2021: The Year of Vaccine Diplomacy

The world of diplomacy is constantly evolving, fuelled not only by new governments, but also by events across the globe. Primarily driven by President Donald Trump’s use of Twitter, with China and Iran often feeling the wrath of his opinion, the 2010s were dominated by digital diplomacy. Whilst social media remains a particularly powerful tool for government officials, 2021 has a new driving force for diplomatic activities across the globe, COVID-19 vaccines.

Predictably, western economies rushed to stock up on the vaccines produced by Oxford/AstraZeneca (UK/Sweden) and Pfizer/BioNTech (US/Germany) to increase chances of returning to normality and stop the heavy economic damage caused by lockdowns. This has left behind much of Africa, the Middle East and Latin America to fend for themselves. Yet, the developing world have produced their own vaccines, with the likes of the Sinopharma and Sinovac vaccine produced by China, and India’s Covaxin being readily available. These vaccines have been pooled into COVAX, a scheme launched by Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and the World Health Organization (WHO) to ensure that the entire world has access to this vital tool to fight the pandemic. This leaves the two states with the ability to use their vaccines as bargaining chips across the developing world, epitomising the extraordinary power a tiny vial possesses.

The cases of Paraguay and Bhutan are two examples of how states are being dictated by vaccine diplomacy, with historical geopolitical spats thrown in for good measure. Both Paraguayan officials and Taiwan have accused China of vaccine diplomacy, after it was alleged that China had offered vaccines to Paraguay if they severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Paraguay are just one of 15 nations to recognise the sovereignty of Taiwan (most of which are situated in The Americas) and a move towards China would be a devastating blow for the island nation. The history between the People’s Republic of China and Republic of China (Taiwan) is complex and dates to the Chinese Civil War after World War II. The Nationalists were forced out of mainland China and settled on the island of Taiwan, maintaining official UN recognition until 1971. China claims Taiwan as their territory, whilst Taiwan’s claims not only mainland China, but also areas inside a further 10 countries that were once part of the Qing Dynasty.

The dispute between China and Taiwan is insignificant in 2021 considering the plethora of issues facing the globe, yet it has still found itself the talk of the trade where vaccines are concerned. China have refuted the claims of vaccine diplomacy, but the state has a track record of using Taiwan as a pawn in development projects across Africa. Notably Burkina Faso (2018), The Gambia (2013), and Malawi (2008) have all rescinded recognition of Taiwan in order to benefit from Chinese development programmes.

Ultimately, Paraguay accepted an offer from India for 100,000 of their Covaxin vaccines. Whilst additional vials of Russia’s Sputnik V and the AstraZeneca vaccine were also sent to the country as protesters gathered on the streets against the government’s handling of the pandemic, over 200,000 cases and nearly 5000 deaths have been reported so far. It is interesting to note India’s presence in this Paraguay deal, because they also stepped in to assist the Himalayan nation of Bhutan with their successful programme. India leapt at the opportunity to assist their neighbours and counter Chinese influence in East Asia, made more straightforward by the fact that Bhutan does not have diplomatic relations with China (they are just one of a handful of countries that do not recognise Taiwan either). After India’s gift of 600,000 doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine that had been manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, Bhutan was able to vaccinate 62% of its eligible adult population in just one week.

India and China have a fractious relationship presently, which particularly deteriorated in 2020 after border skirmishes across the disputed Pangong Lake and Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh, resulting in over 30 deaths and 100 casualties. Their consequential one-upmanship with vaccines across the globe highlights the hugely influential role of geopolitics in the global vaccine rollout. Yet, this leveraging power is not just isolated with these BRICS allies, it has also been wielded by international organisations like the European Union.

The EU has rushed to cover Russian and Chinese interests in the Balkans by pledging over 650,000 Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines to six states outside of the bloc, starting in May. Furthermore, the programme was only launched after Serbia began to donate supplies to neighbouring North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. The nation has one of the highest vaccination rates per capita in the globe, benefiting from securing it’s own supplies from Russia and China, rather than wait for the EU to respond.

Back in March, President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyden, threatened to trigger Article 122 of the EU Treaty and block reciprocal exports of vaccines to the UK. This was a result of the slow exportation of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines to the 27 member states, which, due to being manufactured in the UK raised suspicions of favouritism. Critics viewed this as a desperate move to find a scapegoat for the slow vaccine rollout in the EU. Despite the whole world feeling the devastating affects of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a risk that it becomes a ‘third world’ disease as the larger economies bulk up on the vaccines, leaving poorer states waiting for assistance from elsewhere. Developing nations have plugged the gaps, but this is also coming at the expense of their domestic programmes.

Whilst China and India have ulterior motives with the vaccine diplomacy programmes, criticism must still be leveed at the western pharmaceutical companies that are refusing to share patents for free so that less developed states can manufacture their own vaccines. Even international organisations like the EU, with their fundamentally flawed vaccination programme, still rely on their geopolitical power to dictate vaccine rollouts across the globe.

Featured images courtesy of Unsplash. No changes have been made to these images.

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Featured image courtsey of Pixabay. No changes have been made to this image.

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