In this webinar, Dr Peter T.C. Chang sought to throw some light on such problems and prospects of China’s vaccine diplomacy in Malaysia and how despite setbacks, China’s vaccine diplomacy may have two redeeming features.
REGIONAL SOCIAL AND CULTURAL STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
Friday, 20 August 2021 – Dr Peter Chang, Deputy Director at the Institute of China Studies, University of Malaya, presented how China’s vaccine diplomacy in Malaysia may have two redeeming features despite setbacks by concerns over its’ vaccines’ effectiveness. Dr Lee Hwok Aun, Senior Fellow and Co-coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute joined the webinar as discussant. This webinar was moderated by Dr Serina Rahman, Visiting Fellow at ISEAS Ishak Institute, and supported by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) as a part of the China’s Vaccine Diplomacy in Southeast Asia webinar series.
First, Dr Chang provided an overview. He covered the fourth wave of the pandemic where daily new cases have been more than 20k. Dr Chang also pointed to the slow vaccination rollout, late procurement and allocation and erratic vaccine supplies as possible reasons for the high number of cases.
On the problems relating to China’s vaccine diplomacy, Dr Chang highlighted the low efficacy of Sinovac. In Malaysia, there were concerns over Halal certification for the vaccine and whether vaccinated individuals could go on pilgrimage to Mecca. There is also a lack of transparency in preclinical trial data and anecdotal reports of Sinovac’s subpar performance. It has since been removed from the national immunisation programme although Malaysian states could choose to import Sinovac if they wanted to.
Next, Dr Chang reminded the audience that diplomacy is not a vacuum as existing geopolitical relations between the US, Japan and China has led to vaccines being used as a tool for soft power contestation. Japan, the US, and the UK have come forward with almost a million doses to contest China’s vaccine diplomacy.
Moving on to prospects, Dr Chang discussed Malaysia’s vaccine accessibility. While Chinese vaccines could be exported easily due to their domestic low infection rate Western countries are slow in exporting due to high infection rates within their borders. There have been concerns that Western countries are hoarding, depriving lower income countries of vaccines. WHO has thus pleaded for a moratorium on the 3rd booster shot and to first release the stockpile for frontline workers in lower-income countries.
Dr Chang also covered administration costs. As Pfizer and Moderna require cold refrigeration, they are more expensive. Chinese vaccines only need normal refrigeration. Furthermore, lower-income countries must be able to support basic transport and logistic needs. Once the vaccines reach the airport, they need to reach the states inland. To conclude his presentation, Dr Chang said that in Malaysia, Pfizer is the vaccine of choice. Still, Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy remains vital because their vaccines are more accessible, relatively affordable and easier to administer. He commented that richer countries could do more to help lower-income countries to reduce the inequitable access to vaccines.
The discussant, Dr Lee Hwok Aun, raised important questions such as the impact of existing bilateral ties between China and Malaysia, whether the change of political parties in Malaysia has any bearing on Beijing and the role of the state-owned Pharmaniaga, as the sole importer of vaccines in all of this. During the engaging Question and Answer session, audiences wrote in to ask about why Malaysia purchased 6 million doses of Sinovac despite announcing that it would be phasing out Sinovac due to inefficacy. Others also enquired about how much was paid for Chinese commercial vaccines in Malaysia. The webinar drew over 100 participants.