As the vaccine race heats up, China has promised countries like Malaysia and the Philippines to a number of African countries first priority to Beijing’s home-grown vaccines when are ready to be distributed. Experts said it is a move that’s raised questions about China’s intent and could put pressure on some of these countries to support Beijing’s commercial and political interests.
Chinese companies have also signed agreements with some of these developing nations to test and manufacture the vaccines.
According to Imogen Page-Jarrett of The Economist Intelligence Unit, she doesn’t think it’s completely altruistic, thinks they are seeking some benefits from this. China wants to expand its commercial and also strategic interests in these countries. The vaccines may be “a means to expand China’s influence and soft power” as well as ease frictions with countries that may blame China for the pandemic.
For its part, China has said it “will not turn Covid-19 vaccines into any kind of geopolitical weapon or diplomatic tool, and it opposes any politicization of vaccine development,” according to an editorial by state news agency Xinhua.
Also according to Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, China could demand cooperation on a “whole range” of issues. They include practical discussions such as the code of conduct in the contested South China Sea, as well as gaining more acceptance of Chinese technology products. There’s so much overlap of Chinese interests with the concerns of other countries and so many areas where China might want to get ahead, especially with the US.
Whether China is able to gain political advantage from its vaccines depends on the safety of its candidates and the affordability of alternatives, experts said.
Data from China has been less readily available, although pharmaceutical companies in the US and Europe have largely been forthcoming with results from their trials.
But the EIU’s Page-Jarrett said there’s reason to trust China’s vaccines. On the assumption that it needs to vaccinate its own population before others, then it’s really not going to go ahead with any vaccine that it does not believe is safe.
Also according to Mardell from the Mercator Institute for China Studies, the high efficacy vaccines developed in the West have been oversubscribed and “snapped up by a handful of very rich countries which may mean there’s room for China’s vaccines, especially in developing countries that cannot afford expensive options produced by Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna.
Those vaccines are developed using new messenger RNA technology — a new approach to vaccines that uses genetic material to trigger an immune response. Such vaccines need to be stored at extremely low temperatures.
The research analyst, Page-Jarrett, said most countries have signed purchase agreements with multiple vaccine providers because “no one wants to put their eggs in one basket.