In May 2020, China’s president, Xi Jinping, told the World Health Assembly its Covid-19 vaccines were “a global public good”, and their distribution would be part of Xi’s vision of a “shared future for the people of the world to work as one”.
But in the months since, China’s alleged “vaccine diplomacy” has been consistently criticised internationally for being rolled out with conditions attached, with allegations of expatriate Chinese nationals being prioritised, and the distribution of vaccines seen as a coercive tool with which to wield geopolitical influence.
In Paraguay, the government reported it had been approached by unofficial brokers offering access to the Chinese-manufactured Covid-19 vaccine in return for cutting diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Beijing has dismissed the claim as “malicious disinformation”.
To Papua New Guinea – currently in the grips of a nascent but burgeoning outbreak – China offered 200,000 doses as a donation, ostensibly to begin inoculating frontline health workers. But Beijing also reportedly requested that Chinese nationals in PNG be given priority access.
“China’s ‘vaccine diplomacy’ is not unconditional,” Ardhitya Eduard Yeremia and Klaus Heinrich Raditio argued in a paper published by the Singapore-based Yusof Ishak Institute.
“Beijing may use its vaccine donations to advance its regional agenda, particularly on sensitive issues such as its claims in the South China Sea.”
But James Laurenceson, the director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, said a double standard was often applied: while western nations’ vaccine rollout was portrayed as altruistic, China’s was cast as self-interested.
“I think it’s pretty clear that Australia and the US would not be doing what they are doing unless China had started its vaccine diplomacy. It’s clearly a reaction. If we’re going to call China’s actions vaccine diplomacy, then Australia and the US are engaged in vaccine diplomacy as well.”
Laurenceson said China’s rollout of vaccines to the developing world was further advanced than western nations’ rollout, with the US, in particular, prioritising domestic supply.
“If we’re not delivering on the ground, that becomes very quickly apparent in those developing countries. We’ve seen this in other fields. China used infrastructure as an economic and diplomatic tool, and the region was pretty responsive to it, because Australia and the US weren’t doing it.”
China sees itself as a leader of the developing world, Laurenceson said.
“No doubt there’s an element of vaccine diplomacy, but they’re not necessarily in contradiction. China can be showing genuine support for developing countries, but can take advantage for diplomatic purposes too.”
The head of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson, told Senate estimates hearings this week that she had read reports of vaccines being offered “with strings attached”, but that those reports were “second- or third-hand”.
“My starting point would be if you look at the world at the moment and you look at whether it’s geopolitics or geoeconomics and the discussions about so-called vaccine diplomacy, then it wouldn’t be surprising if there were conditions attached in some instances,” Adamson said.
China has pledged broadly half a billion vaccine doses to more than 45 countries, according to a tally compiled by Associated Press.
China claims it will be able to produce at least 2.6bn doses in 2021, giving the country extraordinary influence over the global rollout of vaccines.
China’s vaccine rollout has been especially prevalent in south-east Asia. Nine of 10 Asean countries – Vietnam has not taken any Chinese vaccines – have or have indicated they will accept Chinese vaccines. China promised Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar donations.
The Philippines, with whom China is locked in a fierce dispute over the South China Sea, was donated more than 600,000 vaccines, before buying 25m.
Indonesia bought more than 150m Sinovac, Sinopharm and CanSino vaccine doses, while Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand also bought vaccines.
In south Asia, Chinese efforts have been less successful. While Pakistan bought more than 20m Chinese vaccines after being donated 600,000, donations to Sri Lanka were held up over approval and administrative issues, while Bangladesh chose to accept Indian vaccines.
Across the Pacific, countries in compact with the US – Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia – have begun extensive vaccine rollouts of the Moderna vaccine through the US Operation Warpspeed.
More than 60% of Palau’s adult population is on track to be vaccinated by mid-April, with 80% set to receive vaccinations by mid-year.
Solomon Islands has begun administering AstraZeneca vaccines distributed through the Covax global initiative to equalise access to vaccines. Vanuatu will also use AstraZeneca.
China has offered to donate vaccines to Fiji, but the Fijian ministry of health said it would wait until the vaccine was approved by the World Health Organization before accepting.
China has also been active across Africa, where vaccine rollout has otherwise been slow and inconsistent. China has donated millions of vaccine doses to Niger, Mozambique, Namibia, the Gambia, Gabon, Zimbabwe and Guinea, among others.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, said a vaccine rollout to rich countries ahead of poor was “an unprecedented acceleration of global inequality”.
“It’s politically unsustainable too because it is paving the way for a war of influence over vaccines. You can see the Chinese strategy and the Russian strategy too.”
Speaking in Moscow this month, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, said it was hypocritical to suggest China was “scheming to conduct some kind of vaccine diplomacy”, and accused western countries of “selfish mass hoarding of vaccines”.
“Our intention from the start is to let more people receive the vaccine as soon as possible,” Wang said.
“For China and Russia, our choice is not to benefit only ourselves, but rather to help the whole world.”
AP and AFP contributed to this report.