US, China vaccine diplomacy crucial but will fade away: analysts

By Viet Anh   June 21, 2021 | 06:07 pm PT
US, China vaccine diplomacy crucial but will fade away: analysts
A medic in HCMC prepares a shot of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 from a batch gifted by Japan, June 19, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.
The U.S. and China could gain some influence over other countries by providing Covid-19 vaccines, but not for long, experts say.

On June 10 U.S. President Joe Biden promised Washington would donate 500 million doses to help speed up the end of the pandemic. This is among one billion doses that leaders of G7 countries pledged to poor countries at their summit.

Biden claimed there would be no strings attached, saying, "Vaccine donations don't include pressure for favors or potential concessions."

Commenting on the move, Pham Quang Vinh, a former deputy foreign minister of Vietnam, said the U.S. and European countries have come a bit after China in providing Covid-19 vaccines to the world.

"All are welcomed. We need more. So the volume of 500 million doses is huge."

He said China pioneered the supply of vaccines in February when other countries were busy trying to contain the pandemic.

Xinhua reported in early June that China provided (sold and donated) a total of 350 million doses to various countries.

Vinh said according to media reports, Beijing sold much more than it donated. According to Nikkei, China has donated almost 22 million doses of vaccines worldwide, including nearly 14 million to the Asia-Pacific region and about 6 million to Africa. It has sold many more: over 730 million doses in all, including around 290 million to the Asia-Pacific and more than 280 million to Latin America.

Taking part in the effort to help nations reach herd immunity are also other countries like Russia, India and Japan.

Impacts on Southeast Asia

Prof Zachary Abuza of the National War College, the U.S., said while the Biden administration has done a much better job than the Trump administration in vaccine diplomacy, it has still fallen short in Southeast Asia.

The Biden administration looked to Southeast Asia and saw that most of the countries had already contracted to acquire vaccines to reach herd immunity, he said.

But the problem is that most countries did not do it quickly enough, and would not be fully vaccinated until 2022-23, and a lot of mutations could take place in the virus in that time, he said.

In this situation, China's provision of vaccines is important, he said.

Every country in the region, except Vietnam, saw its economy contract in 2020, and the IMF/WB/ADB forecasts for 2021 are overly optimistic and do not take into account the slow vaccine rollout and infectious variants like the Delta, he said.

It means that any country that gets herd immunity could reopen its economy, and that is why China's timely vaccine delivery matters and why it would acquire influence over countries, he explained.

Vietnam has already contracted for sufficient doses to reach herd immunity, and does not need Chinese vaccines, but China would deliver faster than western firms, he said.

China is part of the vaccine mix, and they will play a role in the vaccine rollout of every country in the region, he added. "Expect them to wrest and demand concessions for it."

Dr Stephen Nagy, senior associate professor, International Christian University, Japan, said Tokyo recently joined the effort to provide vaccines to developing countries after watching Chinese vaccine diplomacy around the world, including ASEAN.

Japan worries this could be used to fracture ASEAN unity on issues sensitive to Japan and other extra regional powers, he said.

Southeast Asian countries would be the beneficiary of this vaccine diplomacy in terms of health, but divisions could make it an ineffective entity in dealing with serious issues facing the region, he said.

Will fade away

Bilahari Kausikan, a former permanent secretary in Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said China’s vaccine diplomacy has been clumsy. The World Health Organization has approved China's vaccine made by Sinovac Biotech for emergency use in the Covax initiative, but many countries have not officially approved it nationally because the Chinese have not been transparent with the data they need for approval, he said.

This is not in China’s own interest and leads to speculation about the efficacy of its vaccines, he said.

Some countries like the UAE and Bahrain that have used Chinese vaccines are planning to give their citizens a third shot with American vaccines, including Pfizer.

But Kausikan downplayed the importance of vaccine donations, saying in a crisis countries would take whatever vaccines they get and profess gratitude to the donors, but "gratitude" is a fleeting emotion in international relations and would always be of less importance than interest.

No serious country is ever going to calculate its national interests only on the basis of one factor or decide on a crucial issue like its strategic alignment just on the basis of having been given some vaccines, he said.

Foreign policy decisions are always the result of a combination of several factors, he pointed out.

"Moreover, sooner or later this pandemic will end and when it does, even the need to pretend to be grateful in order to get vaccines will also end."

Consequently, the U.S. and its allies will give away vaccines, but Kausikan did not think the impact would be anything but temporary, and said the same holds true for China.

"I do not think the so-called vaccine diplomacy will be anything more than an ephemeral or temporary effect for both the U.S. and China," Kausikan said.

Vinh said while donating vaccines could create influence for a country, if a nation uses vaccines as a political tool with "strings attached," it would do "more harm than good" and politicizing vaccine distribution amid pandemic is counterproductive.

He stressed that none of Southeast Asia countries has approved just one vaccine, having the choice of various vaccines from partners. They have been in fact using a mix of vaccines, with different combinations of China’s Sinovac and Sinopharm, Russia's Sputnik V, or Pfizer, Moderna from the U.S., or AstraZeneca from the U.K. They could diversify their vaccines if they wish to do so.

Asked about U.S.-China competition over vaccines, Vinh said ordinary people do not care much about it and it would not create any major dependence.

Some may just want to be vaccinated with any vaccine available or may choose one for health reasons; some may prefer the western vaccines, for their better quality; some just don’t like products from China, for various reasons. So it’s not much about "power competition or over-reliance," he said.

When the pandemic is over, countries would be facing other needs and quickly leave this kind of "vaccine dependency" behind, he said, using the analogy of a person needing to eat after being cured of a sickness. They would care only about what’s next, that is where to find food and other necessities, he said.

"Then countries will run other races."

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