Webinar on “The Geopolitics of COVID-19 Vaccine Diplomacy in Southeast Asia”

In this webinar, Prof Yanzhong Huang, Mr Gregory B. Poling and Prof Stephen Nagy share their perspective of China, the USA and Japan’s approach towards vaccine diplomacy in Southeast Asia.


Friday, 27 August 2021 — As Covid-19 vaccines become an important strategic commodity, China, the United States and Japan have sought to step up their vaccine support to Southeast Asia. The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute hosted a webinar to examine “The Geopolitics of COVID-19 Vaccine Diplomacy in Southeast Asia”, with a panel consisting of Professor Yanzhong Huang (Senior Fellow for Global Health at the US Council on Foreign Relations; Professor and Director of Global Health Studies, School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Seton Hall University), Mr Greg Poling (Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia and Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington) and Professor Stephen Nagy (Senior Associate Professor, International Christian University; Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; Visiting Fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs).

Prof Yanzhong Huang, Mr Gregory B. Poling and Prof Stephen Nagy share their perspective of China, the USA and Japan’s approach towards vaccine diplomacy in Southeast Asia. Ms Hoang Thi Ha moderated the panel. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

According to Prof Huang, China’s vaccine diplomacy to Southeast Asia — which accounts for 40% of China’s overseas vaccine commitments — helps Beijing cement its ties to the region. He also highlighted that most of China’s global vaccine distribution is bilateral, with just 11 million doses given to the COVAX Facility. More importantly, although Beijing has promised to offer its homegrown vaccines as “global public goods”, the bulk of them are commercially sold; only 4% are in the form of donations.

Prof Huang examined the three challenges of capacity, credibility and competition that affect China’s vaccine outreach. While Beijing’s capacity has now been ramped up to produce five billion doses annually, credibility remains a concern given doubts about the efficacy of Chinese-made vaccines (especially against the Delta variant). And while India’s local outbreaks have prevented the country from competing effectively with China in vaccine production, the recent vaccine assistance and donations by Japan and the United States help diversify the vaccine mix in the region and reduce over-reliance on Chinese vaccines. In particular, the United States can provide vaccines that are considered more effective against Covid-19 while offering these shots as donations (75% of which are delivered through multilateral channels) rather than sales.

Prof Huang also noted the lack of cooperation between the United States and China on vaccine assistance, which has proven advantageous for some Southeast Asian countries. For instance, the most recent American donation of an additional one million Pfizer doses to Vietnam was almost immediately outmatched by China’s new pledge to donate two million doses. However, Prof Huang observed that the vaccine diplomacy “has not translated into significant geopolitical influence for the two countries”. Furthermore, there are still lingering concerns about the United States’ long-term reliability over vaccine assistance as well as the efficacy and safety of China’s vaccine offerings.

In agreement with Prof Huang, Mr Poling shared that “nobody is particularly impressed” with the vaccine competition between the two major powers (even if some individual countries, such as Vietnam, are pleased by American vaccine donations). This echoes the dynamic that marked the competition to provide medical assistance in the early days of the pandemic, with polling revealing that neither the United States nor China benefitted from their respective ‘mask diplomacy’.

Mr Poling also noted that he would not characterise the United States and China as being in a direct vaccine competition, simply because Beijing’s vaccine deliveries currently far outstrip Washington’s. The primary challenge for the United States, according to him, is not to compete with China, but to “compete with itself” by producing and making available more doses.

While acknowledging the slower pace of American vaccine deliveries, Mr Poling emphasised that the United States offers outright donations and ancillary assistance (such as the provision of ultra-cold freezers) to facilitate vaccine distribution. Moreover, the United States is more active in supporting COVAX, having committed at least US$3.5 billion to the facility, compared to China’s pledge of US$100 million.

For Mr Poling, instead of indulging in the narrative of a vaccine competition against China, the United States should continue its current vaccine assistance measures. This is also important as the Quad Vaccine Initiative is unlikely to materialise in the near future since India’s vaccine manufacturing capacity is expected to recover only in 2022. This means that the United States has to do the heavy-lifting in the interim until the Quad’s vaccine assistance can be properly rolled out.

Prof Nagy reiterated the importance of financial and logistical support from extra-regional powers, instead of merely looking at the volume of vaccine donations. This is an approach that Japan adopts. For Japan (rated as the most trusted country in Southeast Asia in the annual ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s State of Southeast Asia Survey), health diplomacy is meant to protect its soft power and complement its consistent long-term engagements in trade and connectivity, while also preventing China’s monopoly of influence in the region.

Prof Nagy noted that Japan’s Covid-19 assistance to the region is directed on the multilateral, minilateral and bilateral levels. Multilaterally, Japan has committed US$1 billion and 30 million doses to COVAX. Japan also has a role in the minilateral Quad arrangement, which dovetails into its broader Indo-Pacific vision. On a bilateral level, Japan has been assisting with vaccine-related logistics and storage, on top of its recent donations of AstraZeneca doses to countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. In sum, Japan’s vaccine assistance reflects its strategy of working with international organisations and its partners, while also focussing on the region’s long-term health infrastructure and financing needs.

During the vibrant Q&A session with the 165-strong audience, the panel addressed various issues of interest, such as China’s preference for bilateral vaccine engagements over COVAX, its vaccine donations to certain militaries of mainland Southeast Asia and Beijing’s PR efforts to promote the reliability of Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines. Questions were also raised about the role of COVAX and the geopolitical tensions arising over the investigations on the origins of Covid-19.

The three speakers additionally evaluated the prospects of building up local vaccine manufacturing capacity in the region and the possibility of a Quad Plus arrangement where like-minded Western allies (such as Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands) could cooperate to boost the Quad’s collective vaccine production capacity. They also discussed the scope of Southeast Asia’s agency in the vaccine competition and how extra-regional powers can constructively engage with Myanmar to ensure that the necessary vaccine supplies reach the civilian population.

Over 160 participants attended the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)