In May last year, at the height of the Cowvid-1p epidemic, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that his country would soon provide a safe and effective vaccine as a “global public good,” especially for the developing world.
To this end, the Chinese leader has launched a massive state-sponsored campaign, allocating huge amounts of subsidies and allocating about 1 to 22 organizations and research institutes. T has collected to work on the vaccine project.
Some leaders in the vicinity of China were reassured by Xi’s speech and hoped to capitalize on good relations with Beijing as soon as possible to get the vaccines. In July, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced that his country would be “back to normal” by December to help China.
Despite the huge funding and high hopes invested in the Chinese vaccine drive, it has not been as successful as expected, at least in Southeast Asia. Significant skepticism has been seen in the region due to questions about the distribution, efficacy, and pricing of Chinese-developed vaccines, as well as possible “string-linked”.
As other major powers take up vaccine production and take concrete steps toward provisions for developing countries, China’s vaccine diplomacy in Southeast Asia and beyond could soon face a major challenge.
‘Health Silk Road’
Seeing the rise of anti-China sentiment soon after the launch of COVID-19, Beijing began to present itself as a potential savior of human society, especially for the poor, especially with limited ability to withstand a major public health crisis.
After providing personal protective equipment and test kits around the world after initial protection, it took on the task of making the COVID-19 vaccine. Last year, trials of Chinese vaccines began in 16 countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Indonesia, the largest country in the Southeast, became a major hub for Chinese clinical trials, involving several Chinese pharmaceutical companies.
Encouraged by Europe’s gratitude to Asia, China has called for foreign aid as part of its multifaceted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) investment worldwide as a new “Health Silk Road”. Chinese officials say participating in BRI countries was the first priority in providing both free and subsidized vaccines.
One year after the epidemic, China announced that it was providing free vaccines to nine countries across the developing world and exporting 26 people commercially.
In addition to helping to correct its global picture after being blamed for the COVID-19 outbreak, there is also an important economic aspect to Beijing’s medical drive. As of 2012, China had a minimal role in the global pharmaceutical industry, contributing less than 2 percent of the medical supplies adopted by the United Nations.
In contrast, neighboring India accounted for 22 percent of this national collection and 60 percent of global vaccine exports. Now, Chinese COVID-19 vaccines will increase the country’s global market share and, according to some estimates, bring in more than 10 billion in sales.
Delays and doubts
When China introduced its vaccines, Indonesia, the first leader of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), was the first recipient of the Sinovak vaccine. In early December, 1.2 million doses appeared, followed by 1.8 million at the end of the month. In January, Indonesian state-owned BioPharma began making Chinese vaccines with ingredients shipped from China.
But shipments to other parts of the region were delayed and much less. Cambodia and Laos received 600,000 and 300,000 doses, respectively, in early February, while Thailand received 200,000 doses two weeks later. The Philippines received 1,000,000 doses by the end of the month – much later than Duterte had hoped.
Although China promised to supply 300,000 doses to Myanmar, it has not yet delivered; Instead, the country received the first tick shipment of 1.5 million doses from India in January.
Chinese vaccine manufacturers – like their western counterparts – have suffered severe production delays and power shortages. In January, Synovac’s production levels reached just half of its scheduled production capacity, raising doubts about whether other, less-established Chinese companies would be in a position to meet demand.
Vaccine exports could also be hampered by the need to prioritize mass immunization of China’s one-billion-strong population, a major feat that may not be completed until the middle of next year.
Another major source of concern is the effectiveness of Chinese vaccines. International criticism focuses on the lack of transparency of Chinese companies from the final results of the final clinical trials. Clinical trials abroad have shown that Sinovac’s efficacy rate can be as low as 50.4 percent, much lower than its competitors, which boasts a rate of over 90 percent.
It goes without saying that even the pro-Beijing Philippine president and his health secretary have not received any Chinese vaccines. Some medical experts, including former top government advisers, have publicly questioned the government’s reliance on Chinese jabs and called for further evaluation by health authorities.
Meanwhile, a recent investigation by the Philippine Senate has revealed that the country is paying more for the Chinese vaccine than some of its neighbors. Concerns were also raised about the politics of Chinese vaccine shipments as China escalated its aggressive behavior while sending another shipment to the South China Sea in March.
Neighboring Vietnam, which has maritime disputes with China like the Philippines, has completely rejected Chinese-made vaccines.
Some of China’s closest allies in the region are not even putting all their eggs in one basket. Cambodia is the first to invest 10 million doses through the UN-backed Kovacs project, while Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have also actively diversified their vaccine supply by reaching alternative sources in the United States, Europe, India and Russia. In the case of ethnically Chinese-majority Singapore, it relies heavily on vaccines from drug companies established in the West.
As other big players take action, over the next few months, China’s primary advantage in vaccine diplomacy is likely to disappear. For example, the Beadon administration reversed its predecessor’s “America First” approach by reinstating aid to the World Health Organization, as well as doubling the UN’s commitment to support the Kovacs project, which aims to provide up to 2 billion doses to the poorest countries.
Together with Australia, India and Japan, the United States has launched a new initiative under the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue to co-produce 1 billion doses for Southeast Asian countries, more commonly known as “quad” grouping.
Faced with intense criticism for their vaccine procurement in recent months, European countries are also expected to increase their contribution to COVAX and similar universal vaccine initiatives. Another major vaccine production rival to China is Russia, which has shown greater transparency in clinical trials of the Sputnik V vaccine and enjoys comparatively more confidence.
All of these initiatives will challenge China in achieving vaccine provisions in Southeast Asia and beyond. Thus, what initially seemed to be a victory for China in terms of “vaccine diplomacy” may be less than the success that Beijing had hoped for.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the author and his editorial position on Al Jazeera.