2021WorldMay 2021Analysis

Vaccine Diplomacy: Who is Leading the Race?

Luisa Evangelista Chainferber
Senior Correspondent

As countries across the globe are racing vaccinate their populations, vaccine diplomacy has now become a key component of geopolitics. Several countries such as China, Russia, and India are engaging in vaccine diplomacy. This new diplomacy tool will have a substantial impact, given the unequal global distribution of vaccines.

China is seeking to leverage its COVID-19 vaccines to grow its soft power. According to the New York Times COVID World Vaccination Tracker, China’s Sinopharm-Beijing and Sinovac vaccines have already been administered in 33 and 23 countries, respectively. Additionally, China’s Foreign Ministry recently announced that Beijing is donating vaccines to 69 countries and selling the inoculations to 28 others. Collectively, China has already sent 114 million doses abroad as of April 2021. Besides more geopolitical power, Beijing hopes to gain a large economic benefit from these donations and sales. The high concentration of Chinese COVID-19 vaccines in the developed world “created a great opportunity for China to break into a market that Indian and Western pharmaceutical firms have long dominated.”

While sharing vaccines has created opportunities for Beijing, high demand relative to supply represents a significant challenge. Experts expect China to struggle to meet its domestic goal of vaccinating 40 percent of its population by June 2021. The daily production capacity of Sinovac and Sinopharm is currently five million doses. If Beijing does not increase the pace of production, there is a risk that other vaccine manufacturers with higher efficacy rates will compete with it in developing countries.

Despite the risk of a limited home supply, Beijing can still benefit from vaccine diplomacy. As explained by Roie Yellinek, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, “China succeeded in turning the focus away from the fact that it ‘exported’ the pandemic to becoming a source for a solution to the problem,” from the perspective of many states in the Middle East and Africa. At the beginning of the pandemic, before China started exporting vaccines, Chinese President Xi Jinping had already labeled his country’s future COVID-19 vaccines as “a global public good.”

Similarly, Russia is seeking to benefit from its vaccine, Sputnik V. The vaccine initially faced high levels of skepticism in August 2020 due to a very short testing period, although the peer-reviewed Lancet journal later confirmed that it had a 91 percent efficacy rate. Russia has already promised roughly 1.2 billion doses of vaccines to more than 50 countries in Asia and Latin America, although some question whether the Kremlin can produce enough doses to meet the high demand. Nonetheless, Sputnik V is creating an avenue for Russia to build more relationships in Latin America.

China and Russia’s vaccine diplomacy efforts have not gone unnoticed by other countries. The European Union (EU) announced on April 20 that it would send more than 500 million Pfizer vaccines to non-EU Balkan countries. Before this announcement, China and Russia had shared significantly more doses with Balkan countries, which triggered a “race to show geopolitical leadership.”

Besides China and Russia, India has also engaged in vaccine diplomacy and supplied vaccines to 95 countries. India’s vaccines are a highly favorable option for many developing countries due to lower storage costs than for other vaccines; over 33 million doses were sent to poorer countries. India has outpaced China in vaccine diplomacy in the Global South. As of March 2021, India’s vaccine diplomacy efforts have been faster and more effective than its rivals.

Like in China, one of the main concerns regarding India resolves around whether the country can balance vaccine diplomacy efforts with the need to vaccinate its large population. As noted by BBC News, India suspended large exports of the vaccine in March so it could focus on its domestic vaccination program. A few weeks after, the country broke the world record of daily COVID-19 cases with 401,993 at the end of April and started to face vaccine shortages and virtually halted its vaccine exports, reports the New York Times. Although the numbers are already very high, the real number of cases and deaths likely exceeds the reported amounts. As such, it is highly unlikely that India can maintain its vaccine diplomacy efforts at the same level.

Despite these challenges and the suspension of vaccine exports, the Indian government previously publicly labeled its vaccine diplomacy efforts as ‘Vaccine Maitri, meaning “vaccine friendship.” Unsurprisingly, for many countries, India’s help has been critical – Indian vaccines allowed countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, and Sri Lanka to begin national vaccination programs ahead of schedule.

India is also a significant contributor to COVAX, a multilateral effort to provide vaccines to developing countries. India’s Serum Institute signed a deal with COVAX in 2020 to produce 1.8 billion COVID-19 doses for 92 countries. Now, with India’s vaccine export slowdown, both COVAX and several bilateral vaccine deals are at risk, which will hurt significantly low-income countries, reports the Washington Post.

Although vaccine diplomacy is gathering broad attention, it is important to note that it is just part of a broader foreign policy agenda. For example, in China, government officials have publicly associated medical supplies with the “Health Silk Road,” meaning that the supplies are now considered part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Additionally, as Agathe Demarais, a former French diplomat notes, both Russia and China have been seeking to expand their power in the Global South for decades – the pandemic is speeding up this process.

The extremely limited number of vaccines allocated to low-income countries means that nations like Russia and China have found a “vaccine vacuum,” that they will use “to reward loyal friends or secure particular favors,” reports the Economist. For example, shortly after delivering doses of its vaccine to Bolivia, Kremlin began negotiations for access to minerals and nuclear projects with the Bolivian government.

As such, even though vaccine diplomacy efforts were beneficial for some low-income countries, the geopolitical tensions and divisions created by it demonstrate the need for a better long-term solution for global COVID-19 vaccine coverage. Vaccine diplomacy conducted in exchange for favors is politically divisive. The practice is also likely damaging to low-income countries in the long run, as these countries may agree to unfavorable negotiating terms due to the pressures imposed by the pandemic.

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