In May of last year, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese President Xi Jinping said his country would soon provide safe and effective vaccines as a “global public good”, especially in developing countries. development.
To that end, the Chinese leader has launched a massive state-backed campaign, allocating large amounts of grants and bringing together up to 22 companies and research institutes to work on 17 vaccine projects.
Some leaders in China’s immediate neighborhood felt reassured by Xi’s rhetoric and hoped to capitalize on the good relationship with Beijing to acquire vaccines early on. In July, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said his country would be “back to normal” by December, thanks to Chinese assistance.
Despite large funds and high hopes invested in the Chinese vaccine campaign, it has not been the expected major success, at least in Southeast Asia. The vaccines developed by China have been met with significant skepticism in the region due to questions about their distribution, efficacy and price, as well as potential “conditions”.
As other major powers catch up with vaccine production and take concrete steps to deliver services to developing countries, China’s vaccine diplomacy in Southeast Asia and beyond may soon face formidable challengers. .
The ‘Silk Road of Health’
Witnessing a rise in anti-Chinese sentiment shortly after the COVID-19 outbreak, Beijing began to portray itself as an unlikely savior of humanity, especially for poorer countries with limited capacity to contain major public health crises.
After its initial success in delivering personal protective equipment and test kits around the world, it took on the task of developing COVID-19 vaccines. Last year, Chinese vaccine trials were launched in 18 countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The largest country in the Southeast, Indonesia, has emerged as a major hub for Chinese clinical trials, involving several Chinese pharmaceutical companies.
Supported by Europe’s outpouring of gratitude to Asia, China has touted its overseas aid as a new “silk road for health,” part of its much-vaunted Belt and Road investments. Road Initiative (BRI) around the world. Chinese officials said participating BRI countries were a top priority for the provision of vaccines, both free and subsidized.
A year after the start of the pandemic, China announced that it was providing free vaccines to 69 countries in the developing world and commercially exporting it to 28 others.
In addition to helping improve its global image after being blamed for the COVID-19 outbreak, Beijing’s medical campaign also has an important economic side. Until 2019, China played a minimal role in the global pharmaceutical industry, contributing less than 2% of medical products purchased by the United Nations.
In contrast, neighboring India was responsible for 22 percent of these purchases and 60 percent of global vaccine exports. Now, China’s COVID-19 vaccines are expected to increase the country’s global market share and, by some estimates, generate more than $ 10 billion in sales.
Delays and doubts
As China rolled out its vaccines, Indonesia, the de facto leader of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), was among the first to receive the Sinovac vaccine. In early December, 1.2 million doses arrived, followed by 1.8 million at the end of the month. In January, Indonesian state-owned company Bio Farma began producing the Chinese vaccine with materials sent from China.
But in the rest of the region, shipments were delayed and much smaller. Cambodia and Laos received 600,000 and 300,000 doses respectively in early February, while Thailand received 200,000 doses two weeks later. The Philippines received 600,000 doses at the end of the month – much later than Duterte had hoped.
Although China has pledged to deliver 300,000 doses to Myanmar, it still has not delivered it; instead, the country received its first shipment of 1.5 million doses of vaccine from India in January.
Chinese vaccine makers – like their Western counterparts – have suffered serious production delays and a lack of capacity. In January, Sinovac’s production levels reached only half of planned production capacity, raising doubts as to whether other less established Chinese companies will be able to meet demand.
Vaccine exports could also be hampered by China’s need to prioritize mass immunization of its population of one billion, a major feat that may not be accomplished until mid-July. ‘next year.
Of even greater concern is the effectiveness of Chinese vaccines. International criticism has focused on Chinese companies’ lack of transparency on the results of the final phase of clinical trials. Clinical trials abroad have shown that Sinovac’s efficacy rate can be less than 50.4%, well below its competitors, which have rates as high as 90%.
It is quite telling that even the staunchly pro-Beijing Philippine president and his health secretary have not taken a Chinese vaccine. Some medical experts, including a former senior government adviser, have openly questioned the government’s dependence on the Chinese coup and demanded that it be subject to another assessment by health officials.
Meanwhile, a recent Philippine Senate investigation found the country may be paying more for Chinese vaccines than some of its neighbors. Concerns about the policy of Chinese vaccine shipments were also raised as China stepped up its aggressive behavior in the South China Sea in March while sending another shipment.
Neighboring Vietnam, which like the Philippines has maritime disputes with China, has rejected Chinese-made vaccines entirely.
Some of China’s close allies in the region also don’t put all of their eggs in one basket. Cambodia initially invested in 1 million doses under the UN-backed COVAX program, while Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have also actively diversified their vaccine supply by seeking alternative sources to states. United, Europe, India and Russia. Singapore, which is predominantly ethnic Chinese, relies heavily on vaccines from pharmaceutical companies established in the West.
Over the next few months, China’s initial advantage in vaccine diplomacy is likely to wane, as other big players mobilize. The Biden administration, for example, reversed its predecessor’s America First approach by restoring assistance to the World Health Organization, as well as doubling its commitment to support the UN COVAX program. , which aims to deliver up to 2 billion doses to the poorest nations.
Together with Australia, India and Japan, the United States recently launched a new initiative under the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as the “Quad” consortium, for the joint production of up to 1 billion doses destined for Southeast Asian countries.
Having come under heavy criticism for their vaccine stack in recent months, European countries are also expected to increase their contribution to COVAX and similar universal immunization initiatives. Another big rival for China’s vaccine manufacturing is Russia, which has shown greater transparency in clinical trials of Sputnik V vaccines and enjoys relatively higher confidence.
All of these initiatives are likely to challenge China’s ability to take advantage of vaccine supply to Southeast Asia and beyond. So what initially looked like a resounding Chinese triumph in “vaccine diplomacy” may turn out to be less of a success than Beijing had hoped.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.