Tuesday, July 16, 2024

China’s ‘Good Samaritan’ COVID Diplomacy Is Not Without a Price

Washington, DC – After the global pandemic outbreak, China has been trying hard to wash its hands off the so-called rumor that COVID-19 had spread from a market in Wuhan. In an effort to improve its image, China has tried to give the impression that the country is extending a helping hand by providing vaccines to several countries. But the truth is those vaccines are not provided free of cost.

At the World Health Assembly meeting held in May 2020, President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping proclaimed that China’s COVID-19 vaccines were meant to be a “global public good,” essentially pledging help to countries all over the world by providing them with the vaccine. While the pledge reflects the most philanthropic of intentions, information on China’s delivery of vaccines to countries worldwide paints an entirely different picture.

The 2021 Lowy Institute Asia Power Index termed COVID vaccine diplomacy as “the new currency of geopolitics,” driving the point across that providing vaccines to other countries directly benefits the donor and vaccine-producing nations. Ultimately the act of “helping” other countries in need stems from a place of self-serving motives.

China has provided vaccines to countries worldwide, either through direct donations or joint-production and commercial partnerships with said countries. China exported nearly 1.3 billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine by the end of 2021, primarily to low- and middle-income countries. However, it turns out that the large majority of these exports were not donations- the primary way COVAX provides vaccines- but instead, commercial sales. Two of China’s leading manufacturers produce the Chinese vaccines, Sinopharm and Sinovac. While Sinopharm has proven to be the leading supplier for donations, Sinovac emerged as the leading supplier in vaccine sales.

Data on global donations shows that China might be the second-highest donor. Nonetheless, it failed to make it to the top five countries with the most donations per capita. China’s strategic moves with its vaccine diplomacy can be brought into question for its efficacy, given that donations result in a much more significant enhancement of reputation than commercial sales to provide vaccine doses, the latter seems to be China’s modus operandi.

While China continues to boast its vaccine provision to 115 countries across four geographical regions — Africa, Asia Pacific, Europe, and Latin America — a closer look at the data provides one with deeper insights. Out of the impressive number, a staggering 1.69 billion vaccines until February 14, 2022, have been in the form of sales, while only a meager 184 million have been donations.

China’s soft power policy has been around since the early 2000s, but this strategy has been streamlined under the reign of Xi Jinping. Xi has left no stone unturned and made use of every possible approach to rebrand and uplift China’s image and enhance China’s position on the global stage.

However, with the SARS-CoV-2 virus first being detected in the Wuhan province of China in late 2019, the country’s image and its perception by global citizens took a significant hit as the world held China accountable for the COVID-19 pandemic. News sources reported that anti-China sentiment throughout the world was at an all-time high in mid-2020, as Chinese citizens and people of Chinese ethnicity faced rampant racism and prejudice all across the globe.

With the country’s unpopularity steadily gaining ground, it came as no surprise that China took to repairing its global image by engaging in what has come to be known as “COVID vaccine diplomacy,” falling in line with the “mask diplomacy” the country had performed during the first wave of the global pandemic.

Unsurprisingly, the region of the Asia-Pacific has received the greatest number of vaccines from China, with a total of 853.2 million vaccines being delivered across 39 countries in the region. However, out of this, only 73 million have been donations. The country lost no time signing bilateral deals for its own version of vaccine diplomacy. The Belt and Road Initiative signatories have taken precedence in vaccine delivery. The ASEAN member states have not been left far behind, as President Xi took to pledging the provision of another 150 million vaccines doses to the ASEAN bloc in November 2021. With China’s sights set on gaining hegemony of Southeast Asia for quite a few years now, it comes as no surprise that these countries take the prize when it comes to maximum provision as well as the donation of vaccines.

The recipient countries with the highest donations from China by February 2022 include Cambodia (11 million), Myanmar (11 million), Laos (8.5 million), and Nepal (8 million) – all of which are BRI signatories and have had China’s presence and involvement in their country and their respective economies. The list of China’s vaccine donation recipients is quite telling, as China has been one of the largest sources of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in all the aforementioned countries. Chinese businesses, ventures, investment, and aid have been rapidly making their way into these countries in the past decade, while the debt owed to China by them kept increasing.

These donations have been met with some suspicion. Nepal feels that China is using its goodwill to draw attention away from its attempts to burrow deeper into the country’s political, economic, and internal workings and claim territory in Nepal as China’s own – all of which happened at a time when Nepal was already facing domestic protests against the increasing involvement of China. Meanwhile, China’s motives in Myanmar have also been brought into question. It was accused of “playing both sides” in a bid to further cement its presence in the chaotic political scenario of its neighbor by providing vaccines to both the junta and the rebel outfits proclaimed as the state’s enemies.

On the other hand, while the US struggled with getting its own population at home vaccinated, it eventually appeared in the COVID diplomacy race by May 2021, with Biden openly announcing his intention to curb the influence of China and Russia. Through data accumulated by the UNICEF from publicly available sources, it was found that US vaccine donations at 114 million doses were ahead of China’s, at a lowly 34 million worldwide at the time, in September 2021. Subsequently, by October 2021, the United States had donated twice as many vaccine doses as China, despite the latter hailing itself as the champion of the masses by providing countries with the COVID vaccine.

Both China and the US have remained focused on the Asia-Pacific to establish goodwill through their respective vaccine diplomacy, especially since the coveted South East Asia serves as a critical channel for global maritime trade. This area has been the recipient of the most amount of investment from the US; subsequently, ASEAN and China have emerged as top trading partners since 2020.

In a turn of events, China’s all-weather friend Pakistan received the most significant amount of vaccine donations from the United States against a backdrop of established issues and mistrust between the two. The US topped their own list of donations by the 42.6 million vaccine donation made to Pakistan, while China only donated 3.7 million to the Islamic state. This statistic falls in line with the general pattern of COVID vaccine exports from China having exorbitant export figures, out of which only a nominal amount is found to be a donation. For instance, the 3.7 million vaccines donated to Pakistan stand against the sale of 132.5 million to the country.

With the trend emerging from China’s COVID vaccine diplomacy, the question remains how long the country can uphold its façade of benevolence while making the poorest countries pay. China has taken advantage of this opportunity to its full potential by using this strategy as a stepping stone to gain more leverage and influence over other nations.

Author profile
Pia Sherman

Pia Sherman is a freelance writer. Views expressed are solely of the author.

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