An offensive of global charm to repair the image, promote the ‘Silk Road of health’

As rich countries scramble to buy limited supply of big-name coronavirus vaccines, China is stepping in to offer its homegrown injections to the poorest countries. But generosity is not entirely altruistic, and Beijing hopes for a long-term diplomatic return.

The strategy carries multiple possible benefits: deflecting anger and criticism over China’s early handling of the pandemic, raising the profile of its biotech companies, and strengthening and extending influence in Asia and beyond.

“There is no doubt that China is practicing vaccine diplomacy in an effort to repair its tarnished image,” Huang Yanzhong, senior global health researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), told AFP. “It has also become a tool for increasing China’s global influence and solving … geopolitical problems.”

Stung by criticism of his handling of the emergence of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China has made much of its own ability to control its own outbreak, with state media publishing images of normal life at pool parties and sporting events.

In the first months of the pandemic, Beijing rushed to export millions of masks and gowns, and sent medical teams to help health systems in Europe and Africa. Now, with major Western drug companies starting to bring their vaccines to market, China is launching its own versions: signing deals to supply millions of doses, even to countries that have a sometimes thorny relationship with Beijing.

Taking the mantle

Chinese diplomats have signed agreements with Malaysia and the Philippines, both of which have previously complained about Beijing’s expansionist ambitions in the South China Sea. In August, Prime Minister Li Keqiang promised priority access to vaccines to countries along the Mekong River, where the devastating drought has been exacerbated by Chinese dams built upstream.

“China’s ‘vaccine diplomacy’ is not unconditional,” Ardhitya Eduard Yeremia and Klaus Heinrich Raditio said in an article published this month by the Singapore-based Yusof Ishak Institute. “Beijing can use its vaccine donations to advance its regional agenda, particularly on sensitive issues such as its claims in the South China Sea,” they added.

President Xi Jinping’s decision to offer a Chinese vaccine around the world as a “public good” also allows Beijing to present itself as a leader in global health, said Huang of the CFR, taking on a cloak left unattended as the United States withdrew under Donald Trump’s “America First” doctrine.

Washington is conspicuously absent from a global alliance of 189 countries that have pledged to distribute vaccines equitably. Beijing signed up in October when its drug makers launched end-stage trials.

But this program has only secured enough doses to cover 20 percent of the population in low- and middle-income countries by the end of next year, offering a business opportunity.

China is increasing production facilities to produce 1 billion coronavirus vaccines next year and, having largely tamed the outbreak at home, you will have a surplus to sell.

‘Silk road of health’

If China can capture just 15 percent of the market in low- and middle-income countries, it would fetch about $ 2.8 billion in sales, according to an estimate by Essence Securities, a Hong Kong-based brokerage firm.

“Everyone is clamoring for a vaccine and Beijing is in a good position to mine for gold at the base of the pyramid,” said a company analyst, who declined to be named. The global inoculation campaign also requires storage facilities and cold chains to transport the doses.

Such projects dovetail nicely with Xi’s $ 1 trillion infrastructure push, the Belt and Road Initiative, which has otherwise been hit hard due to the pandemic, said Kirk Lancaster of the CFR. E-commerce giant Alibaba has already built warehouses in Ethiopia and Dubai that will serve as vaccine distribution centers for Africa and the Middle East.

Beijing is building vaccine production facilities in countries like Brazil, Morocco and Indonesia that have participated in global trials of Chinese drug manufacturers. And China has pledged a $ 1 billion loan to the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean to finance acquisitions.

Chinese companies will be able to take advantage of this infrastructure later on. “All of these efforts, dubbed the ‘Silk Road of Health,’ are helping China redeem its national reputation while opening up new markets for its companies,” Lancaster said.

Confidence gap

However, there is a fly in the ointment. China has four vaccines in the final stages of development and is well underway with massive human trials in several countries, including Brazil, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.

Millions more at home have already taken a hit. But unlike the vaccines that Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson are developing, little information has been published about the safety or efficacy of Chinese vaccines.

The country’s communist authorities, who control everything from universities to regulators, are allergic to public scrutiny. “The lack of transparency in China’s system means that thousands (within the country) have already received Chinese vaccines without the relevant test data being released,” said Natasha Kassam, a China policy analyst at the Lowy Institute.

He said the lack of data “will cause alarm” during a global launch. Chinese vaccine manufacturers also have a checkered reputation, after major household scandals involving poor-quality or expired products.

All of which means foreign buyers are wary. Chinese vaccine leaders Sinovac and Sinopharm had pre-orders of less than 500 million doses in mid-November, according to data from London-based consultancy Airfinity, mostly from countries that have participated in trials.

Meanwhile, AstraZeneca has pre-orders of 2.4 billion doses and Pfizer has about 500 million orders. Wider confidence in Beijing has also plummeted this year, with a study of 14 countries by the Pew Research Center finding a sharp deterioration in perceptions of the country.

“(Societies) that have increasing distrust in China are less likely to trust a China-led vaccine candidate,” Kassam said.