How do times change? And how a suspect in 2020 turns into a messiah in 2021? But how long can China hold on to this newfound importance?
China knows but is readying to use this ‘transformation’ to the hilt. The way it used the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a weapon to implement its gargantuan geopolitical objectives, the global vaccine shortage against the Covid-19:2 pandemic has suddenly come as a god-sent opportunity to an atheist Beijing. These vaccines are China’s BRI-II as they have become the latest weapon in Beijing’s arsenal to break or bend targeted nations to its will. At least in the short term.
Recall how then US President Donald Trump had dubbed the pandemic’s cause as a “Chinese virus” in 2020, vilifying the Dragon as the main culprit behind the spread of Covid-19. Some actions of China, like its alleged manipulation of the World Health Organization (WHO) to get off the hook, added to the mystery about the origins of the outbreak.
But 2021 is different. Trump is no longer the White House boss. China’s biggest Asian ‘frenemy’ India, a major vaccine supplier until recently, is struggling to contain the second wave of the pandemic and reduced from being an exporter of vaccines to importer. Paying back, some 40 countries, including the US, the European Union and the UK, have rushed medical supplies to India. If they had not, the rising tide of the pandemic in the vast market of India would have jeopardized future plans of their multinational corporations.
Media reported last week that the world is fast becoming ever more reliant on China for vaccines, as India has banned export of vaccines in view of its own precarious situation. Seeing China regaining its position, the US is also trying to recalibrate its position as a champion of wider access.
Over the past few weeks, some of the most populous countries have sought more doses of vaccines from China despite reservations about their efficacy. This demand may rise once the WHO authorizes vaccines from China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd. and Sinopharm Group Co. Ltd., allowing developing countries in the ‘Third World’ to access them through Covax, the global vaccination effort.
“China has become not just the largest exporter,” said Yanzhong Huang, a China specialist and senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “In many countries it has become the only option.”
China’s potential reliability as a vaccine supplier has increased its geopolitical clout while the United States and the European Union allegedly hoarded their stocks and were slow to respond while India, Brazil and other countries gasped for breath. India’s crisis has forced the affected countries to turn toward China.
Seeing China’s quick responses, President Joe Biden said last week that the US will start playing a more active role. America donned the hat of Santa Claus, waived patents on Covid-19 vaccines to allow other countries to manufacture them, and rushed supplies to India. Planning to reposition the US in geopolitics, he is ready to make the country an “arsenal for fighting Covid-19” globally, amid attacks of new variants.
India, the world’s third-biggest vaccine supplier after China and the European Union, had exported 67 million doses to nearly 100 countries until the devastating second wave of Covid-19 forced it to halt most deliveries in April.
As soon as the WHO authorizes Chinese vaccines, many countries could line up before Beijing for supplies, despite concerns about potential public-health hazards involving these shots that have demonstrated lower efficacy rates than those made by America behemoths Pfizer and Moderna. Chinese vaccines have already been hampered by a lack of authentic trial data and a preference for vaccines from the Western companies.
But the world urgently needs vaccines. Foreign Minister Wang Yi promised last week that China would provide vaccines to countries that had been dependent on India. The same day, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe secured an agreement to enhance military cooperation with Bangladesh. Soon, Dhaka also approved emergency use of the Sinopharm shots as the promised 15 million doses it paid for from the Serum Institute of India (SII) failed to arrive.
In April, Chinese President Xi Jinping had opposed “vaccine nationalism” in a conversation with Indonesian leader Joko Widodo, whose government green-signalled Sinopharm for emergency use. Indonesia also secured an additional 15 million shots of Sinovac.
India’s export ban has made Indonesia increasingly dependent on vaccine supplies from China. Other countries have also been forced to fall in line, only a few months after they were dissociating from the BRI projects.
Even the Philippines, having a territorial dispute with China, fell in line as it negotiated with Sinovac for a monthly delivery of four million doses. After India’s export delays deprived Manila of its biggest vaccine order, President Rodrigo Duterte said: “China remains our benefactor. Just because we have a conflict with China doesn’t mean to say that we have to be rude and disrespectful.”
Pushed from the centre-stage to the side-lines in vaccine supplies, India is watching these development with concern. New Delhi believes the current phase of the pandemic will pass soon and it can ramp up supplies again in a few months. India is aware that China is trying to exploit New Delhi’s crisis but is confident that other countries understand its predicament, an official said.
But China’s delight may, after all, be short-lived. For, many people from Pakistan to Brazil and Africa show a traditional lack of confidence in Chinese products, including vaccines.
That is where the Dragon’s soft belly is!