Japan and Vaccine Diplomacy
August 9, 2021
By Coleman Beaty
Following the start of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga issued a COVID-19 related state of emergency that will run through August 22nd. The new ordinance comes in response to the delta variant’s persistency in Tokyo and worsening pandemic conditions around the nation, heightened by the games. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government reported 3,214.4 new positive cases per day (7-day average model) as of August 1st, 2021. This is paired with persistently low vaccination rates. Only 29.27% of Japan’s population is fully vaccinated from COVID-19, the lowest percentage amongst the G7 countries.
Despite Japan’s difficulties in combatting the virus at home, Japan has become the leader of vaccine donations across Asia. On June 16, Vietnam received 1 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses produced in Japan . A week later, Vietnam received an additional 2 million doses of AstraZeneca, and Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines also received vaccines. Japan further donated a total of $14.8 million in medical equipment and $9.3 million in cold storage facilities to India. The country also recently announced the COVID-19 Crisis Response Emergency Support Loan for developing countries. Japan's government has made vaccine diplomacy a key component of its foreign policy and leadership strategy in Indochina. Despite the country's worsening pandemic situation, Japan has prioritized this policy of vaccine diplomacy because of the country's desire to strengthen its image as a humanitarian aid donor and to capitalize on China's failure to improve its global reputation.
Japan’s increasing vaccine deployment comes as a response to China’s shortcomings of its efforts to provide vaccines to other countries during the first half of 2021. In comparison to its Western counterparts, China's domestically produced Sinovac vaccine has proven to be largely ineffective. The deaths of ten Indonesian doctors after receiving the vaccine dented China’s public image and raised ethical concerns. Furthermore, under Beijing’s “Heath Silk Road”, a subset of the greater Belt and Road Initiative, China, despite its goals for global health diplomacy, saw decreases in consumer confidence following the release of vaccines before peer-reviewed clinical trial data became widely available. This led the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or "Quad"), which consists of Japan, India, the United States, and Australia, to develop plans to export vaccines throughout the Indo-Pacific region. By 2022, Quad leaders have agreed to ship 1 billion vaccine doses to the Indo-Pacific region. During the first half of 2021, India was seen as the primary distributor for these vaccines. However, as a result of India's pandemic crisis, Japan has taken the lead in health diplomacy.
Japan has used its influence in the Quad to promote apolitical and equitable vaccine distribution, distinguishing itself from China. In a press release, Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Toshimitsu Motegi has created a clear and present distinction, decoupling vaccine deliveries from diplomatic intentions, stating that “There is insufficient vaccine provision, so I believe it is necessary to create a system combining such support to ensure as much vaccine provision to developing countries as possible and so every person can ultimately be vaccinated.” Furthermore, during telephone talks between their foreign ministers on June 9, 2021, Japan and Australia agreed to cooperate in the provision of vaccines to developing countries. Japan will prioritize vaccination support for Asian economies under the agreement, while Australia and France will increase their support for Pacific island nations. A Japanese government source said, "We take charge of different regions" to effectively counter China's vaccine diplomacy.
While this may be Tokyo’s intent, China and Japan's vaccine diplomacy campaigns frequently target the same countries, exacerbating the two countries' ongoing competition for infrastructure projects and access to regional manufacturing sectors. In terms of security and economic cooperation, Japan has strengthened its ties with Southeast Asia by providing infrastructural advantages in the region. According to a poll conducted by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in collaboration with Harris Poll in November of 2019, more than 90% of ASEAN respondents describe their relationships with Japan as dependable and friendly.
While Japan’s vaccine distribution policy is more closely associated with Asia, the nation has supplied various medical donations that strengthen its partnerships with India and Africa. Following Japan's provision of emergency aid to India in April 2021, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited Prime Minister Suga to visit New Delhi following the pandemic, claiming that the India-Japan partnership will strengthen international stability. In contrast, despite a de-escalation agreement on the Ladakh border, tensions between China and India have persisted. In terms of support to Africa, Japan has donated $1 million U.S. dollars towards the African Union Joint Continental Strategy, establishing the goal of training 120,000 African health care workers. This builds on Japan's long history of assisting Africa's development, which dates to the foundation of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development in 1993.
Vaccine deliveries have strengthened Japan's image as a dependable partner for Southeast Asian countries, leading to more comprehensive security cooperation. Furthermore, Japan’s medical diplomacy has further improved its cooperation and image in Africa and India. As a result, Japan has further developed its regional strategy strengthening its perceived role in the international community as an ally to Indochina and Southeast Asia. In response to the pandemic and China’s shortcomings in its own attempts at vaccine diplomacy, Japan's regional influence in both the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and ASEAN provide Tokyo a position of leadership. Despite the country's worsening pandemic, Japan's vaccine diplomacy satisfies the country's desire to strengthen its image as a humanitarian aid donor and capitalizes on China's failure to improve its global reputation during the pandemic.
Coleman Beaty is a former intern with the Economics Program at CSIS.