Vaccine diplomacy: China in the Global South

Art by Gabriella Turrisi

As Western countries began rolling out COVID-19 vaccines last week, the UAE became the first nation to authorize use of one of China's vaccines against the coronavirus. Beijing promises a major breakthrough towards ending the pandemic for billions of people across the developing world, but it comes with risks for China, and strings attached for its customers.


First, the good news. According to the Emiratis, China's Sinopharm vaccine is 86 percent effective, slightly less than Pfizer's and Moderna's but more than expected just weeks ago. It's relatively cheap to make and only requires refrigeration, a game-changer for developing nations that lack large-scale cold-storage facilities.

Chinese vaccine makers are looking at a revenue windfall, and poor nations that may soon be able to quickly inoculate large numbers of people won't have to wait as long as they feared to begin to rebuild their economies.

Now the bad news. Chinese officials have largely contained the coronavirus at home and don't need to immediately vaccinate as big a percentage of its citizens as the US does to return to normalcy. But they will need to find the right division of supplies between 1.4 billion Chinese and the foreign countries that Chinese companies have agreed to supply. A fresh COVID-19 outbreak inside China without full domestic immunization could deal President Xi Jinping a heavy political blow.

Indeed, logistics is a big problem. Sinopharm claims it can produce up to 1 billion doses — enough to inoculate 500 million people with two doses each — in 2021. China has four other vaccine candidates in phase III clinical trials and could technically ramp up production to more than 3 billion doses next year, but it will prioritize certain countries in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Then there are concerns over safety. Chinese firms haven't been as forthcoming with data on their clinical trials as their Western rivals in the global vaccine race. That doesn't mean their products are unsafe, but some countries that have agreed to test them on their own citizens are wary about the lack of transparency. If the results are less than promised or vaccinations produce serious side-effects, everybody loses.

China has much to gain from its vaccine diplomacy efforts. A successful drug could do a lot to restore global faith in China, whose reputation has been severely damaged by its cover-up of the initial COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan. Beijing says it's offering its medicine to poor countries as a "public good" with soft loans to purchase vaccines. Meanwhile, the West is engaging in "vaccine nationalism" by inoculating their own people first and selling (most of) the rest for profit.

On the other hand, China's vaccine diplomacy targets neither the US nor Western countries. Its goal is to supply the Global South, where Beijing can exercise its "soft power" by giving developing nations access to the drugs that only 20 percent of their people would receive by the end of next year under the international COVAX Facility to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines.

However, all this largesse may come with a catch. Countless recipients of Chinese loans have fallen deep into China's debt trap. If they default, a state-owned Chinese company may take over strategic infrastructure. With the vaccines, however, Beijing has learned its lesson after suffering a backlash over its ham-fisted "PPE diplomacy" at the onset of the pandemic.

With vaccines, China is unlikely to make the ties too explicit, but will expect countries to scratch their back too by being friendly to Chinese interests, or at least not overly hostile on sensitive political issues. This is now evident in Turkey — which is already turning a blind eye to China's treatment of its fellow Turkic Uighurs in China's Xinjiang region in order to get early access to Sinovac's drug — and Indonesia, another country undergoing Sinovac clinical trials that has toned down its criticisms of China's claim to the contested South China Sea.

At the end of the day, though, developing countries don't have much choice. Many can't wait until all rich countries inoculate their way to herd immunity, and will roll the dice on a Chinese vaccine that may not be as effective or safe, but will offer some quick public health and economic relief. The full price of this option will become clear over time.

That's Bank of America's new target in its Environmental Business Initiative in order to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon, sustainable economy.

Here's how it will drive innovation to address climate change.

On Tuesday, a major US intelligence report said the top threat to America right now is China. A day later, John Kerry, the Biden administration's "climate czar," got on a plane to... China.

Such is the drama of ties between the world's two largest economies these days.

More Show less

Should the Biden administration "reverse course on China" in the hope of establishing a friendlier relationship, as diplomat Kishore Mahbubani argues in a recent Financial Times op-ed? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Michael Hirson take out the Red Pen to explain why it's not that simple.

And today, we are talking about the United States and China. The relationship between the two most powerful nations in the world is the worst it's been since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Pundits and policymakers alike all around the world are trying to figure out how Washington and Beijing can at least stop the bleeding because a reset is nowhere in the cards.

That's the topic of the op-ed that we are looking at today. It's from the Financial Times, written by Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, and the title summarizes the key argument: "Biden should summon the courage to reverse course on China." Meaning, he should throw out the Trump era approach and open the door to more cooperation and kinder, gentler relations.

More Show less

More than a dozen COVID-19 vaccines have been fully approved or are currently in early use globally, and COVAX, the global initiative started last year by the World Health Organization and other partners, is pushing for equitable access to vaccines for all. But most of the half billion jabs given so far have gone to citizens of wealthy countries, with half going to the US and China alone. What's the problem with so-called vaccine nationalism? Ian Bremmer explains that besides the clear humanitarian concerns, the continued global spread of COVID increases the risk of new mutations and variants that can threaten the entire world, vaccinated or not.

Watch the episode: Vaccine nationalism could prolong the pandemic

Should wealthy individuals and nations shoulder more of the burden in addressing climate change? Pulitzer Prize-winning climate journalist Elizabeth Kolbert argues that Big Tech leaders like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk should shift more of their focus to fighting for our own planet's survival, instead of space exploration. "We're doing as much as we can to make life difficult on planet Earth for ourselves. But there's virtually nothing we could do to make it as difficult as life on Mars, where there's, among other things, no oxygen." Kolbert, the author of Under a White Sky, discusses why it's so crucial for a few rich countries to bear most of the climate burden, since they're also the biggest emitters. Her conversation with Ian Bremmer is featured in the upcoming episode of GZERO World, airing on US public television stations starting this Friday, April 16. Check local listings.

In recent days, Northern Ireland has seen some of its worst street violence in over a decade. The anger has subsided a bit this week, but post-Brexit fears leave many uncertain about their future in a deeply divided land with a long history of political violence between Irish republicans and UK unionists.

More Show less

Fighting climate change is about making the planet get less hot. The more quickly countries slow down their carbon emissions, the faster that'll happen. All the more important for the nations that pollute the most — but not all of them are on board. Although the majority, including China, are setting future targets to go Net Zero, India doesn't want to commit (yet) to when to stop burning fossil fuels to spur economic growth. We take a look at when the world's top polluting economies intend to go carbon-neutral, compared with their share of global emissions, of renewable energy as a source of electricity, and percentage of global coal consumption.

Peruvian runoff: Perú's presidential election is going to a runoff in June between two surprise and polarizing contenders, each of whom won less than 20 percent of votes in a highly fragmented first round. Pedro Castillo, a far-left union leader and teacher who benefited from a late surge in the polls, will battle rightwing populist Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the country's imprisoned former strongman. Castillo wants to rewrite the constitution to weaken the political influence of the country's business elite and maybe to allow the state to nationalize parts of the mining sector to pay for social programs for the poor. Fujimori wants to use mining revenues to create jobs by investing in infrastructure and healthcare. The runoff will probably be a national referendum on Fujimori, a divisive figure running for the top job for the third time. No Peruvian president has ever left office without facing corruption charges, but Fujimori already faces several — and she'll avoid jail time if she wins.

More Show less

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter, Signal

The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal