Clara Ferreira Marques

Vaccine Diplomacy Isn’t Working. It’s Time For a New Approach

Covid-19 vaccines were supposed to be a golden diplomatic opportunity for great powers and aspiring rivals to woo friends — and even enemies — in need. It isn’t going to plan.

Russia was the first to approve a vaccine and the most enthusiastic marketer, but has fallen far short of its hyperbolic delivery promises. China has done a better job of stepping up, but is plagued by questions over the relatively lower efficacy of its shots — even if they appear to hold up against more troublesome variants. Western countries, meanwhile, were providing far too little even before the current scramble to secure booster doses began. And neither scattered bilateral efforts nor unimpressive global ones are translating into real geopolitical influence.

Take Southeast Asia, perhaps one of the most stark examples. A strategically vital region of 670 million on China’s doorstep, it has from the beginning been a crucial vaccine battleground, with all sides jostling for influence. But it’s also now in desperate need. After a promising start last year, a variant-fueled surge has battered the region over the past few months. Vietnam, which had no deaths for the first months of the pandemic and contained infections for much of 2020 despite bordering China, has now gone from less than 1,000 daily cases in early July to more than 12 times that by early this month, forcing a draconian lockdown of Ho Chi Minh City. Less than 3% of the population is fully vaccinated. Indonesia is now coming out of its latest devastating wave but has completely immunized just over 13%.

It’s not that the region was ignored. China, in fact, made it a priority from the start. Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a point of travelling out in January — not coincidentally, just before US President Joe Biden’s inauguration — with generous inoculation promises alongside wider infrastructure and investment pledges, including support for key partner Indonesia to become a vaccine production hub. It was during his Jakarta stop that President Joko Widodo launched the country’s vaccination drive — with a Chinese-made Sinovac shot. Southeast Asia accounts for roughly a quarter of China’s global sales and virtually all countries in the region have either bought doses or received donations from China.

As Cambodian leader Hun Sen, initially wary, put it in a speech in May: “If I don’t rely on China, who will I rely on?”

And yet, the payback is not obvious. There’s been no dramatic change in position on issues that really matter to Beijing, say, such as its claims to disputed waters in the South China Sea. Support for the Philippines wasn’t enough to stop President Rodrigo Duterte from renewing, at the end of July, a strategically significant military pact governing the presence of U.S. troops in the country.

That’s because vaccine diplomacy doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Beijing’s soft power approach hasn’t replaced the old-fashioned kind, as when China flew military craft over waters off the Malaysian coast, a display of strength that forced the country to scramble jets. And there’s the simpler fact that the vaccines are not seen as equally effective. While citizens and governments understand they are not in a position to be picky, it’s hard not to notice that even grateful Hun Sen took the AstraZeneca Plc shot when the time came, or that hundreds of Indonesia’s healthcare workers, vaccinated with Sinovac, fell sick. Breakthrough infections happen, but it hardly helped Beijing’s cause. Thailand last month gave tens of thousands of Sinovac-vaccinated doctors a follow-up dose of Pfizer-BioNTech.

But where China faltered, have others done better? The answer, without question, is no.

Japan, a major donor and investor in the region, has punched below its weight, perhaps because it is not a significant vaccine producer and has been struggling with its own inoculation drive. Russia certainly saw the opportunity and has made big promises, but followed with few deliveries as it grapples with production hiccups. Vietnam, arguably its most significant partner in the region and a major recipient of arms exports, said in early June it would receive 20 million doses of Sputnik V this year. A note on the Ministry of Health website in early August said it had received 12,000 — barely a dent for a country of nearly 100 million.

The U.S., scrambling to catch up in the region after years of neglect under the previous administration, has done better, pointedly offering contributions it says have “no strings attached.” But even apparently generous gestures — what now adds up to 6 million donated doses for Vietnam, say — are a drop in the ocean in a dramatically under-vaccinated region that needs supply, not simply charity.

That sort of amount is, as Ben Bland of the Lowy Institute in Sydney put it to me, the price of a seat at the vaccine diplomacy table — not the ticket to victory.

It’s too soon to call the winners or losers when it comes to vaccine diplomacy. The tail of the pandemic will be long, especially in emerging economies. Chong Ja Ian, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, separates the short-term and the long-term — the immediate deliveries of donated or sold doses on one side, and, on the other, the impact of years of booster supplies, support for production capacity and public health surveillance assistance. Infrastructure will bring longer-lasting diplomatic rewards — and is best built as a collaborative effort, not a smattering of bilateral gestures.

Geopolitical influence, after all, requires success.