The global health catastrophe of COVID-19 and the current unmet need for a preventive measure has accelerated the geopolitics of vaccines. Diplomacy to assure the availability, accessibility, and quality of the vaccine to manage the COVID-19 pandemic is central to any country’s success. Vaccine diplomacy is currently a crucial soft power tool China is trying to deploy. It is rushing like a hare with all the potential risks and rewards of such a strategy; it is hoping to disrupt the historical tortoise-like pace of vaccine development and deployment.
China is among the earliest in the development and testing of vaccines. It has four vaccines in the third phase of clinical trials and has set strategies for global supply in motion. Capitalizing on their strategic interests in their multilateral and bilateral relations, China has adopted several diplomacy channels for vaccine distribution. Drawing from our framework on science & technology diplomacy, it has deployed a mix of financial/economic support, geographical coverage, cultural outreach, information dissemination, material distribution, timing, and transportation strategies. It has varied the mix of channels based on its relationship with the partnering country. It has sought to set up an exchange, cooperate, collaborate, or make a commercial transaction.
China timed its diplomacy to provide early vaccine access to countries of strategic interest. Philippines, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos are some of the countries that could potentially have priority early access to China’s vaccine. Each of the countries has a unique relationship with China and the objective of vaccine diplomacy is distinct for each. Today many geopolitical issues have been set aside due to the impact of COVID-19, and Indonesia did just that due to the economic conditions which prompted them to accept China’s vaccine offer. The China-Myanmar economic corridor has led to an economic partnership with Myanmar under the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ and has set the basis for strengthening their vaccine diplomacy. A successful vaccine will only strengthen the already existing relationship.
The long-standing relationship of United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and North Africa with China has connotations of economic, material, and transportation diplomacy. Vaccine diplomacy in these countries has a greater push in terms of providing them support in everything they need for successful vaccine deployment. China’s vaccine clinical trials are underway in UAE and the country declared emergency approval within six weeks after the trials were started. On the other hand, facilities are being setup in Ethiopia to mass-produce pandemic mitigation tools which is just the start of providing more of its resources. Transportation and transfer of resources and materials is another tool that further strengthens China’s vaccine diplomacy. State-owned Chinese pharmaceutical companies are distributing their resources to build massive distribution networks. For this purpose, new facilities are being built in Egypt and Morocco. Weak industrial setup and political power struggle of countries has given China the opportunity to spread its vaccine diplomacy to Latin America. Technology transfer by China to the underdeveloped pharmaceutical industry to secure vaccines in the region has expanded the scope of China’s vaccine market space. It has used its economic/financial diplomacy once again by pledging loans to Latin American and Caribbean nations to fund procurement. While China has deployed varied strategies, it appears to fall short on strategies such as providing advice and gifting which could play a significant role in building goodwill among nations.
An effective and successful vaccine will be beyond measure in terms of its diplomatic value to China. But its ineffectiveness could damage China’s power and put a risk to its established relationships. In general, if a country’s vaccine’s ineffectiveness is discovered due to its low cost, low quality, and quick development, the diplomatic favors can quickly turn into backlash. One of the biggest concerns for any country will be the quality and effectiveness of the supply chain for successful administration of the vaccine. The success of the supply chain will not only depend on quality development, testing, availability, transportation, demand, and administration of it at the lowest level, but also on management and monitoring, cold chain management, and immunization safety. The management and monitoring will depend on the demand and production of the appropriate quantity and inventory. Cold chain management will be the most crucial in terms of having the right facility location, routing, and mass distribution, all of which needs a supply chain design with rigorous temperature control resources. It will require monitoring storage temperatures, other conditions appropriate to the requirements, and conducting first-level maintenance of cold chain equipment. Last, immunization safety measures and resources must be available for the frontline workers and safe waste disposable must be employed.
In the above context, it is imperative for a country to have resources set up well in advance to support the supply chain management. Given that all countries will not have the cold chain management resources at different levels, technology transfer to support this is a huge requirement. If India or any other country is looking to secure vaccine from countries like China, United States, or Russia, diplomatic channels for securing the necessary technology will be vital. Today, the economic conditions of the countries are affected a great deal. No country can afford to incur additional costs as there are high chances of vaccine wastage if countries do not have the cold storage management capabilities to successfully deliver the vaccine. China’s unique vaccine development and diplomacy strategies have surpassed India’s whose focus in both has been narrow. China’s economic heft is probably the most influential factor in this race given its dominance around the globe. If successful in its vaccine diplomacy, China will gain the most diplomatic dividend there is and re-order the competition for global power. If it fails, it may take a while to recover the trust of other countries in the post-COVID-19 world. While China is being like a hare to develop and distribute a vaccine , India is being like a tortoise, promising to use its manufacturing capacity to produce and deliver the vaccine to the world.
S D Sreeganga, Research Associate, Ramaiah Public Policy Center, Bengaluru, KA, India
Arkalgud Ramaprasad, Professor Emeritus, University of Illinois at Chicago, and Director, Ramaiah Public Policy Center, Bengaluru, KA, India
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