In May 2020, Chinese president Xi Jinping declared that once China develops a vaccine, it will make it a ‘global public good’. This means it will be readily available and affordable for countries that need it. To date, China has two forerunning vaccines – from pharmaceutical companies Sinovac and Sinopharm – that it has already begun distributing, even though trials have shown mixed results.
The United Arab Emirates became the first country to approve Sinopharm’s vaccine on December 10, 2020.
On January 4, 2021, Sinopharm received approval for distribution, with an analysis from the Beijing Institute of Biological Products showing that it is 79% effective.
China has secured vaccine deals with countries such as Turkey, the Philippines, and Indonesia before the results of the trials were published.
There is a reason for concern with the two vaccines. Sinopharm has not provided the necessary breakdown of results to show how they reached the 79% effectiveness rate, leaving room for skepticism based on lack of transparency.
The Sinovac vaccine, CoronaVac, also experiences similar concerns. It was sent to countries such as Turkey and Indonesia before being proven effective. Indonesia has since approved the vaccine for emergency use on January 11, with their trials showing that it is 65.3% effective. Brazilian researchers first found the Sinovac to be 78% effective, but in January they modified this number to 50.4%.
How Vaccine Distribution Underscores Global Economic Inequality
Despite the somewhat dubious nature of the vaccines’ effectiveness, China’s move shows that it is willing to share, while other developed nations have prioritized hoarding vaccines and reducing the global supply.
As soon as Pfizer and Moderna reported an effectiveness rate of more than 90%, the wealthiest countries on earth began buying up most of their supplies, with several of them already have enough to inoculate their population more than once. On the other hand, developing countries have not been able to secure access to the vaccines. The People’s Vaccine Alliance warns that most of the poorest countries will only be able to vaccinate 10% of their population.
Even when they can acquire the more effective vaccines, poorer countries may find it difficult to sustain their supply. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require storage under very low temperatures (Pfizer at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit and Moderna at minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit), something that poorer countries may not be able to maintain. In contrast, the Chinese vaccines can be stored at higher temperatures, making it easier for countries to store large amounts of the vaccines.
Political Intentions of China’s Vaccine Diplomacy
Many experts have claimed that China is using this method as a ‘global charm offensive’, an effort to restore the country’s global reputation, which has plummeted because of the COVID-19 pandemic and other ongoing political issues. The list includes the South China Sea claims, China’s border disputes with India, and their treatment of the Uyghur population.
By providing vaccines, China picks up the necessary role of coming to the aid of developing countries, especially those in Asia. This move can cement the country’s influence in the region and prevent political tensions, even as other issues such as the South China Sea territorial disputes still occur.
Why It Matters
Will this diplomatic technique boost China’s international influence beyond that of the United States? The likely scenario is that the US will still hold the upper hand when it comes to international reputation and diplomacy, but it will certainly lead some countries to wonder why, in times of trouble, the United States is not doing more to fulfill its leadership role on the international stage.
In regions such as Southeast Asia, the absence of US support – especially in the past four years, when President Trump’s lack of focus in the area has diminished the country’s influence – will only continue to weaken confidence in the US’s ability to engage, support and protect the region.
Jennifer Chance is a freelance journalist specializing in the coverage of foreign affairs issues. She has been published in the Young Diplomats Society, Journal on World Affairs at UCLA, Southeast Asia Globe and more. She is currently undertaking a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and Politics & International Studies at the University of Melbourne.