Beijing’s Vaccine Diplomacy Goes Beyond Political Rivalry

 Billboard encourages people to be vaccinated against COVID-19 outside the Bahrain International Exhibition and Convention Center in the capital Manama. Photo by MAZEN MAHDI/AFP via Getty Images.
Billboard encourages people to be vaccinated against COVID-19 outside the Bahrain International Exhibition and Convention Center in the capital Manama. Photo by MAZEN MAHDI/AFP via Getty Images.

Vaccine distribution is becoming a key strategic feature of China’s foreign relations. But critics have suggested that China’s so-called ‘vaccine diplomacy’ is merely a way to further entrench its presence in countries where it seeks diplomatic and economic influence and supplant its Western rivals.

Against the backdrop of rising Western scepticism about China's presence in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, media now portrays Beijing vaccine diplomacy as highly politicized. While undeniable that Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy bolsters its soft power and consolidates its influence, these narratives stifle positive responses from MENA countries towards China’s vaccine cooperation.

China’s vaccine diplomacy in MENA aligns with its broader strategy to cast itself as a global health leader. In improving its tarnished image as a non-transparent state accused of hiding the virus’ spread, China hopes to be seen as a responsible, scientific leader capable of fighting the pandemic both domestically and globally.

At the same time, MENA governments, see the Chinese vaccine as their pathway to much-needed jabs for their own populations. The UAE was the first country outside China to approve Sinopharm after clinical trials placed the vaccine's effectiveness at 86 per cent, with Bahrain to approve it a few days later. Egypt joined them after clinical trials involving thousands of Egyptians, and Morocco has also announced Sinopharm would be used to meet its ambitious aim to vaccinate 80 per cent of adults.

In the eyes of many MENA countries, especially those facing severe economic crises, Western states have selfishly hoarded vaccines at the expense of developing countries. COVAX the global initiative which aims to make the vaccine available to developing countries appears likely to cover only 20 per cent of those in need.

In this context, Sinopharm’s two vaccines provide an attractive solution to MENA countries seeking to curb COVID-19. Unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which have high storage costs, Sinopharm’s vaccines are traditional, inactivated vaccines, making them much cheaper to deploy.

Beyond receiving finished Sinopharm vaccines, some MENA countries may become manufacturing and distribution hubs for the vaccine. The UAE has struck a deal to manufacture the Sinopharm vaccine and is set to start production later in 2021 for both domestic and global demand. Morocco signed a convention to make Sinopharm’s vaccine and distribute it to other African countries on behalf of the Chinese pharmaceutical group.

Such partnerships present an opportunity for countries in the region to upgrade production capabilities and benefit from technology transfers. In return, China is strengthening its diplomatic ties with Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) countries, while boosting its financial returns.

This health diplomacy in MENA by China is nothing new. In 1963, just one year after Algeria’s independence China sent a medical assistance team to the country, its engagement rooted in ideological solidarity with the anti-imperialist Front de Libération Nation (FLN).

China has since deepened its health cooperation in the region by dispatching government-paid medical personnel across several countries. Vaccine diplomacy is thus not merely another facet of a China-West rivalry, but a continuation of Beijing’s self-projection as a responsible power in the global South.

But China is also not alone in this approach as many MENA countries are embracing Russia's Sputnik V vaccine – Palestine was the first Arab nation to sign on for it and Iran, the most severely-affected country by the pandemic in the region, is also using it.

Moscow has lauded the high effectiveness of Sputnik V and its relatively low cost, clearly hoping its vaccine can contribute to deepening relations with its allies in the region.

However, Beijing’s health cooperation strategy does appear the most comprehensive, represented by the so-called ‘Health Silk Road’. Health has been on the BRI agenda since 2015 with official documents highlighting the ambition to implement training programmes for medical staff and provide emergency medical relief for crises.

Since the pandemic began, the Chinese leadership has been actively promoting the Health Silk Road with masks, equipment, and expertise being sent to several BRI countries. COVID-19 has opened new avenues for engagement outside of traditional infrastructure and energy projects which characterize China's BRI in MENA.

While Western governments compete for vaccines to serve their own populations, China has consolidated its relationship with MENA countries through its vaccine diplomacy and its broader health diplomacy.

Although the pandemic represents the death knell for many of the BRI's infrastructure projects, as Chinese capital is increasingly mobilised to meet domestic needs, Sino-MENA relations are emerging stronger from this crisis and could be set to rise to the next level in a post-pandemic world.

Tin Hinane El Kadi, Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme and Sophie Zinser, Schwarzman Academy Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme, Middle East North Africa (MENAP) Programme.

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