The world kept battling with a new SARS-like virus throughout the 2020, that began in Wuhan, China. The virus that was named COVID-19 by the World Health Organisation has since disrupted the normal every day, claimed 1.9 million lives and devastated trade. Many countries are still desperately battling the virus as well as contending with its negative effect on business and trade.
Over the course of last year, China has been on the receiving end of a lot of backlash from the international community due to its initial mishandling of the COVID-19 outbreak and its silencing of doctors like Li Wenliang. Dr Li at the start of 2020 tried to warn people about a new virus that had appeared, however, Chinese authorities rebuked him for his efforts and accused him of spreading ‘rumors’. This action by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) delayed the spread of crucial information about the virus, causing countries across the world to be caught completely unaware and unprepared. Shocked by China’s worsening image in the international order, the CCP has decided to employ a tactic termed as ‘vaccine diplomacy’. Chinese factories are currently in overdrive and producing large amounts of untested and unreliable COVID-19 vaccines that it plans to ship to other countries to deflect some of the blame from its mishandling of the virus.
China has intentionally also decided to prey on vulnerable developing countries by giving them priority access to the untested vaccine. China even conducted the initial trials for its vaccine in these developing countries and turned its citizens into human guinea pigs.
The CCP hopes that by distributing the vaccines to developing countries in large quantities, China will be able to be hailed as the country that potentially brought an end to the pandemic, rather than being blamed as. its cause. As per media reports, two Arab nations became the first countries to approve the Chinese COVID-19 vaccine. The United Arab Emirates approved the vaccine on December 9 while the Kingdom of Bahrain approved the vaccine a few days later. Jin Dong-Yan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, has stated that there is a glaring lack of clinical-trial data. As soon as countries would start taking cognisance of this lack of data regarding and this lack of data regarding the vaccine’s safety and efficacy, China’s attempts to export the vaccine to other countries would be hindered.
The Chinese COVID-19 vaccine has been developed by a state-run enterprise called Sinovac. Because the company is state-run, it does not have an open and transparent system – meaning that data about the Chinese vaccine is not yet readily available. As per a report by Nature, both UAE and Bahrain reported that the efficacy of the vaccine is 86% which in itself is strange. As the vaccine manufacturer has not confirmed the results of the vaccine trials held in UAE and Bahrain. According to the scientific journal, The Lancet, the Chinese vaccine manufacturer has only provided the world with the results of the first and second phase trials. The data from phase 3 trials that claims an efficacy of around 80% is still hidden. Researchers in Brazil, where the vaccine was also undergoing testing, have withheld the results. This lack of transparency has once against cast doubts about the nefarious secrets China is trying to hide.
In a bid to win the vaccine diplomacy race, Chinese President Xi Jinping has pledged to put aside $2 billion for the African continent alone. China has also offered Latin American and Caribbean countries a $1 billion loan to purchase the vaccine. According to Jacob Mardell, an analyst at MERICS, “Beijing… will surely leverage the provision of the life-saving technology for commercial and diplomatic profit’. Mardell added that China is trying to act as if “providing the vaccine to these developing countries is an act of charity.” In truth, China is intending on trapping these vulnerable developing nations in a form of debt-trap to gain an advantage in the future. At the same time, China can appear to look magnanimous to the world for helping and use it to change the narrative in its favour.
At the start of December, Indonesia received close to 1.2 million doses of Sinovac’s COVID-19 vaccine. Indonesia is wagering its all on a risky bet on China’s yet untested vaccine. It hopes that Sinovac’s vaccine will help it control one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in Asia. But experts have claimed that China’s help is not unconditional. A recent paper published in December by the Singapore-based Yusof Ishak Institute has stated that China intends to use its vaccine donations to advance its regional agenda, especially in sensitive topics like the disputed South China Sea. China has also signed deals to provide 46 million doses of the vaccine to Brazil and 50 million doses to Turkey. CanSino Biologics also claims to have developed another potential COVID-19 vaccine with the help of the Chinese military and plans to deliver 35 million doses of the vaccine to Mexico.
Even though China has been aggressively promoting ‘vaccine diplomacy’, not everyone has been fooled by their efforts to manipulate and take advantage of the global pandemic. ASEAN members – Thailand, Philippines and Malaysia have refused Chinese vaccines and instead sealed deals for procuring the COVID-19 vaccine from Britain and the US. Reports in the local newspapers in Hong Kong and Singapore revealed that China was trying to persuade the ASEAN countries for their support in the WHO in turn of supply of the vaccine but in vain. China required support because it had been facing criticism from the world health body for hiding crucial information about the virus during the initial outbreak in China. China and President Xi Jinping’s increasingly aggressive military posturing in the South China Sea has made ASEAN countries vary from China and forced them to side with Britain & the US.
India is also currently in the process of rolling out its COVID-19 vaccine developed by the Serum Institute of India in Pune. India has already conducted dry runes in a few states and plans on rolling out the vaccine in a few months. Even India’s neighbours have started realising that any help from China always comes with ‘strings attached’. The Himalayan country of Nepal has expressed that it wishes to procure the Indian COVID-19 vaccine rather than the Chinese one. Indian foreign secretary Harsh Shringla met with Nepal’s top leadership in late November and gave Nepal assurances that India plans to supply its neighbours with the COVID-19 vaccine. Foreign secretary Jayanath Colambage is learnt to have stated that Sri Lanka was also in talks with India for COVID-19 vaccine. The Sri Lankan government is currently in the process of determining the cost involved in procuring the vaccine from different countries as well as the issue of its storage and distribution. The AstraZeneca vaccine that is being developed in India is Sri Lanka’s likely choice as per Colambage, but a committee established to determine the best vaccine is supposed to submit its report by mid-January.
On 9 December 2020, Bhutan’s Ambassador to India stated that the COVID-19 vaccine that was being developed in India would benefit a lot of countries in the world. Ambassador Vetsop Namgyel added that the vaccine being developed in India was the easiest to store, administer and transport. As per a report in the mint, even F Svane, Ambassador of Denmark to India was all praises for India’s efforts to develop the vaccine stating that instead of working for commercial or national interest India was working for the interest of countries all over the world. The Managing Director of the Biological E Ltd, another company in India developing a COVID-19 vaccine, stated that the rapid development of the vaccine is a testament to Prime Minister Modi’s vision to ensure that Indian companies play a vital role in the development of the vaccine and also that its outreach is global. PM Modi has also publicly stated that the COVID-19 vaccine being developed in India will be used to help all humanity.
China’s desperate ‘vaccine diplomacy’ gambit is not the only attempt China has made to change the narrative and deflect blame away from its initial failures. In mid-2020, China launched its ‘mask diplomacy’, in this scheme Beijing sent Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) like masks to countries that were suffering from the pandemic. But Beijing’s attempts to win favours fell flat when European nations began refusing equipment sent by China after finding them to be sub-standard. China’s attempts to hide the phase 3 trial results of its vaccine seems to point towards a repeat of its ‘mask diplomacy’ blunder. But this time, the countries may have to face dire consequences for the countries that decide to risk China’s untested vaccine.
While China’s offer to provide developing nations with a vaccine may seem magnanimous, its goals are far from it. China intends to use the vaccine to gain political leverage and debt-trap the vulnerable developing and low-income nations. While some countries like Nepal have already realised that accepting help from China is a double-edged sword, others like Sri Lanka remain dubious. At this juncture, India must take up a leading role in ensuring COVID-19 distribution in the region.