With the world currently reeling under coronavirus pandemic and the distribution of various Covid-19 vaccines underway, India China Institute Co-Director Mark Frazier interviewed Chinese foreign affairs expert Zhiqun Zhu on vaccine diplomacy for Pandemic Discourses.

Zhu is a professor of political science and international relations and chair of the International Relations Department at Bucknell University. He has written extensively on Chinese foreign policy and US-China relations.

Excerpts from the interview:

Let us begin with some definitions. The term “vaccine diplomacy” is being used widely in the media and discussions about the global distribution of various Covid-19 vaccinations. One also hears commonly about “vaccine nationalism”. Is vaccine diplomacy meaningfully different from earlier practices of states to link foreign aid and loans to their diplomatic goals?
I do not think there is an official definition of “vaccine diplomacy”. It is more of a journalistic term used to refer to vaccine-related diplomatic activities to boost a country’s foreign relations and global influence. It is not the first time “vaccine diplomacy” has been used in the media or public discussions.

Today, “vaccine diplomacy” is used to describe the global diplomatic efforts to achieve efficient and fair distributions of Covid-19 vaccines around the world, especially to low- and lower-middle-income countries. In contrast, “vaccine nationalism” has been used to criticise countries, especially in the developed West, for hoarding vaccines for their own citizens.

Diplomacy is conducted to serve a country’s national interests. Diplomacy takes various forms – China alone is often associated with ping pong diplomacy, panda diplomacy, Track II diplomacy, “wolf warrior” diplomacy, etc. Regardless of the forms, all diplomatic activities are supposed to help smooth a country’s foreign relations. It is disingenuous to claim that a country conducts diplomacy altruistically.

The current wave of “vaccine diplomacy” in the midst of a global pandemic undoubtedly helps the international community to combat the coronavirus and it is much appreciated. Countries that are willing to help others to control the pandemic are commendable.

However, “vaccine diplomacy”, just like other forms of diplomacy, primarily serves a country’s own interests. A country may have explicit or implicit goals when carrying out such diplomacy, such as boosting its international status or seeking economic and other opportunities.

Chinese foreign affairs expert Zhiqun Zhu. Photo credit: Bucknell University

In a recent essay in Think China, you discuss how China and India have taken the lead in delivering Covid-19 vaccines to lower-middle-income countries, particularly in South Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa. Do you think these gifts come with “strings attached” for the recipient countries, in geopolitical and/or economic terms?

The “strings attached” in diplomacy are typically not publicly announced. Yet one can always look deeper into a particular diplomatic activity and figure out possible motives: commercial, political, strategic, etc.

China was the first major power to practice “vaccine diplomacy” during the Covid-19 pandemic, built upon its “mask diplomacy” and “PPE diplomacy” earlier. In May 2020, President Xi Jinping announced at a World Health Assembly meeting that China considered its Covid-19 vaccines a “global public good”. China has donated its homemade vaccines to dozens of countries. Often times “free samples” would result in the recipient country’s interest in purchasing the vaccines.

Chinese Ambassador to Mongolia Chai Wenrui (L) hands over a box of Sinopharm Covid-19 coronavirus vaccines to Mongolian Deputy Prime Minister Amarsaikhan Sainbuyang. Photo credit: Byambasuren Byamba-Ochir / AFP

For China, “vaccine diplomacy” is a logical next step in the evolution of the “Health Silk Road” that Xi proposed in March 2020. In addition to increasing its soft power, China has sought to tie its distribution of vaccines to the advancement of major projects under the Belt and Road Initiative.

Not to be outperformed by China, India launched “Vaccine Maitri” or “Vaccine Friendship” in early 2021. “Vaccine Maitri” was initially designed to repair India’s strained relations with South Asian neighbours, where India appeared to be losing pre-eminence to growing Chinese influence.

India has leveraged its pharmaceutical power and quickly expanded “Vaccine Maitri” to different parts of the world. By the beginning of April 2021, India has supplied vaccines to over 80 countries as well as United Nations peacekeepers. Foreign Minister S Jaishankar declared that “Vaccine Maitri” has “raised India’s standing and generated great international goodwill”.

As a Wall Street Journal op-ed noted, “vaccine diplomacy” allows China and India to burnish their soft power, showcase their technological prowess, give their firms footholds in new markets, and boast to their domestic audiences that they are major players on the world stage. Strategic rivalry between India and China and protracted border tensions between the two neighbours have certainly hardened their determination to compete with each other globally.

Could you briefly discuss the ways that state ownership and regulation of pharmaceutical companies in China and India makes this global vaccine distribution effort more feasible than, if for example, the American government were trying to order Johnson & Johnson to send vaccinations to a low-income country? Is there more coordination between government and pharma companies than one would find in American or European political economies?
Yes, in this kind of situation, state ownership and regulation of major pharmaceutical companies makes it much easier for countries like China to mobilise big businesses to serve the nation’s foreign policy goals.

Most countries are simply no match for China in terms of concentrating national power to accomplish big things. In China, vaccine development and distribution are a highly state-driven process. All three major Chinese vaccine makers – Sinopharm, Sinovac and CanSino – have been involved in vaccine development and distribution and are playing an active role in China’s vaccine diplomacy.

And there is coordination between these pharma companies and the Chinese government in the latest round of “vaccine diplomacy”. For example, Sinopharm has recently partnered with the United Arab Emirates to make millions of doses in the United Arab Emirates for local populations, deepening China’s engagement with countries in the West Asia. Meanwhile, Sinovac has worked with Brazil and Indonesia to produce tens of millions of doses of its vaccine for local use.

India has supplied vaccines to various countries across the globe. All vaccine distributions are overseen by the Indian government, and vaccines are not yet available on the private market. The Serum Institute of India, the world’s biggest producer of vaccines, has partnered with the Indian government.

It has been heavily involved in the distribution of vaccines and is the largest supplier to the global vaccine scheme COVAX. The Indian government has purchased vaccines from the Serum Institute and other large pharma companies at low, subsidised rates for both domestic and overseas distribution.

Is the vaccine diplomacy being conducted by China and India simply reproducing their geopolitical rivalry, or is there some prospect that their competition in distributing Covid-19 vaccines could lead to more bilateral coordination as global actors in Africa and other parts of the world?
So far there has been little bilateral coordination in this regard, though the two countries have cooperated in multilateral settings such as actively contributing vaccines to COVAX.

Both countries still focus on their own interests. Just as in the case with China, India’s vaccine diplomacy serves as an effective tool and instrument of Indian soft-power and influence, serving to deepen ties with other countries.

India has lobbied for years to secure a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. India’s “vaccine diplomacy” could translate into critical votes at a time when India has secured a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council and is scheduled to host the G20 summit in 2023. The goodwill India earns through “Vaccine Maitri” could pay dividends in the future.

During their virtual meeting in early March, the heads of QUAD nations reached financing agreements to support ramping up production in India of up to one billion doses of vaccines, to be used in Southeast Asian countries.

Is India punching above its weight? India reported 53,000 new infections in 24 hours on March 23, the highest number since October 2020. By the end of March 2021, over 1.2 crore Indians have been infected with Covid-19. India has exported 60 million vaccines to countries around the world so far – more than it has given to its own people.

The Indian government is under pressure to step up the domestic vaccine program. In response to rising new cases at home, India has imposed a temporary ban on jab exports as it seeks to prioritise local vaccinations. China, which has largely controlled the pandemic at home, can offer assistance to India if both sides so desire.

In March, the heads of QUAD nations reached financing agreements to support ramping up production in India of up to one billion doses of vaccines, to be used in Southeast Asian countries. Photo credit: Olivier Douliery / AFP

At what point would we expect the United States to get involved in vaccine diplomacy? Where would the US concentrate its vaccine aid, and how would it vary from the patterns we have seen with India and China?
When the US will conduct “vaccine diplomacy” very much depends on the infection and vaccination situations in the United States. If the pandemic is under control and a large portion of American citizens have been vaccinated, I think the United States will be ready to conduct “vaccine diplomacy” in terms of delivering vaccines to other countries.

President Biden has made it clear that Americans are to be taken care of first, before we are going to try to help the rest of the world in vaccination. He declared that 200 million shots would be given to Americans by his 100th day in office.

When a majority of Americans are vaccinated, the US government will feel comfortable enough to begin offering vaccines to other countries. As new cases are surging in many parts of the country, it seems unlikely that the United States will be able to conduct vaccine diplomacy any time soon.

It is interesting to note that earlier this year protests erupted in Paraguay over the lack of medicine and intensive care beds amid a spike in coronavirus cases. While speaking to the country’s president Mario Abdo in early March, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken outlined the US plan to help tackle the pandemic, but he stopped short of offering vaccines and other medical aid that the country needs badly.

Instead, Blinken encouraged Paraguay to work with democracies such as Taiwan to overcome the pandemic. The problem is Taiwan does not manufacture Covid-19 vaccines. Paraguay is one of the 15 countries maintaining diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Both the United States and Taiwan worry that Paraguay may switch to China in exchange for vaccine and other assistance from China.

When the United States is able to provide vaccine aid, it will have its own national interests in mind, just like India and China. It most likely will focus on its allies and partners first. Developing countries in Latin America, West Asia and Africa will possibly be the next group.

This article first appeared on the India China Institute’s website.