The Conversation

Vaccine diplomacy: how some countries are using COVID to enhance their soft power

The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to various new, repurposed or newly popular terms. The newest entry to the pandemic lexicon might be “vaccine diplomacy”, with some countries using their jabs to strengthen regional ties and enhance their own power and global status.

In early February, half a million doses of the Chinese Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Pakistan, before soon also reaching 13 other countries including Cambodia, Nepal, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe. The Chinese ambassador to Pakistan declared it a “manifestation of our brotherhood”, a sentiment echoed by the Pakistani government. Russia has similarly used its own Sputnik V vaccine to win friends and support, providing access to countries as yet unable to start their own vaccination programmes.

India has been donating supplies of the AstraZeneca/Oxford jabs produced in the country to regional neighbours including Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal, bolstering not only its reputation as a supplier of cheap and accessible vaccines to the global south, but also challenging China’s efforts at regional dominance at a time of heightened tensions between the two countries.

Meanwhile, Israel has reportedly agreed to pay Russia to send the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine to the Syrian government as part of a prisoner exchange deal.

Vaccine diplomacy has also involved efforts to undermine trust in the intentions and efficacy of rival powers. China and Russia have both been accused by governments in Europe and North America of state-backed disinformation campaigns seeking to undermine trust in vaccines produced in those regions. And Russia sent supplies of Sputnik V to Hungary, in a move seen by some as designed to undermine EU unity and credibility.

Europe and North America have been late to the game in providing vaccines to poorer countries and regions. Calls from leaders such as France’s Emmanuel Macron to donate vaccines to poorer countries, and pledges from the UK to donate surplus supplies have only emerged in recent days.

Strings attached?

In the absence of providing vaccine supplies to poorer countries, some in the west sought to cast doubt on the credibility of Chinese and Russian efforts, presenting them as cynical ploys for diplomatic advantage. You may be getting vaccines, they have been telling the world, but at what cost in your obligations to Russia and China – even as western countries wrap their own international aid in conditions, often involving aspirations for trade deals.

The response to the virus has been embedded in global power and diplomatic wrangles from the very start – from the Trump administration referring to “the Chinese virus” at every turn as part of its wider political and economic struggles with China, to Chinese efforts to use its own success to enhance the legitimacy of strict measures and curbs on political and social freedoms.

Fighting disease has in fact long been used as a means for extending soft power and winning friends. Superpower rivalries for influence through the needle have sometimes even been positive: the success of the smallpox eradication campaign was in part fuelled by the rivalry between the Soviet Union and US. Responding to the Sars epidemic in 2002, China provided assistance and support to affected countries to bolster its global power status, including to Taiwan. This stands in stark contrast to its more tense relationship with Taiwan in this latest epidemic.

Such assistance has tended to accrue the most soft-power influence when aid has been seen as impartial and free from naked self-interest. Before being merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, for example, the reputation of the UK’s former Department for International Development (DfID) was in part enhanced by its legally enshrined focus on poverty and its autonomous status. The current round of vaccine diplomacy on all sides is neither.

The prospect of global health becoming a new arena for global power competition and rivalry should worry us all. Whatever benefits may have emerged from such rivalries in the past, they did so through cooperative rivalry. The global response to COVID-19 has thus far tended to be uncooperative and divisive, casting blame or seeking to spread distrust.

The complexities of global health, and the needs of the billions excluded from the benefits of vaccine science and innovation, demand a truly global response. Whether responding to COVID-19 will lead to a more equal partnership for health for all, or reinforce some of the worst instincts displayed during the past year, will determine not only the course of COVID-19, but the impact of the next epidemic to threaten global health, and the ones that follow that.

Michael Jennings is affiliated with the Fabian Society.