Covid-19: As the West competes for vaccines, China exports jabs and expands soft power

A shipment of Covid-19 vaccines made by the Chinese company Sinovac is seen in Sao Paolo, Brazil on January 18, 2021.
A shipment of Covid-19 vaccines made by the Chinese company Sinovac is seen in Sao Paolo, Brazil on January 18, 2021. © Miguel Schincariol, AFP
Text by: Romain BRUNET
6 min

World powers are competing over Covid-19 vaccines, with national interests taking precedence over the World Health Organisation’s call for multilateralism. But as Western countries turn inward, China is exporting inoculations and extending its soft power. 

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During the Covid-19 pandemic, the race to develop and obtain vaccines, questions of prestige, rivalry and soft power have spurred world powers to compete rather than work together.

The initial race was to produce a vaccine, considered the miracle cure for a pandemic that has afflicted the world for more than a year. The UK, the US, a US-Germany partnership, China and Russia were the big winners of this stage of the game, producing, respectively, vaccines made by AstraZeneca, Moderna, Pfizer/BioNTech, Sinovac and Sinopharm, and Sputnik-5.

But the challenge now is to vaccinate each nation’s population. Israel is the current frontrunner in the inoculation race with a third of the population having received at least one dose of a vaccine.

"This is a real achievement for Israel. They certainly overpaid for the vaccine, but they now have a record rate of vaccination. There will soon be elections and it’s a big plus for the prime minister (Benjamin Netanyahu), who is facing challenges on other issues, to go before voters with a high proportion of the population already vaccinated," Pascal Boniface, director of French thinktank the Institute of International and Strategic Relations, told FRANCE 24.

Such analysis reflects the fact that in Israel and all over the world, people are eager for an end to the restrictive health measures that have disrupted their lives for months. The political future of many leaders thus depends on their ability to deliver vaccines and stop the spread of Covid-19 in their countries.

The beginning of a vaccine shortage in the EU and the recent deal between European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen and AstraZeneca, which announced delays in the delivery of its jabs, illustrate the tensions over the availability of vaccines.

"The question of delivery has become a real political issue," Amandine Crespy, a political scientist at the Free University of Brussels, told FRANCE 24. “For Boris Johnson, it is vital to be in the lead of this vaccine race to show that even outside the EU, the UK hasn’t lost its capacity for action and can move to protect its population as well as or even better than Brussels would have done.”

‘A whiff of the Cold War’

Beyond domestic political considerations, the geopolitics of the vaccine is redrawing fault lines that were thought to be a thing of the past. Western countries swear by their vaccines and claim ownership of them on one hand, while China and Russia try to compete with the Western powers on the other.

“This strategic rivalry clearly has a whiff of the Cold War,” said Boniface. “It is no coincidence that Russia called its vaccine 'Sputnik'. It reminds us of the 'Sputnik moment', when the Russians launched their own rocket into space in 1957 to the great surprise of Americans, who thought for a moment they were being outclassed by the Soviet Union.”

China was seeing economic gains even before the Covid-19 vaccine race heated up. It is the only country among the world's major economies to have experienced positive growth in 2020, at a rate of over two percent. The slowdown of US and European economies led to more imports of China-made products, leading to record trade surpluses for Beijing of more than $70 billion last November.

But it is mainly in the domain of soft power that China has been able to take full advantage of the health crisis, by filling the void left by the West in developing countries. While the WHO advocated as early as last spring for the world’s countries to have equal access to vaccination and created the Covax mechanism to make it possible, national interests won out.

"We can see that it is not WHO-style multilateralism that prevails, but rather every-man-for-himself,” said Boniface. “There is a very visible North-South aspect. While there was a discourse on the vaccine as a 'common good', Western countries bought 90 percent of the doses of the two American vaccines. This will leave scars and resentment in the countries of the South.”

>> WHO warns vaccine divide between nations is worsening, situation could backfire

This is borne out by recent statements from South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who strongly criticised the West Tuesday during the World Economic Forum. "Rich countries have bought large quantities of doses of vaccine. Their aim was to accumulate these vaccines and this is being done to the detriment of other countries in the world that need them the most," he said.

A ‘global public good’?

But China, for its part, has adopted the opposite position. President Xi Jinping stated that any vaccine developed by China was destined to become a “global public good” in his speech to the World Health Assembly on May 18. 

If exports are the indicator, eight months later, China is on its way to realising this promise. China is already supplying Brazil, Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Peru and Chile with vaccines. Morocco is due to receive priority access to 10 million Sinopharm doses in exchange for participating in Stage 3 trials, and Botswana and the Democratic Republic of Congo are in talks with Sinopharm.

>> Where does Africa stand in the Covid-19 vaccine race?

"In its vaccine diplomacy, China has extremely important assets with several vaccines, considerable production capacity, vaccines that are sometimes easier to use and, above all, a very clear priority: To supply developing countries quite quickly," Antoine Bondaz, a researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research, told FRANCE 24.

The delivery of millions of Covid-19 vaccines is the latest chapter in China’s decades-long “health diplomacy” efforts, Bondaz said.

“China's health diplomacy began in the early 1960s but strengthened considerably in recent years with the Ebola crisis, the launch of the Health Silk Road and now the Covid-19 pandemic. While China's image has deteriorated significantly in recent months in the West, it is very different in developing countries, where China’s soft power is gaining more and more ground.”

Complete studies of Chinese-made vaccines are not yet available, which means the inoculations’ value has yet to be determined. If the vaccines prove to be ineffective or dangerous, it could nullify all of China’s efforts to help countries inoculate their populations – and to help itself. 

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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