News that Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia had all arranged to procure COVID-19 vaccines from either the UK or US have dealt a blow to China’s hope of using ‘vaccine diplomacy’ to block calls for the World Health Organisation (WHO) to launch an independent inquiry into its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. It may also prove to be a setback for China’s ambitions to superimpose a ‘health silk road’ onto its bricks-and-mortar Belt and Road initiative.
The three fellow ASEAN member-states’ decision to look elsewhere for help in immunising their populations against a virus that has caused so much physical and economic devastation around the world contrasts sharply to China’s attempts to use its healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors to extend its soft-power influence in the region and further afield.
In Pakistan, for instance, thousands of volunteers have been recruited to trial a vaccine developed by China’s CanSinoBio as part of an agreement that will reportedly see the country receive millions of doses of any finished shots. It has also promised Brazil that six million doses of CoronaVac developed by the biotech firm Sinovac will reach the country by January. Further final-stage trials of Chinese-manufactured vaccines are also currently being conducted in Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Indonesia.
As the decision of its three regional neighbours demonstrates, not everybody in the ASEAN bloc has been so amenable to China’s vaccine diplomacy, however, and quite possibly with good reason. Several Hong Kong and Singaporean media outlets are reporting that, in order to be given priority access to the vaccine, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has made it clear that they should support his country at debates within the WHO as its tries to face down accusations it deliberately delayed divulging details of the genetic material of the coronavirus. This, critics say, has handicapped other country’s efforts to develop their own vaccines.
Already perturbed by China’s recent territorial sabre rattling, some of its neighbours seem to be inclined to give some weight to the allegations and have acted accordingly. Last month, the Thai Ministry of Public Health signed an agreement with AstraZeneca, Siam Bioscience and SCG to manufacture the University of Oxford’s potential COVID-19 vaccine in Thailand and has now signed a deal to procure 26 million doses; the Philippines is buying a further two million of the same version of the vaccine; and last week, Malaysia signed an agreement with US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.
Vaccine diplomacy is, it seems, more complicated than it looks.