Vaccine diplomacy


Many experts agreed that the efforts by so many countries to produce and distribute in the world their own, national, anti-COVID 19 vaccines have set in motion a new form of geopolitical and soft power competition. A headline in the recent publication of “Foreign Affairs” magazine proclaimed: “Beijing Hasn’t Won the Soft-Power Stakes But It Has An Early Lead.” As recently as February 13, the United States government was accused by the “Wall Street Journal” of just “looking on.”
By way of contrast, said the “Wall Street Journal” reporting from Ethiopia, in the week of February 21 alone, a million Chinese government-backed doses passed through Addis Ababa Bole International Airport, destined for Ethiopia and surrounding nations. At least 69 countries have now received such doses in the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, even Oceania.
On 14 May 2021, the People’s Liberation Army of China has donated COVID-19 vaccines to the Ethiopian National Defense Force as part of strengthening strong cooperation between the two countries. During the handing over ceremony, China’s Ambassador to Ethiopia Zhao Zhiyuan said this is a good example of the profound traditional friendship between the two countries and the close sisterly cooperation of the militaries.
According to him, militaries of the two countries are working closely in many other areas. As close friends, reliable partners and good brothers of Ethiopia, the PLA will standby firmly with the Ethiopian Defense Force to fight against the pandemic together and also in difficult times.
All this was regardless of China’s own population, where observers calculate that only 3.65% of citizens had been vaccinated by the end of February according to “la Repubblica”. In an article for “The Financial Times” titled, “The west should pay attention to Russia and China’s vaccine diplomacy,” Moritz Rudolf of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs said, “Health was one of the many subtopics of the Belt and Road initiative. With the pandemic, it has become the main focus.”
No one doubts that Russia, with its Sputnik V, sees in its vaccine a new weapon, the first for many years, in its eternal struggle with the West, and in projecting influence more widely. The “Financial Times” went on to note its clients had requested 1.2 billion doses by the end of February. Italy where a new Sputnik factory is allegedly to be built, Iran and Hungary have provided Russia with unmistakable propaganda successes on this front and helped conceal the disinformation efforts aimed at discrediting Western products, which has been denounced by the United States State Department. Sputnik is forecast to be used across Latin America, and in places as different as Belarus, Algeria and Nigeria. At home, meanwhile a mere 4.57% of the population had been vaccinated by the end of February.
Denis MacShane, the former UK Minister for Europe and the author of “Brexiternity: The Uncertain Fate of Britain” stated that for decades, Western powers have won the plaudits of do-gooders at home and influence abroad by skillful use of aid diplomacy, whether sending cash, medicines or food to poorer countries. The current health crisis, with uncontrolled outbreaks and new variants in countries like India and Brazil, makes COVID diplomacy a public health imperative as well as a foreign policy tool.
Unfortunately, the soft power the United States, United Kingdom and Western Europe once enjoyed has largely fallen by the wayside this century. This is largely the result of the failure of United States and European military interventions to bring about stability or lasting resolutions to conflicts in the Middle East or Africa.
Denis MacShane noted that not that NATO’s longtime adversary has made a better show of it. Where once the Soviet Union sent doctors to provide lifesaving medical help across the developing world, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is now little more than a small-town bully. It uses its armed forces to threaten and intimidate neighbors and exploit conflict zones like Syria to showcase military hardware and abet war crimes. As both of the former Cold War blocs discredit themselves, new global players have emerged to meet the humanitarian challenges of a new, multipolar era.
Despite being the primary destination of refugees fleeing conflict, climate change and poverty across the Middle East and Africa, European leaders have slashed development spending. One of Boris Johnson’s first acts upon taking office was to cut the UK’s overseas aid. The UK is ending support for safe waters delivery and polio eradication in African and other poor nations.
France is also realizing that its aggressive, hard power approach to combating Islamist militancy in Francophone Africa has diminished its standing among its African partners. An opinion poll from the French Council of Investors in Africa (CIAN) has seen French standing steadily decline over the past three years. Frustration with international efforts to ensure Africa gets its fair share of COVID 19 vaccines has pushed governments and health officials across the continent to undertake a historic shift towards local research, development and production of vaccines.
As Sir Jeremy Farrar of the UK’s leading medical research institute the Welcome Trust points out, the world is over-dependent on giant vaccine producers like India. It needs to diversify the supply chain to include smaller nations. The United Arab Emirates has put itself forward as one of those new producers, developing its own Hayat-Vax vaccine as a partnership between United Arab Emirates tech firm G-42 and China’s Sinopharm.
According to Sir Jeremy Farrar, Hayat-Vax has passed clinical trials and is waiting on the results of a final trial. In the interim, the United Arab Emirates has already vaccinated nearly 90% of its population well ahead of the UK or Israel, the two countries usually cited as the world’s top vaccinators. That means much of its new vaccine production is earmarked for use abroad, particularly in Africa.
David Ellwood, Senior Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins University recalls that in an updated version of the legendary CARE packages sent to hungry Europe by America after 1945, the United Arab Emirates is increasing its profile in Africa by sending 100 million food packages to families in countries like Sudan, Uganda, Angola and Egypt. The UAE has also made substantial contributions to Covax, the WHO-run campaign to deliver vaccines to developing countries.
Contributing to the global COVID 19 response has obvious benefits as a soft power strategy. Robert Yates, director of the Chatham House Global Health Program, told reporters that: “This is how to win friends and influence people, especially if done with the WHO. If the United Arab Emirates become a giant manufacturing center for global vaccines, the potential benefits for the United Arab Emirates would be immense.” David Ellwood noted that twenty years ago, all the global buzz was about the BRICs. Alas, Brazil, Russia and India have since reverted to an ugly, nationalist, authoritarian mode of government. They have also badly flubbed their responses to the pandemic.
China’s failure to accept that it had given birth to the killer virus at the end of 2019 and its silencing of the WHO in January 2020 lost the world key weeks when the virus could have been tackled before it became a pandemic. As much as the Chinese detest it, the responsibility for both cover-up acts, one of omission, the other of commission, will be with them forever.
Meanwhile, smaller, nimbler nations like New Zealand, the United Arab Emirates or Israel have shown how to tackle the pandemic. Indeed, for the first time since 1945, the Middle East has produced a soft power player in the shape of the United Arab Emirates. If the Emirates can wean themselves off fossil fuel dependency by becoming a regional hub for new medicines, the potential for the region would be immense.