Webinar on “China’s COVID Vaccine Diplomacy and Its Implications for Southeast Asia”

In this webinar, Professor Yanzhong Huang examines China’s COVID vaccine diplomacy effort.


Friday, 19 February 2021 – As one of the forerunners in the development of COVID-19  vaccines, China is strategically well-placed to engage in “vaccine diplomacy” by assisting other countries in inoculating their populations against the coronavirus. Professor Yanzhong Huang, a Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations (United States) and Professor and Director of Global Health Studies at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Seton Hall University shared his thoughts about “China’s COVID Vaccine Diplomacy and Its Implications for Southeast Asia” to an audience of 152 in a webinar at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. 

Prof Yanzhong Huang
Prof Yanzhong Huang identified Southeast Asia as a particularly important target for China’s vaccine diplomacy. The session was moderated by Mr Lye Liang Fook. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Citing Peter Hotez’s (2014) definition of “vaccine diplomacy” as “the branch of global health diplomacy that relies on the use or delivery of vaccines”, Professor Huang noted that Chinese officials avoid the term since it implies a transactional element which contradicts President Xi Jinping’s lofty promises about making the COVID-19 vaccine a “global public good”. Nonetheless, Professor Huang maintained that China’s delivery of the vaccine is guided by certain foreign policy objectives. These include showcasing its technological prowess and global health leadership, expanding the market share of its vaccines, and presenting an image of a responsible great power. The latter objective was all the more important due to the difficulties China encountered in its “mask diplomacy” where masks and medical supplies were extended to other countries. There were earlier complaints about the quality of the supplies and Beijing’s efforts to propagandise the donations.

China has promised many developing countries priority access to its vaccines, including pledging 10 million doses to the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) Facility, a programme supported by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to ensure that poorer countries have equitable access to the vaccines. Professor Huang reported that, to date, China has promised vaccine aid to 53 countries and has already sent vaccine doses to at least 36 countries. He also identified Southeast Asia as a particularly important target for China’s vaccine diplomacy, with seven countries in the region—Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam—promised priority access. China has earmarked 250 million doses for the region, which accounts for 44% of its total worldwide commitment. Out of that 250 million doses, 18 million (or 40%) is reserved for Indonesia. All Southeast Asian countries will receive Chinese vaccines, either as donations or as commercial purchases. Professor Huang explained that, other than providing market access for its vaccines, Chinese vaccine diplomacy in Southeast Asia enables China to project its soft power and burnish its credentials as a reliable partner for the region. He also considered the possibility that China is using its vaccines to cement its political and economic ties with Southeast Asia, fill the leadership void left by the United States, facilitate the implementation of the various Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in the region and soften the stances of rival regional claimant states that China has maritime and territorial disputes with. 

However, Professor Huang cautioned that there are limits to China’s vaccine diplomacy. There is a challenge of capacity, since China faces the challenge of scaling-up the development of its vaccines in order to balance its domestic vaccination needs and international demands. Currently, China’s worldwide commitment is more than 10 times the 40.5 million doses that it has administered domestically. At the given pace of vaccination, China will only be able to achieve herd immunity in five years. As such, China has grown more hesitant about promising vaccine donations, and has instead sought to limit itself to “symbolic donations”, including the 300,000 doses to Laos and Myanmar and the 1 million doses to the Philippines and Cambodia. There are also credibility issues related to Chinese-made vaccines. While Professor Huang observed that Chinese vaccines are generally popular in the region (with Indonesia, for instance, being the first country to approve the Sinovac vaccine and Cambodia conducting vaccine trials using members of its military), he pointed to concerns about the lack of transparency surrounding the interim results of the vaccines’ Phase 3 clinical trials, the lack of test data for the elderly and the relatively lower efficacy rate of the Chinese vaccines. Chinese vaccine diplomacy also faces competition from countries such as India and Russia. In particular, India has a track record of being a “vaccine superpower”, with Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines considering the purchase of vaccines from the Serum Institute of India (SII), which has been licensed to produce the Oxford/AstraZenaca vaccine. Moreover, the entry of the US into COVAX under President Biden also suggests that the Americans are seeking to re-assert their leadership in vaccine distribution. Taken together, the growing competition may limit the efficacy of Chinese vaccine diplomacy, especially as countries in the region seek to diversify their vaccine supplies. 

In the ensuing discussion with the audience, Professor Huang addressed questions relating to China’s domestic vaccination plans, the priority in China’s rollout of vaccines to the developing countries, the lack of correlation between the various COVID-19 assistance China has offered so far and its image in the region, and the possibility of anti-China sentiments affecting efforts by governments to secure Chinese-made vaccines.

Over 150 participants attended the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)