Is China pointing the way out of the pandemic for developing nations?

Ella Whitehurst | China Fellow

Since the first Covid-19 vaccine was officially approved in the UK and US late last year, many nations are developing increasingly nationalistic attitudes as they race to secure sufficient numbers of doses. Just recently tensions arose over the European Union’s (EU) announcement to block vaccine exports due to shortfalls in delivery of the AstraZeneca vaccine. With Western countries stockpiling vaccines, some even acquiring more than enough to vaccinate entire populations, many developing countries are having to look elsewhere to obtain adequate supply to help combat the rising case numbers.


This is where China has entered the competition, positioning itself as a savior for developing countries. Beijing has promised vaccine supplies at lower costs and in higher numbers for multiple Southeast Asian and African countries as well as Brazil, Turkey and the Middle East.


Beijing has turned Covid-19 vaccines into a possible new form of soft power, with President Xi Jinping announcing last May that Chinese vaccines will become “global goods”. Following on from China’s mask diplomacy last year, these efforts fit within the trend of the government attempting to present China as the solution to, rather than the cause of, the pandemic. Should the Chinese vaccines be successful, they have the potential to help strengthen political and economic relations with the developing countries that the West has so-far overlooked.


Within Southeast Asia, Myanmar, Indonesia and the Philippines have all secured deals with Chinese vaccine firms, paying millions to secure doses from numerous Chinese firms. Beijing has promised that Cambodia and Laos will also receive donations of vaccines. For the Chinese government, successful vaccination diplomacy would be a large factor in reducing the general wariness that many Asian societies hold towards China’s growing economic influence within the region.


Chinese state-backed media company The Global Times is postulating that Sinopharm’s vaccine is better suited than the Western mRNA vaccines for many African countries. Even though The Global Times is a government propagandist, Sinopharm does have some genuine logistical benefits. Since the vaccine is made from an inactivated form of the sars-cov-2, it can be stored in average off-grid refrigerators. This would make distribution in the rural and hotter areas of Africa much more practical than the mRNA vaccines, which have to be kept in temperatures between -20 and -70 degrees Celsius, giving Sinopharm a direct advantage over many Western firms.


The UAE has also established itself as a willing receiver of Chinese vaccines, with reports saying that some people trust the Sinopharm vaccine more as it is made with the same technology as the much older influenza and polio vaccines. By distributing this vaccine, the UAE will also be able to consolidate its economic relations with China; there are plans for the country to become involved with vaccine production later this year.

If Sinopharm and Sinovac’s vaccines prove to have sufficient efficacy, China’s international image, which took a large hit with its widely criticised early handling of the virus, could be greatly repaired. By fulfilling roles which have been left open by the US and the West, not only would vaccine diplomacy present China as a benign foreign power, but could also consolidate its international political allies.


However, currently China’s vaccine diplomacy remains a very high-risk, high-reward venture. The UAE’s decision to begin using the Sinopharm vaccine was met with skepticism, especially after it was revealed that it was approved before undertaking the Phase III trials. This third phase provides valuable information on a vaccine’s effects on a large group of people, making it difficult to predict how Chinese vaccines will affect populations as a whole. Beijing’s obtuse reaction to criticisms regarding its early response to Covid-19 also did not help matters.


There has been another setback due to the large discrepancies in the reported trial results of the Sinovac vaccine. In Brazil, another prominent participant in China’s vaccine diplomacy, reports initially stated that the vaccine has a 78 per cent efficacy. However, a week later researchers revealed that the vaccine only had a 50.4 per cent efficacy when participants with symptoms which did not require any medical attention were included. However, the BBC cautions that scientists cannot analyse the vaccine’s real efficacy until complete data is released from all the various trials. However, the most important measure is the reduction of serious disease, which seems to be very high for all the main vaccines.


Nonetheless, time is still of the essence when it comes to vaccination, and for Sinovac, an efficacy of 50 per cent is still higher than zero. China’s willingness to push vaccine rollouts in developing regions is not going unappreciated, and is being made further prominent by the lack of US efforts in establishing global supply chains for the vaccine as the country has been occupied with the transition to Biden’s administration. Yet, despite vaccine diplomacy providing potential benefits for China’s international reputation, to make true of its promises Beijing will face practical challenges in ensuring that the vaccine firms have the capacity to balance synchronous global distribution with the ongoing domestic rollout to China’s 1.4 billion people. Nonetheless, with distribution of the more trusted Western vaccines becoming a highly nationalistic issue, for many countries there is not much other choice; their vaccines, too, will be made in China.


Ella Whitehurst is the China fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs