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The Price of Beijing’s Vaccine Diplomacy in Southeast Asia

A visitor wearing a face mask looks at a model of a coronavirus and boxes for COVID-19 vaccines at a display by Chinese pharmaceutical firm Sinopharm at the China International Fair for Trade in Services (CIFTIS) in Beijing, Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020…
A visitor wearing a face mask looks at a model of a coronavirus and boxes for COVID-19 vaccines at a display by Chinese pharmaceutical firm Sinopharm at the China International Fair for Trade in Services (CIFTIS) in Beijing, Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020…

As China publicly claims it is closing in on a coronavirus vaccine, Beijing has begun promising early access to countries of strategic interest. The effort is broadly seen as a way for Beijing to try to shore up its global standing after the outbreak that started in Wuhan spread to the rest of the world.

Many Southeast Asian countries with claims to contested areas of the South China Sea have become the targets of Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy campaign. In July, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs promised the Philippines priority access to vaccines. In August, Sinovac, a large Chinese pharmaceutical company, signed an agreement with the Indonesian state-owned pharmaceutical company PT Bio Farma to provide Jakarta with 250 million doses of vaccines each year.

In early September, Chinese Politburo Member Yang Jiechi visited Myanmar and promised that Beijing would give priority to Yangon should it develop a vaccine.

“For most governments in the region, whatever else they might feel, whether it’s on South China Sea or any other issue, the pandemic comes first,” said Gregory Poling, a Southeast Asia expert with the Washington-based think tank, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“They might find things that Beijing is doing as distasteful, they might not like having to keep quiet on disputes, but if Chinese vaccines are the only vaccines they have access to, they are going to have to do whatever it takes,” he told VOA.

“I worry a great deal about China picking favored nations for the vaccine,” Lawrence Gostin, a professor of Global Health Law at Georgetown University, told VOA. “There could be a high price, benefitting China politically, economically, and militarily. A life-saving vaccine should never be bartered for political gain or influence.”

COVID-19 hot spot

COVID-19 cases are increasing in Southeast Asia. According to a CSIS tracker, Indonesia and the Philippines have the highest number of confirmed cases in the region, with roughly 200,000 and 250,000 respectively.

Singapore has nearly 60,000 cases and Myanmar is reporting a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases.

“The value of an effective vaccine is beyond measure, the most important medical resource in recent history,” Gostin told VOA. “It would save countless lives and get economies back moving.”

The U.S., China and Britain are front-runners in the global race for developing COVID-19 vaccines. China currently has two inactivated vaccine pilots — which use a dead version of the virus to teach the body how to fend off a live version — and one high-tech mRNA vaccine in Phase III. According to China’s state media, Beijing has been giving these experimental COVID-19 vaccines to high-risk groups since July.

The U.S. and Britain also have several potential vaccines entering Phase III.

Countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, which lack the ability to develop or mass-produce their own vaccines, are pinning their hopes abroad. Yet the governments of the United States, the European Union, Japan and the U.K. have secured tens of millions of doses from major pharmaceutical firms in advance. U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar said Washington would share its vaccines only after all the country’s vaccine needs are fully met.

“They have to wait in line even if they want to purchase these vaccines, which means they’ve got no options other than China or Russia,” Poling told VOA.

Vaccine: a priority

After the surge of cases in China, which spread COVID-19 abroad in early 2020, Beijing eventually controlled the outbreak within its borders through stringent lockdowns and massive testing. Now China is offering to share vaccines with other countries should it develop an effective one.

Despite the pandemic, China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea has caused complaints from the U.S. and other related parties. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared in July that China’s exploitation of resources in the region is illegal. In August, the Australian delegation used the same term in an official statement to the United Nations.

ASEAN countries had also adopted a tougher stance earlier this year. Indonesia was working to promote the China-ASEAN South China Sea Code of Conduct, which aims at regulating behaviors on issues concerning the South China Sea. Vietnam, as the chair of ASEAN this year, has publicly criticized naval skirmishes with Chinese forces in the region.

Poling said that’s why he does not expect Vietnam to obtain early access to Chinese vaccines.

“The Vietnamese have been the first to pre-order a large batch of Russia’s vaccine, which tells you how uncomfortable Hanoi is with the idea that they have to rely on Beijing,” he said.

ASEAN countries had previously hoped Indonesia would take up the leadership role in negotiating with China on the South China Sea conflict. Yet as COVID-19 cases sharply increased in the country, that geopolitical issue appears to have been put aside.

“Locating an effective vaccine has become a priority,” said Shiskha Prabawaningtyas, director of the Paramadina Graduate School of Diplomacy in Jakarta.

She added that both Indonesian news media and the public seem to express more positive tones toward the results of the Chinese vaccines.

“The dominant narrative from the press as well as discourse in social media, is more on ‘when exactly’ the [Chinese] vaccine would be ready,” she told VOA.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte’s own popularity is at the lowest point of his presidency, which many attribute to the government’s response to COVID-19. In a nationally televised speech in July, Duterte said he has asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to give Manila priority access to vaccines, adding he would not seek conflict with China in the South China Sea dispute.

“China is claiming [the West Philippine Sea], we are claiming it. China has the arms; we do not … it’s simple as that,” he said.

Poling pointed out this shows there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

“Chinese diplomats are not going to say: recognize our claims in exchange for vaccines, but the quid pro quo will be understood,” Poling said. “There’s going to be an expectation that if you want early access to these vaccines, you will avoid certain Chinese red lines. And South China Sea is one of them.”

Myanmar, which has been promised priority access to vaccines, will hold its election in November.

“Aung Sang Suu Kyi and her party have a cozy relationship with the Chinese government, and China would want them to win at the polls again,” said Khin Zaw Win, director at the Yangon-based think tank Tampadipa Institute.

He added that a number of big infrastructure projects are already finalized between Beijing and Yangon, including the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. “A successful vaccine would only strengthen this,” he said.

Yet he cautioned that for the bulk of the population, there is “deep mistrust – both for the vaccine itself and for China’s motives.” He also said he expected Myanmar to further expand its economic relationship with China should Yangon obtain early access to the Chinese vaccine.

Huang Yanzhong, senior fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations, cheered China’s gesture for promising vaccines to other countries, yet cautioned about potential scenarios should the vaccines prove to be ineffective.

“There’s also a risk,” Huang told VOA. “China can’t control the media in these countries. So if the vaccines are not effective enough or have any adverse reaction, this public vaccine campaign would have undesired consequences for China’s global image.”

Poling said the Philippines is particularly politically explosive.

“You’ve got the South China Sea issue, you’ve got the distrust with China, you’ve got Duterte’s own popularity at the lowest point of his presidency because of poor response to COVID,” he said. “So if you are going to see this really backfire or create public outrage, it might well be in Manila.”

Rendy Wicaksana of VOA's Indonesian Service and Khin Soe Win of VOA's Burmese Service contributed to this story.