Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.
What is vaccine diplomacy?
The development of COVID-19 vaccines saw the re-emergence of a long forlorn form of diplomacy: vaccine diplomacy. Rather than the international cooperation most envision, vaccine diplomacy is driven by opportunism. For China, the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus tarnished its image, where Western democracies such as the United States strived to hold China accountable for COVID-19 with its countless remarks of the “Chinese virus”. Vaccine diplomacy in this view becomes a fitting solution for China to regain its soft power and even bolster its influence around Asia (Lawler, 2021). Similarly, India hopped onto the bandwagon by beginning its programme to vaccinate 300 million people by August, where dosages of the Covidshield vaccine were provided to countries such as Bhutan and Maldives(Gilani, 2021). A Quad alliance between Australia, India, Japan and the U.S was later established to counteract the influence of China’s vaccine diplomacy (Sharma, 2021). Greater financial funneling from the US and Japan into India will invigorate its vaccine production, hopefully distributing vaccines in greater capacity.
Is vaccine diplomacy an obstacle to genuine, international cooperation?
Although driven by opportunism, the result is an assertion of vaccines as an essential global public good. For instance, India seeks to vaccinate Syria, whose COVID-19 situation threatens to compound its food insecurity (Gilani, 2021). The generosity of India is helping to alleviate dire circumstances that countries such as Syria are facing.
Nevertheless, this generosity comes as a result of its own citizens. India has the second highest population in the world, where although they have expertise in the production of vaccines, it is practically impossible to sustain its population in addition to the rest of the world. Over 100 people die daily from COVID-19 in India (Gilani, 2021), and 200,000 people contract the disease and become sick as of April (Al Jazeera, 2021). In exchange for greater political influence, it seems that India is willing to handshake the tradeoff where the burden falls significantly on its citizens. Clearly, it pursues a zero sum game as they see competition with vaccine diplomacy equitable to the lives they lose domestically.
The Raven manifests in vaccine nationalism
Vaccine nationalism is a phenomenon where MEDCs grapple for supremacy in vaccines, as LEDCs hang out to dry (The Observer, 2021). Although some contend that the phenomenon is over exaggerated, we seem to see signs of its beginning. European commission president Ursula von der Leyen recently warned the UK that it could halt vaccine exports if the UK fails to show reciprocity (Henley, 2021). The lack of reciprocity was allegedly characterized by the UK’s stagnant transportation of dosages to the EU. Seemingly, when disincentives arise, vaccine nationalism is not completely out of the question.
Here, we must ask ourselves, do we prefer vaccine diplomacy, or vaccine apartheid? Vaccine diplomacy is largely criticized for its ulterior motives to use vaccines as a way to bolster soft power. However, the result is that countries that need the dosages receive the vaccines from states such as China or the US. Without vaccine diplomacy, countries will be sitting ducks, awaiting for their impending doom. Some would argue that vaccine nationalism seems to already be realized, as the EU are already hoarding these vaccinations in surplus. It seems strange from a Western perspective to therefore criticize vaccine diplomacy from China.
The term being used in media, “vaccine apartheid” carries strong meaning to Western nations. The management of vaccines suggests a deeply embedded sense of privilege in the western societal fabric, comparable to the racial segregation beginning from the 1950s in South Africa (Nair, 2021). Global relief becomes an impossibility, as the West continues its self-serving attitude and acts only to safeguard its prosperity. The result of keeping dosages in surplus has led to situations to worsen in other countries. Asian countries such as the Philippines recently reversed a ban on Filipino health workers migrating abroad, so that they can seek jobs in more prosperous European states in exchange for vaccines(Kashyap and Wurth, 2021). This implies that a lack of vaccines in circulation for the Philippines has caused domestic deprivation akin to a drought.
Rather than further escalating this situation, vaccine diplomacy seems clearly superior. Vaccinations come in exchange possibly for tighter economic ties, as some suspect from China’s vaccine diplomacy. However, this will still ensure that countries will be able to recover from this pandemic. For this, to condemn vaccine diplomacy seems to suggest that vaccine apartheid would be the better alternative. Being rich in its rhetoric of international cooperation but fails to deliver when it truly matters, means that the West are in no position to criticize vaccine diplomacy. Instruments of imperialism or whatnot, diplomacy carries far less heavy weight than apartheid.
Vaccine diplomacy at its worst is a necessary evil, at its best it can be a form of saviourism free of ulterior motives. Although many nations have accused China of politicizing the vaccination process for its own gain, the result has been virtuous. It has begun a new age of vaccine diplomacy, as its competitor the United States seeks to distribute its surplus to Mexico and Canada. The scrabble for greater vaccine diplomacy has resulted in a greater, sustainable public good which will ensure the survival of many economically weaker states. Diplomacy, rather than apartheid, is a palatable result.
Al Jazeera, 2021. Weekend curfew in Indian capital as hospitals see ‘chaotic’ surge. Coronavirus pandemic News | Al Jazeera. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/4/15/india-records-over-200000-new-covid-cases-f or-the-first-time.
Gilani, Iftikhar., 2021. India, China rivalry shifts to vaccine diplomacy. Anadolu Ajansı. Available at:https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/india-china-rivalry-shifts-to-vaccine-diplomacy/216 0364.
Henley, Jon., 2021. EU threatens to halt Covid vaccine exports to UK unless it gets ‘fair share’. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/17/eu-threatens-to-halt-covid-vaccine-expor ts-to-uk-unless-it-gets-fair-share.
Kashyap, Aruna and Wurth, Margaret., 2021. Rich countries must stop ‘vaccine apartheid’: View. euronews. Available at: https://www.euronews.com/2021/03/11/rich-countries-must-stop-vaccine-apartheid-view.
Lawler, D., 2021. China has a big head start on vaccine diplomacy as the U.S. hoards its full supply. Axios. Available at: https://www.axios.com/us-coronavirus-vaccine-diplomacy-china-exports-4a5c7bbd-32fb-4 68a-add5-9b1689bf5ce3.html.
Nair, Chandran., 2021. ‘Vaccine apartheid’ shows white privilege is woven into globalisation. South China Morning Post. Available at: https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/opinion/article/3125085/vaccine-apartheid-how-white-privilege-woven-fabric-globalisation.
Sharma, K., 2021. Why Quad boosts India’s vaccine diplomacy: 5 things to know. Nikkei Asia. Available at: https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/Indo-Pacific/Why-Quad-boosts-India-s-vaccine-diplomacy-5-things-to-know.
Smith, Joseph., 2021. COVID-19 vaccine diplomacy – from nationalism to friendship. Home. Available at: https://www.controlrisks.com/our-thinking/insights/covid19-vaccine-diplomacy-from-nationalism-to-friendship.
The Observer., 2021. The Observer view on the dangers of vaccine nationalism | Observer editorial. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/mar/21/the-observer-view-on-the-dangers-of-vaccine-nationalism.
TRTWorld, 2021. Does the Quad alliance pose a serious threat to China? Available at: https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/does-the-quad-alliance-pose-a-serious-threat-to-china-45018.
By Gabriel Chow
Gabriel examines the resurgence of vaccine diplomacy amidst the COVID-19 crisis. For many, the fear of vaccine nationalism dominates the COVID-19 crisis. Vaccine diplomacy becomes a viable alternative in this lens, for the greater good.