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China-Africa Ties Could Use a Few Million Shots in the Arm

China-Africa Ties Could Use a Few Million Shots in the Arm

Friday, 22 October, 2021 - 04:45

A friend in need is, as Beijing well knows, a friend indeed.

In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, as the West turned inward, China sent African nations protective equipment and test kits, enlisting support from Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. co-founder Jack Ma. Beijing promised vaccines and economic support, and President Xi Jinping said Africa’s shots would be a priority. Today, though, the continent accounts for just 8% of China’s global bilateral vaccine deliveries, according to figures compiled by Bridge Consulting, and those are not evenly distributed. That total is a third of what Beijing has provided to Latin America. The same data suggest no African country makes it into the 10 most significant bilateral sale or donation destinations.

With its triennial Forum on China-Africa Cooperation next month in Senegal, China has an opportunity to make up for lost time. Africa as a whole has fully inoculated roughly 5% of its population against Covid-19 and detects only one in seven cases. That’s a health risk for the whole world. The World Health Organization estimates that it still needs about 400 million more vaccines, on top of what has been delivered and promised, to reach the target of fully vaccinating 40% of countries’ populations by the end of this year. China could amp up vaccine sales and aid, guarantee access to treatments as those emerge from Chinese companies, and, crucially, provide on-the-ground support for the longer term, boosting vaccine manufacturing capacity and even basic health surveillance infrastructure. There’s room for China to do more to ease Africa’s post-pandemic financial burden too.

Such plans and pledges will no doubt fill the air in Dakar. The past few months, though, suggest an absence of incentives to ensure they come to fruition.

It’s not as if Africa has ceased to matter to China. The continent is an important provider of raw materials, a market for construction services and home to 1.4 billion consumers. Crucially, it’s a source of support in the United Nations, where Africa accounts for more than a quarter of member states, potentially boosting Beijing’s clout with rival great powers. And Africa isn’t awash in more efficacious vaccine alternatives. But the trajectory of Chinese sales and assistance thus far suggests that competing geopolitical priorities and opportunities are to blame, along with a lack of Western competition in Africa and the political reality of a faltering economic recovery back home.

China does act as a humanitarian force in Africa. It played a much-lauded role during the West African Ebola epidemic of 2014 to 2016, pledging funds to UN agencies, sending health workers, building infrastructure, providing equipment and food aid. China also trained local health and social workers.

Beijing’s initial pandemic response may have been fortified by an awareness of how its early Covid-19 missteps could be perceived; it also had to contend with the negative fallout from ugly racist incidents in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, where Africans were forcibly tested, barred from restaurants and even evicted. Yet, confoundingly, vaccines, the ultimate health diplomacy weapon, have gone elsewhere.

Of course, Africa’s piteous vaccination rate and the reluctance to ease the continent’s debt burden are a global embarrassment, not just a Chinese one. The West bears much responsibility for hoarding vaccines and failing to show leadership. But China too has looked elsewhere to sell and donate, and that’s seemingly more surprising, given the sums it has invested in loans — $153 billion to public sector borrowers between 2010 and 2019 — and its claims to have stepped up when Europe and the US have not. Some of that may be demand, perhaps, but plenty was supply.

China may have underestimated the messiness of working with 54 countries simultaneously, many of them short of cash and distracted by competing demands. (Beijing has generally preferred bilateral negotiations, even if it has agreed to supply the multilateral Covax initiative.) It also met with hesitancy on the ground. But vaccine diplomacy reflects actual diplomatic priorities, trade connections and sometimes fortuitous openings. Neighboring Asian countries were always going to be a priority for China, and Southeast Asia a battleground. Then there’s the energy-exporting Middle East. With the United States distracted, Latin America also provided an opportunity — whether to offer Honduras vaccines to shift its stance on Taiwan, or to build on commercial links with Brazil, Chile and Peru.

Such priorities explain why not all African countries have lost out. North Africa, tied to China’s Middle East policy, has done better. Morocco, Algeria and Egypt now have or will soon have some production capacity. Long-standing allies like Zimbabwe have benefited from the largesse too. But in general, with the West punching below its weight in Africa — the Covax partnership has fallen short of its original 2021 target — China hasn’t needed to provide as much bilaterally to impress local elites and to dazzle social media. It’s a vaccine arms race in reverse.

And of course China has domestic priorities too, with a vaccination campaign that took up much of its early capacity, plus an economic and political situation that does not favor overly generous engagements abroad.

The bigger question is whether this dynamic can change in the next stage of post-Covid-19 support, as focus shifts to support for health infrastructure and long-term vaccine provision. China, which has overwhelmingly sold rather than donated shots, has struggled with lower efficacy rates that make its jabs less attractive. And China’s struggles with technology transfer — it has dragged its feet even in publishing clinical trial data for vaccines — do not make it an ideal partner for manufacturing capacity. But as Eric Olander of the China Africa Project points out, China may still become a core provider of vaccines for the continent once it develops mRNA alternatives to Western shots, or easier-to-distribute nasal spray vaccines, both in progress. That’s a significant win, given China’s pharmaceutical ambitions.

And there’s one other long overdue thing that would focus minds in Beijing: Hefty Western support for a neglected continent. For all parties concerned, that would truly be a win-win.


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