Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019, and through the period of the development of vaccines, China has made numerous commitments to provide vaccine to developing countries across the globe. According to “China COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker”, as on 13 September 2021, China sold 1.26 billion doses, donated 68 million and delivered 797 million doses to 109 countries around the world i.e. 39 countries in the Asia Pacific, 18countries in Latin America, 42 countries in Africa. Meanwhile, the current top 10 recipient countries are Indonesia, Brazil, Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Mexico, Chile, Iran, Peru and Argentina. 

China continues to make many similar commitments and President Xi Jinping, while  speaking at the recent virtual summit of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), further pledged to donate 100 million Covid-19 vaccine doses to developing countries by the end of 2021. China had also promised to donate US$100 million to Covax, the World Health Organization (WHO) backed initiative to increase equitable access to vaccinations around the world. According to a spokesperson for the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), which co-leads COVAX along with the WHO, by mid-August, about 10 million Sinopharm doses had been shipped. 

China has labelled its vaccine initiatives as “a global public good” projecting itself as a benevolent and responsible power. However, there are few takers for such an assertion. This emerges after its ‘masks, protective equipment and medical equipment’ aid to COVID-19 afflicted countries, dubbed as ‘Mask diplomacy’, attracted global criticism over use of the crisis to boost its image and for diplomatic gains. Plane loads of vaccines were dispatched to different destinations across the globe and the cargo was received with much fanfare by local functionaries in the presence of Chinese diplomats and officials followed up by aggressive media hype. Also, Chinese diplomats came to be labelled as “wolf warriors” and were accused of pursuing belligerent nationalism which at times was considered detestable by the local populace who were experiencing high fatality and thousands fighting for life. 

Be that as it may, Chinese vaccines, particularly Sinovac and Sinopharm are now “household names in foreign countries”; however, skepticism about the efficacy of Chinese vaccines prevails prompting countries to administer shots from different sources; for instance, Thailand will administer its people a mix of Sinovac and AstraZeneca. Also, there is prevalence of anti-Chinese sentiments over Beijing supplied vaccines. The Chinese Embassy had to put out a post that “Every dose of the Chinese vaccine [represents] sincere good will from the Chinese government and people towards the government and the people of Thailand” . 

Similarly, in Indonesia, the government is not only experiencing difficulties to control conservative Muslims “religious micro-influencers”, who have captured enormous space on the social media spewing an anti-vaccine narrative and discouraging people from taking the shots. The latter propagandists are not only revving-up anti-Chinese sentiments about the quality of the Chinese vaccine, but also over the “foreign threat posed by China to Indonesia’s geopolitical and economic interests”. 

In July, on being asked if “China is using its vaccine assistance to engage in “vaccine diplomacy””, the Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian clarified that for China “Vaccines are a weapon to defeat the epidemic, not a tool for political gain, much less an excuse to attack and discredit other countries,” 

Notwithstanding such urgings, China’s vaccine diplomacy has invited sharp criticism in the US. For instance, in August 2021, China dispatched a planeload of vaccines to Vietnam a day prior to the arrival of Vice President Kamala Harris to Hanoi showcasing “bitter rivalry for influence in the region” between the two countries and this time through health diplomacy. 

Both China and the US have assured Vietnam for supply of vaccines. The Chinese ambassador has stated that his country is willing to “share the burden” and “continue to provide assistance and cooperation to Vietnam in medical supplies, vaccine assistance and technology transfer for vaccine production”. Similarly, the US announced an additional one million coronavirus vaccine doses to Vietnam adding up to 6 million doses from the U.S. Vice president Kamal Harris, during her meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, assured her host that the doses would begin to arrive within the next 24 hours. Besides, Harris also assured that $23 million under the American Rescue Plan and emergency funding through the Centers for Disease Control and the United States Agency for International Development to help Vietnam expand distribution and access to vaccines, combat the COVID-19 pandemic and prepare for future disease threats. The Defense Department is also delivering 77 freezers to store the vaccines throughout the country.China’s Health Silk Road embeds political intentions and its vaccine diplomacy is a political tool. Southeast Asian countries including Vietnam must necessarily be careful given that some are recipients of Chinese largesse, grants, loans and aid for infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). There is already a history of BRI projects turning into ‘debt trap’.

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Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja
Dr Vijay Sakhuja
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Honorary Distinguished Fellow with CPPR and associated with our Centre for Strategic Studies. Dr. Sakhuja, a former Indian Navy officer, is also former Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. He earned his MPhil and PhD from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He specializes in issues of national security and public policy, particularly in the context of ocean affairs, geopolitics, Climate Change, Arctic, Blue Economy and 4th Industrial Revolution Technologies.

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