China's vaccine diplomacy effort

What does the rest of the world think about China’s vaccine plans and “vaccine diplomacy”; its effort to have both governments and people across the globe look more favourably on China as a superpower? Lee Seabrook-Suckling takes a look.

The People’s Republic of China is seeking to rebuild its international reputation and profile as a responsible international power, says Dr James To, an active researcher of the Chinese diaspora from the Asia New Zealand Foundation. “This year, Beijing’s soft power efforts have been set back with criticism on how it handled Covid, on Xinjiang, and Hong Kong in particular,” he says. “Its diplomatic behaviour being labelled as ‘wolf warrior’ has not been helpful at all – except to feed nationalistic sentiment amongst a domestic audience.”

Vaccine diplomacy is one part of what China has been doing to restore public confidence and support but overall it has had mixed results.

What do I need to know about the Chinese vaccine candidates?

  • China’s two frontrunner vaccines are from Sinopharm and Sinovac.
  • The Sinovac version is in phase 3 (its final trial) in Brazil, Indonesia, and Turkey.
  • China is not testing its Sinovac vaccine on its own people in phase 3, because Covid-19 is under control there. Instead, it’s focusing on three harder-hit nations (and potential buyers).  
  • Sinovac uses a chemically inactivated version of the virus.
  • China has not given Sinovac or Sinopharm’s success rate and no data from the ongoing large-scale final trial has yet been released.
  • Sinopharm’s vaccine has been given to over one million people in China, with not a single case of infection after inoculation, says Liu Jingzhen, the company’s chairman. 
  • Manufacturers say the response is “quick”: Covid-19 antibodies are produced within 14 days.
  • The vaccine candidates for emergency cases in China - like medical frontline staff - suggests authorities have a certain level of trust in the jabs.
  • Unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines – which have been developed privately - China’s vaccines are state-backed (as is Russia’s).
  • China has a total of five vaccines in trials in more than a dozen countries, including Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil.
  • No Chinese vaccines are approved for mass production by in-country clinical trials or by the WHO.

How are vaccine diplomacy efforts going?

Efforts have included rallying support from the Chinese diaspora in sending PPE to China and other parts of the world - while this may have been good for stirring sentiment amongst People’s Republic of China (PRC) nationals abroad, it also raised fears of ramping up United Front activity.

The pool party in Wuhan to celebrate victory over Covid-19 fell flat internationally. The PRC state media response was unapologetic – again not helping China’s soft power image internationally.

According to Dr To, vaccine diplomacy is another pillar of the PRC’s soft power efforts. “Not so much about positioning China as a capable supplier of a vaccine, but more so as a credible alternative to US-European consortiums (and perhaps more attractive for countries who cannot afford/access the Western options).

“This is not unlike its Belt and Road Initiative or the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank – grand efforts to showcase how China is asserting itself as a valid actor with its own set of offerings, with less strings attached. And as these examples demonstrate across the world, there is an appetite for such alternatives.”

However, like the PPE and pool party have shown, there is a risk that Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy might also backfire. “The potential for something to go wrong will only serve to deepen Beijing’s soft power conundrum. Beijing is badly wishing to win back hearts and minds, but as the saying goes, 'there is no silver bullet' – and a vaccine is no different.”

Is China's effort at diplomacy likely to succeed?

Christopher Elder, retired Kiwi diplomat who served as the Deputy Secretary with responsibility for Asian affairs and security policy in the Asia-Pacific region, believes China's current effort at vaccine diplomacy might be similar to the nation's global recession strategy circa 2008-9. "It does seem to me that there is the potential for something approaching a rerun of the GFC," he explains, "that failure brought about a lack of trust in Western financial institutions and practices on the part of many Asian countries. China's huge financial stimulus package provided a lifeline for its Asian neighbours, and accelerated the tendency for them to look East as well as West In in framing their economic and financial policies.

"In the present case we have already seen (some months ago) Trump setting out to corner the market on a possible vaccine to the detriment of the rest of the world. There is no real sign of a departure from that America-first policy with the arrival of a viable vaccine. So there is certainly the potential for China to step into the breach and in the process present itself as outward-looking, internationalist, and a country that can be relied upon."  

However, there's also reason for us to stop putting focus on China's PR campaign. Victoria University researcher Dr Jason Young, Director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre says, "all great powers have a responsibility to contribute positively to global public goods and all great powers will seek to cultivate the image that they are doing that. It is positive to see the Chinese government are planning to support the global effort to manage the Covid-19 crisis. We should focus more on effectively dealing with the issue than on the public relations countries place around those efforts." 

What is international media reporting about China’s vaccine diplomacy?

Covid-19: Beijing races to deploy five vaccines despite questions over results |  Sydney Morning Herald 

Stuff republished this Sydney Morning Herald story about China's race to deploy its five vaccine candidates, despite questions about results and efficacy. 

China hopes vaccine diplomacy will restore its image and boost its influence | The Guardian

The Guardian (UK) interviews experts in Brazil, a nation that has committed to buying China’s vaccine and the raw materials to make it itself, discussing how it is in China’s best interests to use their vaccination product to repair its reputation. Could it be the “health silk road”?

ASEAN distances from China’s Covid vaccine diplomacy | The Economic Times

In a major setback to China's vaccine diplomacy, ASEAN members Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia on Friday sealed deals for procuring Covid-19 vaccines from Britain and the US.

Will China move Africa up from the end of coronavirus vaccine queue? | South China Morning Post

In previous pandemics African countries have had to wait for vaccinations and analysts fear it could happen again. In this report, South China Morning Post writes of the fears that the rich countries in the world will have first dibs on the vaccines, and the developing nations of Africa will be left until last.

China pledges global vaccine cooperation amid unequal distribution fears | Global Times

In saying that, China has publicly said it will offer vaccine doses to countries in Asia, Africa, South America, and Russia in a bid to make concrete efforts to promote equal distribution.

China and Russia are using coronavirus vaccines to expand their influence. The U.S. is on the sidelines | Washington Post

China and Russia have rushed to share their own state-backed vaccines with nations scrambling for supply, positioning themselves to possibly expand their political and economic interests in the process. In this Washington Post piece, we get a look as vaccines as “bargaining chips”, accompanied by grand claims of scientific and manufacturing prowess.

Covid-19 vaccine rush in China raises fears of booming black market | The Japan Times

The Japan Times reports on the fears of a booming black market for Sinopharm’s vaccine. People are paying up to US$91 for two doses of what they believe to be Sinopharm’s vaccine, which brings up the concept of “vaccine privilege”. That is, if you have access and can afford it and/or have connections, you can be vaccinated in China.

- Asia Media Centre