abroad; it has pledged ten times more vaccines to other countries than it has distributed domestically.

However, there are obstacles to the widespread acceptance of China’s vaccines. Produced by the state-owned Sinopharm and privately-owned Sinovac, China’s approved vaccines come with many unknowns. Contracts signed with vaccine producers and results of later-stage clinical trials have not been made public. Furthermore, some policy analysts worry that China may be overpromising; vaccine makers face production limitations and there have already been reports of delays. Despite these hesitations, a large part of the world’s population will likely receive Chinese vaccines. Not only are they being made more available than Western vaccines when choices for low and middle income countries are already limited, but they are also easier to transport and store. Unlike the Pfizer vaccine, China’s options do not require ultra-cold storage.

The US approach

The US has clearly stated that it will only engage in its own form of vaccine diplomacy once it has obtained enough doses to vaccinate its population. While a State Department spokesperson has expressed the US’ deep focus on “expanding global vaccination, manufacturing, and delivery,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has also outlined the country’s priorities as ‘Americans first.’ Currently, the US is headed toward stockpiling 453 million surplus doses, and plans to have enough to vaccinate its population of 330 million by May.

Under the Biden administration, the US has taken a few steps towards international collaboration. Notably, President Biden announced US$4 billion in funds to the multinational COVAX initiative, in which the Trump administration had declined to participate. In addition, the US is in talks with India, Australia, and Japan to provide vaccines to Asian nations, presumably in an attempt to respond to the possibility of an expanding Chinese influence due to its vaccine diplomacy efforts.

Is it a competition?

While both the US and China have promoted cooperation in addressing the COVID-19 crisis, the mood underlying vaccine production and distribution is tensely competitive. The US has expressed concern over the implications of China’s vaccine diplomacy, worrying that it will expand the rival’s global influence and pressure countries to support Beijing’s policy preferences. There is concern that countries receiving vaccines may feel constrained in their relationships with Taiwan, for example, or that countries will be kept from criticizing Chinese aggression in territorial disputes or human rights abuses. Notably, China’s Foreign Minister is reported to have recently warned the Philippines against criticizing Chinese actions in the South China Sea; meanwhile, the Philippines is set to receive 600,000 vaccine doses from China.

China, nevertheless, has rejected the idea that it is engaging in vaccine diplomacy and claims that it only considers the vaccine a “global public good.” Still, there is little doubt that China’s vaccine distribution could garner goodwill from politicians and citizens in recipient countries, as well as a lead to improved international reputation. Yet, while Beijing has urged cooperation, it has also launched a propaganda campaign to spread disinformation about Western-made vaccines, throwing its well-meaning rhetoric into question.

Perhaps part of the problem is the insistence on viewing vaccine production and distribution as a competition, or vaccines as strategic tools for global influence. The world might be better served by viewing responses to the pandemic as simple humanitarian assistance. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought an unforeseen and unprecedented challenge to vaccination efforts, and any efforts that result in more vaccinations should be welcomed.

However, the conspicuous absence of the US and other Western countries will likely have implications moving forward. After four years of an administration that led the US down an isolationist path, the decision to continue to focus on America first, at least with regard to the COVID-19 vaccine, has not gone unnoticed. And, while China’s vaccine distribution may not necessarily lead directly to policy shifts in recipient countries, it could go a long way in shaping China’s international reputation – particularly at a time of heightened US-China tensions over global influence.

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