Chinese President Xi Jinping learns of advances in scientific research on a coronavirus vaccine and antibodies during his visit to the Academy of Military Medical Sciences in Beijing, capital of China, on March 2, 2020.
Ju Peng | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images
SINGAPORE – As the vaccine race intensifies, China has promised countries in Southeast Asia and Africa that they will come first when Beijing’s homegrown vaccines are ready for distribution – a move that raises questions about China’s intent.
From Malaysia and the Philippines to a number of African countries, China has given some developing countries priority access to the coronavirus vaccines currently being developed. Chinese companies have agreements with some of these developing countries to test and manufacture the vaccines.
Experts say the moves could put pressure on some of these countries to support Beijing’s commercial and political interests.
“I don’t think it’s completely altruistic, I think they want to take some advantage of it,” said Imogen Page-Jarrett from The Economist Intelligence Unit. “China wants to expand its commercial and strategic interests in these countries.”
The research analyst said vaccines could “be a means to build China’s influence and soft power” and ease friction with countries that could blame China for the pandemic.
This type of selfish motive is not surprising and not unique to China. The question, of course, is how far you go – whether you are making excessive demands.
Chong Ja Ian
Associate Professor of Political Science
What’s in China?
Chong Ja Ian, associate professor of political science at Singapore National University, said China could call for cooperation on “a whole range of” issues. This includes practical discussions such as the code of conduct in the contested South China Sea as well as the increasing acceptance of Chinese technology products.
“These are all possibilities,” he added. “There is so much intersection of Chinese interests with those of other countries and so many areas that China may want to move forward in, especially with the US.”
But Chong said he was “not too harsh” in asking other countries for vaccine favors because altruism “is not something we should expect”.
“This kind of selfish motive is not surprising and not unique to China,” he said, noting that drug companies want to profit from vaccine sales.
“The question, of course, is how far do you go – whether you are over-demanding or if you are aiming for super-profits, those kinds of things matter.”
Based on “past performance,” he said it appears that China may make “disproportionate” demands.
When asked if other countries might also use vaccines as a foreign policy tool, Chong said it could, but there appears to be “less evidence” of it.
Will Vaccination Diplomacy Be Successful?
Whether China can use its vaccines successfully depends on the safety of its candidates and the affordability of alternatives, experts say.
“Of course, if the Chinese version is less effective or less secure, the demand for the Chinese version will decline. All of this ultimately depends on the data,” Chong said.[Southeast Asian] The countries strongly oppose any effort to treat them as farmers in these regional power games.
The Economist Intelligence Unit
Pharmaceutical companies in the US and Europe have mostly published results from their studies, but data from China has been less readily available. It has five candidates in late-stage studies, and at least one vaccine is pending government approval.
But EIU’s Page-Jarrett said there was reason to trust China’s vaccines.
“If we assume that it has to vaccinate its own population before others, there really isn’t going to be a vaccine it doesn’t think is safe,” she said. “If it … vaccinated its own people and there were some negative side effects, it would have an extremely negative effect on the government.”
Mardell, of the Mercator Institute for China Studies, pointed out that high-potency vaccines developed in the West have been oversubscribed and “taken up by a handful of very rich countries.”
This could mean that China’s vaccines have a place, especially in developing countries that can’t afford expensive options from Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna. These vaccines are developed using new messenger RNA technology – a new approach to vaccines that uses genetic material to trigger an immune response. Such vaccines must be stored at extremely low temperatures.
According to Page-Jarrett, most countries have signed sales contracts with multiple vaccine providers because “nobody wants to put their eggs in one basket”.
While the main focus is on health and safety, she said that the Southeast Asian countries are also “interested in maintaining their independence and neutrality” rather than being pressured by outside forces.
“These countries strongly oppose any effort to treat them as farmers in these regional power games,” she said.