On June 23, China held a virtual version of its annual Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Conference, which this year heavily focused on vaccine diplomacy. Representatives from dozens of countries, including all 10 ASEAN members, were in attendance. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi used the opportunity to cast China as the world’s leader in vaccine diplomacy, announcing a new initiative: the “Belt and Road Partnership on COVID-19 Vaccines Cooperation.” Wang said that the BRI would “put green development in a more prominent position” as it drives economic recovery from the pandemic. He also pressed other powers like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia to contribute more to COVAX, the global vaccine sharing scheme.
Bejing is using vaccine diplomacy to burnish its reputation as a global and regional leader while casting Washington as unwilling or unable to effectively meet global needs. China was the first country to make its vaccines, developed by Sinovac and Sinopharm, available to developing countries in the Indo-Pacific. Even Vietnam, who has been hesitant to purchase Chinese-made vaccines, has begun accepting limited numbers of Sinopharm as the highly contagious Delta Covid-19 variant sweeps through the region (so far, the vaccine is only available to Chinese citizens in Vietnam and Vietnamese with professional ties to China). Beijing’s cause has been bolstered by the recent World Health Organization’s approval of Sinopharm and Sinovac for emergency use. As a result, COVAX recently purchased 550 million Chinese-made vaccines for distribution around the world.
Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy is, however, facing headwinds in Southeast Asia. Governments and publics around the region remain hesitant to use Chinese vaccines, mostly due to reports of lower efficacy compared to other brands. This is particularly true of Sinovac which has been the most widley available vaccine in the region to-date. Thailand this week announced plans to administer the AstraZeneca vaccine as a second dose for those who received Sinovac as their first. This followed a study which cast doubt on the effectiveness of a two-dose Sinovac regimen. Malaysia’s Ministry of Health on July 15 said the government will stop administering Sinovac once its current supplies run out. Science Miniter Khairy Jamaluddin said that Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines would remain open for private purchase only. And in Singapore, the government earlier this month decided to exclude citizens who receive Sinovac from the country’s total vaccination count, citing the vaccine’s low efficacy.
But despite rising hesitancy concerning Sinovac, most in the region have few alternatives. COVAX delivieries, mainly of AstraZeneca, are just beginning to ramp up after months-long delays. The Biden administration in June pledged to deliver 80 million doses abroad, but the first deliveries have just begun to reach the region and remain modest: just over just over 3 million doses of Johnson & Johnson to the Philippines and 1 million to Laos, 2 million Moderna doses to Vietnam, and 1 million Pfizer doses to Malaysia. These are helpful first steps, but the pace of delivery is woefully inadequate as the Delta variant leads to runaway case numbers almost everywhere.
Southeast Asia, and the developing world overall, need China and the United States to both help ensure vaccine access. Neither a heavyhanded China nor a largely absentee United States has won real diplomatic advantage through vaccine distribution in the region. The next couple of months will be a race against the emerging wave of infections as donor nations ramp up distribution and more commercial vaccine orders are shipped abroad. In that context, “vaccine diplomacy” is not a helpful framing. The United States and other donor countries are not competing with China to see who can deliver more vaccines; they are competing with themselves to see if they can get off the sidelines and help provide global leadership.
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