People undergo health screening before receiving their dose of China’s Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine, during a mass vaccination programme at a shopping mall in Jakarta, Indonesia, on June 28. Photo: Reuters
Riaz Khokhar
Riaz Khokhar

China’s vaccine diplomacy with Asean will be rewarded

  • By making its vaccines available to a large swathe of the developing world, China has presented itself as a responsible global power, in stark contrast to the rich West
  • The US’ aloof attitude towards Asean has also left a void for China to fill

Geopolitics sits at the heart of foreign policy, and it’s also part of the current vaccine diplomacy. By distributing life-saving doses during the pandemic, China and other countries are essentially seeking to reap geopolitical dividends.

Through its efforts to provide Covid-19 vaccines to others in the Asia-Pacific region and elsewhere, China has presented itself as a responsible global power, giving it an opportunity to deepen relations with recipient countries.

On June 2, the foreign ministry said China had provided “more than 350 million doses of vaccines to the international community”, with exports to more than 40 countries.

Meanwhile, some of the richest and most technologically advanced nations in the West pre-booked large orders of vaccines for their populations. In Europe, a row even erupted between the EU and Britain over the export of AstraZeneca vaccines, while the US had until recently sat on millions of unused doses, which it now plans to distribute to others in need.

By and large, China’s interstate engagement for vaccine distribution is in stark contrast to the West’s vaccine nationalism.


WHO says the world needs faster vaccination rate after G7 announces donation of doses

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In Southeast Asia, in particular, China’s proactive diplomacy is a far cry from America’s diplomatic aloofness. Then US president Donald Trump skipped the Asean summit for three years in a row. Current president Joe Biden has yet to reach out to the region as some had hoped he would after taking office.

And, in late May, due to an embarrassing technical glitch, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was unable to meet virtually with his counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, making them wait 45 minutes before their planned meeting had to be postponed. The diplomatic gaffe unnerved Asean leaders.

Days later, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi hosted his Asean counterparts at a meeting in Chongqing to commemorate 30 years of relations, after which they agreed to ramp up vaccine cooperation and observe “self-restraint” in the conduct of maritime activities that could aggravate disputes.

While this does not mean Asean nation would consider compromising on issues related to territorial sovereignty, their friendship with Beijing can stand them in good stead as Washington gives them short shrift.

A critical juncture in the China-US contest in Southeast Asia

According to one estimate, the majority of Chinese vaccines have gone to Asia-Pacific nations. Some have received the doses as donations, others have bought them and, of the latter, some were offered a loan to buy them. Most, if not all, Southeast Asian nations had received Chinese vaccines through purchase or donation.

Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy has consolidated ties with its belt and road partners in the region and beyond. Asean members, in their joint statement, extended their gratitude to China for its vaccine supplies and technical assistance in the local production of vaccines.

They also expressed a wish to synergise the Master Plan on Asean Connectivity with the Belt and Road Initiative and hasten full ratification of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).


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China’s Covid-19 vaccination drive hits 1 billion mark

For these nations, America’s pivot to Asia or the Indo-Pacific strategy will mean little if they are left high and dry by Washington.

Still, all is not lost on the American side. The Quad grouping of the US, India, Japan and Australia has been in consultation to produce at least a billion vaccines for the Indo-Pacific region. India, which is responsible for the vaccine production, is reportedly working with its Quad partners to confirm the time line for delivery.

There are two takeaways from all this. First, China’s vaccine roll-out in the Asia-Pacific region has become an essential element of the Belt and Road Initiative, serving to promote belt and road investments and their acceptability in the region.

Second, the resulting China-Asean bonhomie and the absence of closer US engagement in the region may lead regional nations to soften their rhetoric on South China Sea issues and inspire mutual compromise for the sake of peace and stability.

Riaz Khokhar is a research associate at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) and a former Asia Studies visiting fellow at the East-West Center in Washington. He tweets @Riaz1Khokhar