China’s vaccine diplomacy, explained

China’s vaccine diplomacy, explained
Source: Thomas Peter, Reuters
In a worldwide charm offensive, China has attempted to offer its own vaccines to the world.

After nearly a year, the coronavirus pandemic remains a potent force around the world.

Though many vaccines are in development and some have begun to show promising signs in efficacy trials, the end of the pandemic remains some way off.

In China, where stringent measures early in the crisis likely prevented the pandemic from worsening to the level now present in the United States, vaccines have begun to be made available to citizens in an effort to show that China is ahead of the world in controlling the virus.

Whether it is truly effective or not, China’s government does not intend to keep this vaccine to itself.

As a result, some have argued that China is leveraging access to a coronavirus vaccine, along with the hope of a return to societal and economic normality that it could promise, to benefit its own geopolitical goals.

Regardless of its motives, by making a vaccine publicly available, China would stand in stark contrast to the moves taken by the US over the course of the pandemic. In July, the US government bought the world’s remaining supply of remdesivir, a drug that aids in coronavirus recovery, depriving other nations of the drug.

Though its vaccine diplomacy is intended to be a sign of China’s might in dealing with a pandemic that remains out of control in the US and other countries, safety concerns over the vaccines that the country is attempting to promote could fundamentally undermine these efforts.

Vaccine development

Several Chinese companies are leading the charge to develop vaccines for COVID-19 and all are approved for limited usage during Phase 3 trials. The three main developers are Sinovac Biotech Ltd., CanSino Biologics Inc. and Sinopharm Group.

In July, Sinovac’s “CoronaVac” began worldwide Phase 3 trials in Brazil, Indonesia and Turkey. Phase 3 trials are large-scale trials involving hundreds of thousands of participants. These trials aim to demonstrate the safety and efficacy of the new vaccine before it is put forward for general use.

Sinovac’s “CoronaVac” has already been made available for limited use domestically in China, with residents of some cities in the country who occupy high-risk jobs given permission to receive the vaccine.

Other prominent Chinese vaccines under development include ones by CanSino Biologics, which is running large trials in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Russia, as well as one by the state-owned company Sinopharm, which has been approved for limited usage in the United Arab Emirates.

Vaccine diplomacy

In a worldwide charm offensive, China has attempted to offer its own vaccines to the world.

The moves parallel earlier actions taken during the global spread of the pandemic that saw China send doctors and personal protective equipment (PPE) to nations that were then experiencing their first wave of the virus.

Over the last few months, China has promised the use of vaccines that could end the pandemic once and for all to nations near and far.

In a meeting with African leaders in June, President Xi Jinping himself pledged that “once the development and deployment of COVID-19 vaccine is completed in China, African countries will be among the first to benefit.”

China has now offered its vaccines, as well as the funds necessary to access them, to countries as varied as the Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh and several Latin American nations.

Though some countries have welcomed this generosity, concerns have been raised over the safety of the vaccines, many of which have strayed from traditional trialing methods.

Domestically, China has already begun to rollout emergency vaccinations to hundreds of thousands of citizens, even though side-effects remain unproven and the ultimate effects of the vaccines have yet to be established.

Jerome Kim, head of the International Vaccine Institute, told The New York Times that people who have received unproven vaccines “could be infected and not know it, or they could be spreading the infection because they are relatively asymptomatic if the vaccine partially works.”

That these unproven vaccines are also being offered to thousands of people in developing countries as part of the trial process has also raised concerns. In Brazil, trials of Sinovac’s “CoronaVac” were suspended following a “serious adverse incident.”

Details of the incident were not immediately known and President Bolsonaro’s praising of the suspension decision as “another victory” for himself raised the possibility of political interference leading to the trial being cut short.

Health and safety concerns aside, China’s offer of vaccines to foreign countries may not be a matter of simple diplomatic goodwill, but may instead follow the pursuit of certain geopolitical goals.

The Chinese state media site Xinhua News has claimed that the country “will not turn COVID-19 vaccines into any kind of geopolitical weapon or diplomatic tool.”

But Chinese medical and vaccine diplomacy has the effect of highlighting the shortcomings of the US, in particular its continued inability to get the virus under control.

In the absence of aid from America, Chinese aid, in the form of PPE and loans, has flooded countries throughout the world, even those traditionally under American influence, such as Latin America.

In Africa, which is predicted to have one of the most difficult recoveries from the pandemic, Chinese aid has been notably more generous than its American counterparts and has taken the form of critically needed medical supplies and experts.

American aid was crucial in combating widespread medical issues such as AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria across the continent, but China has now largely replaced the US in aid to the continent.

This diplomatic maneuvering is not without its benefits to China. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi promised Malaysia priority access to any developed Chinese vaccine. But reports also suggested that this promise came with a condition – the release of 60 Chinese fishermen who had been detained for trespassing on Malaysian waters.

Though this is not necessarily the grandest form of quid pro quo, promises of vaccines also serve to strengthen Chinese influence more broadly.

According to Aaron Connelly of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, “the United States has ceded the field to China in terms of bilateral vaccine deals in Southeast Asia.”

Nowhere is this clearer than in a plan backed by the World Health Organization for the global distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine program known as COVAX. China signed onto the program in October, which once again highlighted the Trump administration’s rejection of global cooperation in deference to its “America First” policy. This has had the effect of painting China as a generous and reliable global partner, in contrast to the US.

The effects of this early diplomatic maneuvering remain to be seen, as no vaccine has yet been fully cleared for use, though non-Chinese vaccines have gone further than others through late-stage efficacy trials.

The effects of the US’ relinquishing the global stage when it comes to leadership during the pandemic – among other areas – will pose difficulties for the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden.

Though Biden has already told world leaders that “America is back,” should America seek to challenge China’s efforts at vaccine diplomacy, it must first bring the pandemic under control within its own borders, a goal that has yet remained elusive.

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