Global crisis, inequalities between north and south, and Beijing’s “window of opportunity”
Over 2.5 million people have lost their lives due to the COVID-19 pandemic that triggered the worst economic crisis since the end of World War II. The cumulative loss in output relative to the pre-pandemic projected path will grow from $11 trillion over between 2020 and 2021 and next to $28 trillion until 2025. The total toll could be even higher if to acknowledge the hidden victims of COVID-19. The mass-scale losses forced the world’s mightiest countries, businesses, and research centers to make unprecedented efforts to develop an effective vaccine. As infection outbreaks tended to recur, bringing back restrictive measures, both people and officials realized that it was best to reach herd immunity with widespread vaccination campaigns.
The world’s biggest drug manufacturers rushed to develop a vaccine while governments gave them billions of dollars to fund the study. The U.S. government alone spent $13 billion on the OperationWarp Speed. Of course, those more likely to win the race for a vaccine are developed countries whose agencies have at their disposal both funds as well as research and development facilities. OECD members secured the delivery of vaccines much in advance, while some, such as Israel, paid more to achieve herd immunity faster. Now, developing nations are most vulnerable because their access to the vaccine pool through the WHO-managed COVAX mechanism is limited. A report by the Economist Intelligence Unit(EIU) predicts that most developing countries will not be able to inoculate their citizens until early 2022, where in some places vaccination coverage may not be possible until 2023. OECD nations could see their mass inoculation campaigns between September 2021 and June 2022. Non-Western nations will receive their doses through the COVAX mechanism, a global initiative led by the World Health Organization. It is planned to deliver around 1.8 billion doses to developing countries in 2021 by Western drug makers, such as AstraZeneca, Pfizer-BioNTech, and Novavax as well as Johnson&Johnson and Sanofi/GSK at a later date.
The growing vaccine inequality is most likely to affect poorer countries, which paves way for China to strengthen its influence there while building the country’s image of a multilateral power and the frontrunner of the global South whose leader stands ready to “build a community of common health for mankind.” Since the early 21st century, the Chinese authorities have been consistent in boosting their country’s political and economic involvement in Latin America, South East Asia, and Africa. For China, vaccine diplomacy opens a new window of opportunity to solidify its footprint in these areas all the more if the world’s northern states are unable to offer a useful alternative. Vaccines – like masks and ventilators some time ago – have turned into an element of competition to win influence and prestige across the globe. With its two vaccines CoronaVac and BBIBP-CorV from the companies Sinovac Biotech and Sinopharm as well as some political aid, China will seek to use these advantages. As the pandemic broke out, the Chinese authorities put emphasis on the Health Silk Road (健康丝绸之路), an extension of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), to build its position as a global actor in the fight against the pandemic and dim critical opinions on Beijing’s initial response to the outbreak.
Yet, Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy is not bound to succeed. Like in traditional diplomacy, it entails a series of risks that might disrupt one’s image or strain ties with foreign partners. As for Chinese vaccines, there is no transparent data allowing to objectively assess their efficacy and research methods. A coronavirus vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac has been found just 50.38% effective for mild cases in Brazilian clinical trials, according to the latest results released by researchers at the renowned Butantan Institute, a far worse result than a 78% efficacy as declared by the Chinese biopharmaceutical company. The figure is right at the bottom limit for the country while being far below a 70% efficacy, as recommended by the World Health Organization. The CoronaVac case shows that China’s vaccine diplomacy may suffer image losses as soon as its quality-related problems or adverse events become apparent. As Chinese jabs are delivered to developing countries, and not developed ones, the risk of scandal is lower. Fragile state structures, along with Beijing’s political and economic influence, will also make it challenging to determine the actual efficiency of the Chinese vaccines. There is a risk that officials in Beijing could exert pressure on local governments not to publish any data that might harm China’s image worldwide because otherwise Beijing could withhold its loans or projects.
Nonetheless, the biggest obstacle to China’s vaccine diplomacy will be the efficiency of Western companies and their jabs whose quantity will be sufficient to reach countries through the COVAX mechanism. Chinese shots have so far occupied a minor role in the global distribution network. As of February 12, out of 9,6 billion reserved doses, around 600 million came from Chinese drug makers. Also, Sanofi-GSK and Johnson&Johnson are working to develop vaccines that may solidify Western standings in the global health management system. Moreover, it is worth looking at some export possibilities of the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine that some researchers claim to perform better than its Chinese counterparts. Russian state-run media said a total of 20 countries have expressed an interest in purchasing a billion doses of the Russian jab and available data suggests that the real numbers are close to 765 million doses. Thus, Chinese vaccines saw strong competition and fueled some skepticism among potential customers who see them as a second option rather than their primary drug.
Pro-government supporters shout slogans in front of a photo of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic shaking hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Belgrade, Serbia, May 11, 2020.
Chinese vaccines, or much ado about nothing?
As of January 31, China offered two vaccines – BBIBP-CorV and CoronaVac – approved for general use in the country. The former is one of two vaccines developed by Sinopharm whose Phase III trials were conducted in Argentina, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan, Peru, and the United Arab Emirates. The drug maker tested its vaccine abroad as at that time there was no sufficient number of the infected in the country. Sinopharm said on December 30 that its vaccine had a 79.34% efficacy rate although, like for CoronaVac, its efficacy and safety results need to be further confirmed by an independent lab, and in fact might be lower than that. The vaccine was been given “conditional” approval by Hungary, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Serbia, and the United Arab Emirates. Its largest potential customers include Pakistan (88 million doses), Egypt (40 million), Indonesia (60 million), and Morocco (10 million).
CoronaVac, a vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac, had its Phase III trials conducted in Brazil, Indonesia, and Turkey. At least eight countries procured some doses of the Sinovac-made vaccines, according to available data, and Indonesia has secured a deal for 125.5 million doses. Also, Turkey signed a contract to buy 100 million doses of the vaccine from the Chinese company after it had shown a 91.2% efficacy in Phase III clinical trials in the country. Brazilian researchers said the vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac Biotech is 50.38% effective based on trial data, a piece of information that fuelled concerns over its widespread use. Despite this, Indonesia, Brazil, Turkey, Philippines, and Malaysia placed an order, buying 126 million, 100 million, 100 million, 20 million and 14 million doses, respectively (as of February 12). According to data from the Chinese foreign ministry, Beijing supplies its COVID-19 vaccines to 14 countries around the globe, while the rollout may include another 38 states in the future.
Chinese vaccine diplomacy worldwide
The rollout of widespread inoculation using Chinese shots in developing states is still at dawn, so it is too early to comment on its results. Yet, it is possible to make some first cautious hypotheses on China’s motivation, based on whether Beijing sold its vaccines, and the lesson it had learned from mask diplomacy. China has an appetite for becoming an alternative to Western powers worldwide, especially in the eyes of developing states. But Chinese efforts to win the favor of developed countries could be doomed to failure amid discrepancies in axiological systems on which both Western and Chinese political models were founded. China’s vaccine diplomacy has no chance to surface in the West whose countries have more efficient drugs at their disposal – produced locally, in the Euro-Atlantic area. This stands in stark difference to what happened in the first and second quarter of 2020 when Western-based businesses were short of capacity to satisfy the demand for medical equipment. There are also some political factors and the matter of prestige. With other countries purchasing Chinese-developed vaccines, Beijing will improve its public image and appeal for its propaganda message, according to which the West is in decline, while hailing China’s political and development system. Officials and societies in developed nations cannot accept this due to the issues mentioned above and the growing rivalry between the United States and China.
The situation looks different in postcolonial countries in the south that show a somewhat hesitating stance on the West and its policy. China sees nations at the outskirts of the world politics and the economic systems as its potential partners and allies in its efforts to rebuild the international order according to Beijing’s vision. Less developed countries see efforts to bridge the economic gap and improve their living conditions as a real priority, while not necessarily paying attention to the human rights policy as currently promoted by Western nations. With its vaccines, China has a chance to fill the void left by Western countries and increase its already sizeable political and financial capital in the regions in question. Any potential success of Chinese diplomatic efforts in developing countries will not result only from vaccine inequalities. Officials in the states that secured deals with Chinese drug makers probably know what goals Beijing seeks to attain. By purchasing less efficient vaccines, they consciously take a bigger risk, hoping that this cooperation will bring some loans, direct investments, or infrastructure projects. For instance, between 2000 and 2018, China signed $148 billion worth of credit deals with African nations. There are similar data sets available for Latin America whose countries have secured $137 billion in loans since 2005. As a government is becoming more dependent on Chinese money, its vulnerability to Beijing’s political pressure is growing, and so is its willingness to buy Chinese jabs.
Countries that receive Chinese vaccines are mostly those for which China is the top trading partner – Chile, Brazil, Ukraine, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. In Europe, only Serbia, Ukraine, and Hungary secured Chinese-made vaccines. The decision made by Budapest and Belgrade is another manifestation of the multi-vector policy followed by Viktor Orbán and Aleksandar Vučić, who have for years done efforts to cement economic ties with Beijing. Their purchase of vaccines should come as a political investment possible to recoup in the form of new projects or preferential loans.
Vaccine promotion is an element of a broader plan to make China a key player in the global health management system and back its future health investments in countries along the Belt and Road Initiative. Networking will also facilitate the future export of medical supplies. The Joint Statement of the High-level Video Conference on Belt and Road International Cooperation: Combating COVID-19 with Solidarity on June 19, 2020, included the demand for “availability, accessibility, and affordability of health products of assured quality, particularly vaccines, medicines, and medical supplies.” The declaration could serve as the first big step to cement or forge permanent trade ties between China’s medical industry and its partners through the Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese officials intend to broaden cooperation by training healthcare from partner states and setting up a network between clinics and health facilities.
Internally, vaccine diplomacy is governed by a similar logic as mask diplomacy and its primary goal is to build the CCP’s authority in society and a belief in China’s growing position in the international system. Whether vaccines are efficient or not is of secondary importance as such reports are little likely to become widespread.
Vials of CoronaVac COVID-19 vaccine developed by Sinovac sit on a tray as the national inoculation program for health workers and at-risk groups kicks off, at Bamrasnaradura Infectious Diseases Institute in Nonthaburi province, Thailand, February 28, 2021.
Governments across the world now enter a decisive stage in their efforts to combat the pandemic. It remains unknown how big China’s role – and that of its vaccines – will be in this process. Authorities in Beijing seek to ensure that aid provided to developing countries will not only result in the improvement of health situation, but also strengthen the PRC’s political and economic influence. China’s growing efforts in the global health management system seek to build its image of a “responsible shareholder” across the globe, being an attractive alternative to the West. Any potential success of China’s vaccine diplomacy will depend on whether Western nations and businesses can deliver enough doses to developing countries. As vaccine inequalities grow, Chinese vaccine diplomacy is also likely to succeed. What might also be a plausible obstacle is the dubious efficiency of Chinese jabs that protect people only to a limited extent. Despite some differences and political strains between them, Western governments and Beijing should use the resources at their disposal to tackle the crisis rapidly. While Western nations are unable to secure enough doses to their developing peers, it is best to bear in mind that China might get involved to an even greater extent.
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