An illustration picture shows a drop from a syringe with a flag of China reflected in it

China has sought to harness vaccine diplomacy as a means of extending and entrenching its strategic influence, particularly in Southeast Asia. (Photo: Justin Tallis/ AFP)

Great Expectations: the Limits of Chinese Vaccine Diplomacy in Southeast Asia

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China’s vaccine diplomacy in Southeast Asia may earn Beijing some goodwill, but strategic gains will be limited.

In the race to inoculate the world against the coronavirus, vaccines have, to paraphrase Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz, become the continuation of politics by other means. The supply crunch for vaccines has afforded countries like China, India and Russia the opportunity to parlay their more cost-effective offerings to the Global South. China especially has sought to harness vaccine diplomacy as a means of extending and entrenching its strategic influence, particularly in Southeast Asia. However, if China has great expectations that its vaccine diplomacy will translate into Southeast Asian capitals entering firmly into the Chinese orbit, it may end up terribly disappointed. China may garner some goodwill, but it is unlikely to find any lasting strategic gains. There are three reasons for this. 

First is that public scepticism of Chinese vaccines remains prevalent in Southeast Asia, partly driven by the relative lack of data transparency and confusion over Sinovac’s efficacy rates. One reason for President Jokowi’s public jab of the Sinovac vaccine in January was to reassure the Indonesian population of its safety and efficacy. Indonesia is the largest recipient of Chinese-made vaccines in the region with its purchase of 125 million Sinovac doses to support the national vaccination drive. The private sector has also ordered 15 million doses from Sinopharm for their immunization programmes. 

Second is China’s lack of mastery in the art of soft power. Joseph Nye has argued that “government propaganda is not a successful strategy to increase a country’s soft power. The best propaganda is not propaganda”. Soft power works through finesse and subtlety, but China has a tendency of chasing propaganda victories like the proverbial bull in a china shop. This can be attributed to the two distinct audiences that China’s vaccine diplomacy is aimed at. The Chinese regime is seeking not only to gain friends overseas but also to enhance its legitimacy at home. The dual audience can create tension as exaggerations of Chinese scientific prowess and generosity for the domestic crowd may be construed as hubris and arrogance abroad. 

Furthermore, any attempt to score propaganda points, if too blatant, may very well undermine the goodwill that China is trying to engender through its vaccine diplomacy. China’s “mask diplomacy” in the early months of Covid-19’s global spread is instructive. Chinese efforts to propagandise its medical assistance and supplies to affected countries prompted the European Union’s chief diplomat to warn (albeit not directly by name) that China was engaged in “a struggle for influence” beneath its “politics of generosity”. More recently, observers have speculated that China’s early delivery of Sinovac doses to Singapore on 23 February – even before it received regulatory approval in the country – was a form of “unstated diplomatic pressure on Singapore to approve the vaccine”, to boost the credibility of Chinese-made vaccines both at home and globally. If true, this is a relatively clumsy approach to advancing its vaccine diplomacy.

Third, and more significantly, the provision of vaccines does not address the lingering suspicion and distrust of China in the region. This is possibly a factor in Vietnam’s decision to rebuff Chinese vaccine offers and instead develop its homegrown vaccine. The Southeast Asian maritime countries especially remain wary of China’s campaign to assert de facto control over the South China Sea. In 2020, while the region was struggling to cope with a pandemic, China did not relent on its activities in the South China Sea. In April, a Chinese coast guard vessel collided with a Vietnamese fishing boat near the Paracel Islands, causing it to sink. Later in the month, Chinese vessels strayed into Malaysian waters, and Indonesia’s North Natuna Sea in September. 

In short, the strategic divergence between China and maritime Southeast Asia over the South China Sea appears too wide a gulf to be reconciled with vaccine diplomacy alone.

A fundamental issue driving regional distrust is China’s lack of willingness to acknowledge that other countries have legitimate national interests that they are not prepared to compromise on, especially those pertaining to territorial integrity and maritime exploratory rights in the South China Sea. As long as Beijing refuses to recognise this reality, or start to abide by international law regulating maritime possessions, strategic suspicion of China will not subside – even with the provision of much-needed vaccines. In short, the strategic divergence between China and maritime Southeast Asia over the South China Sea appears too wide a gulf to be reconciled with vaccine diplomacy alone.

China’s endeavour to distribute its vaccines as a “global public good” is laudable since it responds to a pressing need to make vaccine access more equitable globally. However, Beijing may find limited strategic dividends in Southeast Asia as the offer of a global public good does little if not matched with good conduct in the global public sphere.

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