The New Arms Race: Rising to the Challenge of China's Vaccine Diplomacy

Progressive Politics

The New Arms Race: Rising to the Challenge of China's Vaccine Diplomacy

Posted on: 20th May 2021
Ruby Osman
Geopolitical Researcher, Political Team

As early as May last year, President Xi Jinping was quick to declare that any Chinese vaccine would be a “global public good”.

And as global vaccination efforts ramp up, Beijing increasingly appears to be making good on that promise. As of April this year, the Foreign Ministry had announced plans to provide free vaccines to 69 countries and struck commercial deals with a further 28. China’s four leading vaccine manufacturers claim they’re on track to produce upwards of 2 billion doses this year alone – the majority of which appear destined for arms abroad.

For a reputation-conscious Beijing, vaccine diplomacy is a no-brainer. Low case numbers at home and world-leading production capacity mean China is in an enviable position to pitch itself as the world’s top provider, especially as many Western governments turn inwards to focus on their own vaccination drives.

Played correctly, it’s a chance for China to stake out a new global image. Top officials have long spoken of their desire to establish China as a “responsible global power”. In their eyes, there’s nothing better than a globally competitive vaccine – or indeed several – to let audiences both at home and abroad know that China is a serious global player.

But it’s more than just a question of responsibility. Much more so than last year’s ‘mask diplomacy’, a successful global vaccine roll-out also sends a powerful signal that China is becoming a self-sufficient and technologically cutting-edge power – in other words, one that’s equipped to weather the storms of a post-pandemic geopolitical landscape.

And with close links between state and business – particularly state-owned Sinopharm, which produces two vaccine candidates – Beijing finds itself in a unique position to make sure vaccine supplies are being funnelled exactly where they’ll have the most diplomatic value.

Playing the long game

Beijing’s intentions may be clear, but whether China’s efforts translate into long-term change is a trickier question.

It may be an uncomfortable truth, but all decisions on vaccine aid have a political dimension. The difference is, while Western countries have so far preferred to channel vaccine aid into multilateral programmes like Covax, China has been able to go straight for the consumer. Alarm bells have sounded for those who fear that an ability to strike quick and targeted bilateral deals puts Beijing at a distinct advantage when it comes to reaping the geopolitical rewards of vaccine supply.

So far, the reality promises to be somewhat more complex. Hefty deals for China’s Sinopharm vaccine from Hungary and Serbia, for example, have no doubt been seen as a diplomatic coup in Beijing, which has long been on the look-out for ways to increase its presence in Eastern Europe. But vaccine diplomacy is far from one-sided, and both countries’ equally headline-grabbing orders of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine would suggest more of a pushback against strict EU regulations than any blind pivot towards China.

That said, Beijing appears content to play the long game. Looking for specific quid pro quo concessions, whether that’s severing diplomatic ties with Taiwan or welcoming Huawei infrastructure, obscures the true aims of Beijing’s diplomatic charm offensive.

Instead, Beijing sees vaccine diplomacy as a natural new chapter in a campaign that far predates the pandemic. There’s been little attempt to export ideology alongside vaccines – the goal is simply to carry on pushing for a geopolitical landscape more tolerant of Beijing’s policies both at home and abroad.

The pandemic has offered a golden opportunity for Beijing to ramp up its attempts to foster global goodwill, particularly in the countries it sees as liable to be swayed away from Western influence. To this end, Beijing is looking to boost China-led alternative frameworks – in particular a new “Health Silk Road” – to consolidate ties with old partners, while making the most of Western governments’ distraction to forge new alliances in countries outside its typical sphere of influence.  

This long-term view means that the success of China’s vaccine diplomacy will be measured not in the number of countries who suddenly make major geopolitical concessions, but in the extent to which China is able to use its growing circle of friends to successfully shield itself from international criticism in coming years.  

Learning from China’s example

A vaccinated world benefits everyone, and at a time when others remain unwilling or incapable of sharing supplies, China’s vaccine drive is no bad thing.

It’s not wrong for Western governments to be worried about some of the potential political consequences of an emboldened China, but pinning the blame on vaccine diplomacy alone helps no-one.

Attempts to stifle or disparage China’s vaccination exports (beyond, of course, legitimate concerns about a lack of transparent efficacy data) will do little to stop Beijing’s broader diplomatic strategy, but will come at the expense of millions around the world.

Instead, Western governments must rise to the challenge. It’s no coincidence that many of the developing countries set to miss out on their fair share of vaccines under Western-championed multilateral schemes are the same ones Beijing has had in its diplomatic sights for years. That so many developing countries are eager to secure Chinese vaccines speaks to a more endemic problem of plummeting foreign aid and a general trend towards nationalism in many Western countries.

Luckily, there’s a win-win solution. Many Western governments will soon find themselves with a surplus of highly effective, well-trusted vaccines. They could – and should – learn a lesson or two from China’s vaccine efforts, and make sure they’re ready to take up the mantle as soon as they possibly can.

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