The long-awaited COVID-19 vaccines have been the talk of the town in recent months, with many hoping that the rollout of mass vaccination programmes will bring an end to our uphill battle against the pandemic. In the meantime, analysts have noticed the emergence of ‘vaccine diplomacy’ on the global stage, where diplomatic relations between countries are altered with the financing, sharing of technical expertise, procurement and delivery of vaccines between countries. So how exactly are international relations expected to shift with the effects from vaccine diplomacy in action?
Graph 1: The four main types of COVID-19 vaccines in development
China has been a major benefactor aiding foreign countries contain the spread of the coronavirus since early stages of the global pandemic, from early attempts of exporting masks, gowns, and medical teams to various European and African countries, to its recent move of joining COVAX: a WHO-backed initiative aiming to ensure the fair distribution of COVID-19 vaccines globally. With the development of Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines, the Chinese government has vowed to make Chinese vaccines a ‘global public good’. Commentators such as Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, see this as an endeavour of China to improve its image and iron out geopolitical issues. For instance, Chinese diplomats have recently signed deals with Malaysia and the Philippines to supply them with millions of vaccine doses. Both countries have previously had conflicts with China over interests in the South China Sea; however, it seems that such tensions have lessened in light of the aforementioned deals. In addition, China can increase its influence over developing countries that see vaccines as their lifeline. The fact that Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines can be stored between 2-8 ℃ (as opposed to Pfizer vaccines that must be kept at -70 ℃) means that Chinese vaccines are much more accessible to developing countries with limited cold chain infrastructure when compared to other alternatives. If we also take China’s unique policy of not seeking a ‘reservation fee’ or advance payment for vaccines into consideration, it is not difficult to understand why Chinese vaccines may stand out as a particularly attractive option to developing countries.
Graph 2: Destination of Chinese vaccines
It should be kept in mind that it is still uncertain how things will play out in reality. One of the factors that might affect the reputation of China is the quality and potential side effects of its vaccines. For example, China did not garner as much approval from the international community as hoped by sending personal protective equipment (PPE) to foreign countries a few months back, since some European governments rejected its testing kits and medical masks that had failed to meet quality standards. If Chinese vaccines underperform in the same way as its PPE, it would seem that China’s humanitarian efforts would be more likely to tarnish its image than enhance it.
India is another Asian country that seeks to utilise the supply of COVID-19 vaccines to its advantage. Being crowned with the title of ‘pharmacy of the world’, India has long been a global powerhouse for generic pharmaceutical drugs, with its state-run Indian Council of Medical Research currently developing the homegrown vaccine Covaxin. Countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar, Qatar, Bhutan, Switzerland, Bahrain, and South Korea have already approached India regarding the supply of vaccines, demonstrating the extent to which the vaccines are an asset to India’s global influence.
Similar to China, India has plans to make use of the export of vaccines to mend relations with feuding countries. Since India passed its religion-based citizenship law last year, its relationship with neighbour Bangladesh has plummeted. However, following India’s promise to prioritise the supply of vaccines to Bangladesh, the heads-of-state of the two countries met for the first time in a virtual summit since their conflict, exemplifying an improvement in their relationship, with Delwar Hosain, an international relations professor at Dhaka University commenting that ‘Now COVID-19 has brought the two nations together once again.’.
Following President Modi’s address to the UN General Assembly in September stating that India will strive to help ‘all humanity’ fight off COVID-19 with its vaccine production, it is expected that India will take advantage of its vaccines to boost its influence and image, as exemplified by its commitment to provide vaccines to African countries at a subsidised rate.
Seeing that the major destination of both India and China’s vaccines are Asian and developing countries, it seems that competition may arise between the two. In particular, since Sino-Indian relations have seen a sharp downturn following the recent intensification of the ongoing border dispute between the two countries, it is expected that this competition will further exacerbate their relations.
Russia was one of the first countries (alongside the UK) to implement a mass vaccinations programme with the Sputnik-V vaccine developed and produced by the Ministry of Health of the Russsian Federation. Some analysts have drawn parallels between Russia’s vaccine diplomacy and the Soviet-era smallpox initiative, where the Soviet Union provided millions of doses of smallpox vaccine to developing countries in the mid-1960s, significantly contributing to the global cause of eradicating smallpox. This earned the USSR praise from the international community, with representatives from several developing countries expressing their gratitude to the USSR at a 1965 WHO meeting. Analysts now see President Vladimir Putin’s offer to provide free Sputnik-V shots to all UN employees last September as the prologue to a new round of vaccine diplomacy adopted by Russia. However, some researchers have questioned the reliability of the data Russia has disclosed about the effectiveness of its vaccines, which may potentially undermine Russia’s efforts in vaccine diplomacy.
Graph 3: Effectiveness of different COVID-19 vaccines
Besides the export of vaccines, another aspect of vaccine diplomacy is the sharing of vaccine technology between countries, which not only promotes technological advancement, but also helps bring the collaborating nations closer together. For example, on 11 December 2020, Ango-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca announced that it would begin to work with the developers of Sputnik-V. The two developers are expected to share science and consider combining components of both vaccines. It is hoped that Russia’s willingness to be transparent and cooperative in regards to its technology will help ease her strained relations with the Western world since the Ukrainian crisis in 2013.
The United States
Compared to the countries discussed above, the US is less inclined to join the global front to combat COVID-19 beyond its borders. In addition to refusing to join Covax, former President Trump signed an executive order in December ordering pharmaceutical companies, such as leaders in COVID-19 vaccine market Moderna and Pfizer, to prioritise Americans. This means that the US is putting efforts to help other countries at a lower priority than vaccinating its own population. While White House officials are calling this move a ‘reaffirmation of the President’s commitment to America first.’, researchers like Eyck Freymann and Justin Stebbing argue that the US’s inactiveness on the international stage may weaken its competitiveness, causing her to lose the status of global leadership.
However, things have seemingly taken a turn with the commencement of President Biden’s administrative era. In addition to announcing an infusion of $4 billion to Covax, the White House is determined for the US to take a leadership role in the organisation’s efforts. It is clear that the US is unwilling to allow others to overtake its place in global politics, which begs the question of how much damage has already been done by its previous isolationist attitude and whether the current initiatives are sufficient to remedy its consequences.
Developing countries are currently facing immense difficulty in securing vaccines for their citizens, for instance, President of the Philippines Duterte called the lack of universal access to vaccines a ‘gross injustice’ in a speech to the UN’s General Assembly in December 2020. This is no surprise given that developed nations with 14% of the world population have secured 53% of the vaccines worldwide, with Canada leading in doses purchased per head of population - having secured enough shots to vaccinate each Canadian five times. This leaves developing countries reliant on countries that are willing to provide them with vaccines, as illustrated by Virginia Commonwealth University professor Judy Twigg’s statement that ‘You take what you can get, wherever you can get it from.’, which further weakens the bargaining power of developing countries as a whole. This change in power dynamics has seen surprising interactions between certain nations, an example being Russia providing Sputnik-V vaccines to Mexico, with the two countries only having superficial relations in the past. This points to many new alliances to be formed in the near future.
In a nutshell, as a result of the various policies adopted by countries regarding COVID-19 vaccines, international relations and global power dynamics are expected to shift drastically, mainly with vaccine exporting countries gaining larger influence on importing countries, following the latter’s reliance on the former. It is also expected that competition will arise between countries exporting to the same markets, especially those that are competing to increase their influence over developing countries; while existing conflicts between nations may also intensify as a result.
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