Chinese vaccine diplomacy

By: Imtiaz Rafi Butt      Published: 04:19 PM, 9 Jun, 2021
Chinese vaccine diplomacy
Representative image.

Around February 2021, the WHO gave the green light to the use of Sinopharm as an emergency vaccine manufactured by Chinese pharmaceutical companies. Even before this approval, the Chinese government had initiated its supply and donations of Covid vaccines, masks and kits to so-called “friendly” nations, but it is clear that these friendly countries are basically middle- or low-income nations. The world is observing the expansion of the Chinese government in an area that was exclusive to Western nations. The Chinese medicine industry is no longer a manufacturing hub but an R&D hub as well. Theorists and geo-strategists are calling it a new phase in diplomacy called Vaccine Diplomacy. An expanding superpower using its Vaccines as a bargaining chip to gain bilateral and regional dominance. There are multiple facets of this phenomenon and one that will play out into multiple ominous opportunities in the near future. 

One strong argument in favor of the stance that the donations of Sinopharm vaccine are not just humanitarian in nature but deeply political is the case of China-Bangladesh relations. Earlier in 2020, when the pandemic hit, India came forward as the supplier of Covid masks and kits to Dhaka. In time, this supply was taken over by China. When the vaccines came out, India became a source supplier of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine to Bangladesh but once again, as the supply dropped with growing covid infections in India, the supply of Astra-Zeneca was replaced with Sinopharm Chinese donations. While Bangladesh Government gladly accepted donations and kick-started their vaccination drive, there was incentive to buy the Sinopharm vaccine by Private Pharmaceutical companies in Bangladesh. When the supply chain was developed, the Chinese Government using its position of donations and soft image, announced a statement that under these conditions, Bangladesh should refrain from joining any project or endeavor related to the Anti-China Quad Alliance. The Quad is basically the anti-China counter alliance with US, India, Australia and Japan as its chief members. The Bangladesh Government was shocked at this statement by the Chinese Government but still continued to move ahead with the vaccination supply. The message was clear to them and to the world. Uptil today, around 600,000 doses have been provided to Bangladesh by China free of cost. 

In the case of Sri lanka, a similar stratagem seems to be in place. After the strained relationships from the take over of Hambantota port incident, the Chinese Government sought to regain its positive image among the Sri Lankan people. And so, Sinopharm as in other cases was donated as a first instance. Sri lankan Government had no choice but to accept given the rising infections. The approval of the WHO gave easy policy options to the heads of state. Similarly, covid masks, kits and oxygen cylinders came as a part of the deal and restored relations between Beijing and Colombo. But voices inside Sri lanka are clear that this benevolence is not without a cost. Sri lanka is very much a part of the Belt and Road Maritime project and the in future, the Chinese are set to make more demands of the Sri lankan Government and much before the expected end of the pandemic. This is conversion of soft power to hard power in the long run. 

In Afghanistan, the Taliban rising is back with a vengeance. The American troops are set to leave latest by November and China is already making inroads. As in the case of Bangladesh, the initial support for Afghanistan came from India but now, the chief exporter of medical supplies and vaccination is China. Sinopharm donations worth 400,000 doses reached Kabul and once again, private companies in Kabul are already placing purchase orders to Chinese firms to quick supply. At a strategic level, Afghanistan is a part of the road to Central Asia channel and stability in the region and bilateral ties are imperative for Chinese influence in the region. It seems China is set to fill the vacuum left by American forces in Afghanistan. Mostly through medical infrastructural projects. Similar to development projects, vaccine supply and cementing of relations between Iran and Pakistan, the Chinese influence in Afghanistan can force it to improve its ties with Islamabad as well. 

In Pakistan, the Chinese Government was more forthcoming than to any other. Sinopharm and Sinovac trials were initiated in Pakistan as soon as the vaccine was rolled out in China. All three big cities, that is, Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi received trial doses and after completion of trials, without approval from WHO, the Pakistan Government began vaccinating its population in earnest. CPEC is already in full swing and the PTI Government in Pakistan has kept the economy running alongwith CPEC and OBOR projects which has been welcomed by the Chinese officials. A massive vaccination drive has bolstered Pak-China ties and gave an impetus to low-incoming countries to join China to reap the benefits of state-of-the-art medical and infrastructure projects. Now, Searle Pakistan is set to manufacture Sinovac in Pakistan under the name Pak-Vac which would have never been possible without Chinese assistance. Pakistan is the first step in the Chinese leap in the South Asia and the Chinese diplomacy is strengthening it every passing day. Overall the Chinese diplomacy in numbers is listed below from WHO Sources,

 From the above table, one analysis tends to speak out. The Americans and the Europeans have been focusing inwards and engaging in the worst possible protectionism while China has prevailed through its vaccine diplomacy by becoming a supplier to low and under-developed economies. It is therefore, in a way, a champion of the developing world and continues to grow its influence. The Chinese Government has termed the term “Vaccine Diplomacy” as baseless but is a fact that no educated journalist or analyst is ready to accept. But in that sense, it is still a much desirable outcome compared to selfish protectionist agendas. 

As time passes by, Chinese vaccines are making their way into MENA (Middle East North African) countries. New nations are entering into agreements for Sinopharm and Sinovacc and it is the only viable option to check growing covid infections. The Western countries are yet to come up with a counter to this Chinese influence. China is now a world leader and a provider of solutions to poorer countries and there is growing impatience among its adversaries. In every sense of the world, Chinese Vaccine diplomacy is winning and it is also the only way as of now. While Western countries are clamoring it as debt traps or diplomatic stratagems and but the reality exists that Chinese vaccines are saving lives where there would be no vaccinations, if left to the United Nations or the Western countries. China is making its presence felt and the pandemic is another success story for Beijing. 

                                                (The Writer is Chairman of Jinnah Rafi Foundation)