Chinese vaccine diplomacy stumbles in Southeast Asia

China, eager to build goodwill, stepped in, promising to provide more than 255 million doses, according to Bridge Consulting, a Beijing...


China, eager to build goodwill, stepped in, promising to provide more than 255 million doses, according to Bridge Consulting, a Beijing-based research company.

Six months later, however, this campaign has lost its luster. Officials from several countries have raised doubts about the effectiveness of Chinese vaccines, especially against the more transferable Delta variant. Indonesia, which accepted Chinese clichés early on, was recently the epicenter of the virus. Others complained about the conditions that accompanied Chinese donations or sales.

The setback of the vaccination campaign in China has created a diplomatic opening for the United States as relations between the two countries are increasingly strained, in part because of the coronavirus. China has criticized the American management of the crisis at home and even asserted, with no proof, that the pandemic originated from a military laboratory in Fort Detrick, Maryland, not Wuhan, where the first cases appeared in late 2019.

As more countries turn away from Chinese vaccines, US vaccine aid offers an opportunity to restore relations in a region that US officials have mostly ignored for years as China expands. his influence. The Biden administration has sent a host of senior officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris, who is due to arrive on Sunday to visit Singapore and Vietnam. He also, finally, made his own vaccine pledges in Southeast Asia, pointing out that the US contribution of around 23 million vaccines as of this week comes with “no strings attached,” an implicit reference to the China.

Several countries in the region have been eager to receive the most effective Western doses. Although they remain largely outnumbered by Chinese clichés, they present an interesting alternative. “China’s advance advantage has already lost its magic,” said Hoang Thi Ha, a researcher at the Asean Studies Center of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

For most of the year, many developing countries in Southeast Asia had little choice when it comes to vaccines. They struggled to acquire doses, many of which were made by wealthier nations who were accused of hoarding them.

China has sought to meet these needs. The country’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi traveled to the region in January, pledging to help fight the pandemic. In April, he said Southeast Asia was a priority for Beijing. About a third of the 33 million doses that China has distributed for free around the world have been sent to the region, according to figures provided by Bridge Consulting.

Much of Beijing’s attention has been directed to more populous countries, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, and its longtime allies like Cambodia and Laos.

Indonesia was China’s largest customer in the region, purchasing 125 million doses from Sinovac. The Philippines got 25 million shots from Sinovac after President Rodrigo Duterte said he turned to Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, for help. Cambodia has received more than 2.2 million doses of Sinopharm from China. It has vaccinated around 41 percent of its population, achieving the second highest vaccination rate in the region, after Singapore.

Then, signs started to appear that the Chinese vaccines were not as effective as hoped. Indonesia found that 10% of its health workers had been infected with Covid-19 in July, despite having been fully vaccinated with the Sinovac vaccine, according to the Indonesian Hospital Association.

In July, a virologist from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok said that a study of people who received two doses of the Sinovac vaccine showed that their antibody level, 70%, was “barely effective” against the variant. Alpha of the coronavirus, first detected in Britain, or against the Delta variant, first detected in India.

The Indonesian and Thai governments have decided they need to switch to other vaccines, such as those provided by the United States, Britain and Russia.

“Now that they have more choices, they can make other decisions,” said Nadège Rolland, senior researcher at the National Bureau of Asian Research in Washington. “I don’t think it’s politically motivated. I think it’s pragmatic.

Yaowares Wasuwat, a noodle vendor in Thailand’s Bangsaen Chonburi province, said she hoped to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine for her second injection after being inoculated with Sinovac, but would take whatever was available.

“I have nothing to lose,” she said. “The economy is doing so badly that we are running out of air. It’s like dying while alive, so take all the protection we can. “

China’s early moves in the region contrast sharply with the United States, which has been slow to provide assistance.

The math has now changed under President Biden. Lloyd J. Austin III, the US Secretary of Defense, and Antony J. Blinken, the Secretary of State, have had meetings with senior officials in Southeast Asia in recent weeks. They noted donations of around 20 million shots.

After Mr. Austin’s visit to the Philippines, Manila reestablished a defense agreement who had been in limbo for over a year after Mr Duterte threatened to end it. The deal, which would continue to allow US troops and equipment to enter and exit the Philippines, could thwart China’s goal of pushing the US military out of the region.

Part of the reason for Mr. Duterte’s turnaround: the delivery of millions of doses Johnson & Johnson and Moderna vaccines.

Still, some Southeast Asian analysts have doubts about Washington’s late vaccine diplomacy.

“The fact remains that the United States was very slow to start,” said Elina Noor, director of political and security affairs at the Asia Society Policy Institute. “And since rich countries were hoarding vaccines when they became available, I think that bitter taste persists.”

China continues to be viewed as a reliable supplier for the vaccines it has produced. He delivered 86 percent of the doses he promised to sell. And it remains to be feared that US companies have been slow to make deliveries. For these reasons, most countries in Southeast Asia have not openly criticized China – and have not given up on Chinese vaccines.

Anti-Chinese sentiment is strong in Vietnam, but the country accepted a donation of 500,000 doses of Sinopharm in June, causing backlash among citizens who said they did not trust the quality of Chinese photos.

“Even in the midst of this emergency, I have no reason to trade my life or that of my family for a Chinese vaccine,” said Nguyen Hoang Vy, head of health care operations at a city hospital. of Ho Chi Minh.

It later emerged that the snaps given by Sinopharm were aimed at priority groups defined by Beijing, deepening cynicism towards China.

“There are always conditions attached to it,” said Huong Le Thu, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute specializing in Southeast Asia, referring to China’s vaccine agreements.

Vietnam continues to fight an epidemic and vaccines remain scarce. Despite earlier public anger, a private Vietnamese company acquired five million doses of Sinopharm for distribution, which local authorities began administering this month.

Muktita Suhartono and Vo Kieu Bao Uyen contributed reporting. Claire Fu and Elsie Chen contributed research.



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