Flashpoints | Diplomacy

Great Power Competition and the COVID-19 Vaccine Race

China, Russia, and the U.S. are all using vaccines as diplomatic tools, giving a political dimension to other countries’ medical choices.

Great Power Competition and the COVID-19 Vaccine Race
Credit: Unsplash

In January 2021, Foreign Policy published an article warning that the United States risks losing its appeal among allies, as Russia and China reach out to the world with a new diplomatic instrument: coronavirus vaccines. Most notably, vaccines are listed several lines below arms sales and leaders’ official visits in the catalog of diplomatic interactions, which highlights the paramount significance of vaccine development today.

Creating a COVID-19 vaccine can be regarded as a testimony to the effectiveness of a country’s health care system, its technological development, and the sophistication of its scientific research. Great powers China, Russia, and the United States from the very beginning attributed huge diplomatic value to pioneering the global rollout of their vaccines. U.S. media particularly underscored the fact that Russia and China were seeking to expand their global influence via COVID-19 vaccines.

In August 2020, Russia claimed to have registered the first COVID-19 vaccine, dubbed Sputnik V, following two months of laboratory trials. U.S. officials, however, cast doubt on the effectiveness of the Russian vaccine, dismissing it as “Russian roulette” due to the limited time for its development. Russia responded critically to Western media and officials’ remarks, accusing them of “maligning [Russian] achievements in the global race to defeat COVID-19” and waging a “disinformation war against Russia.”

On November 9, the U.S. firm Pfizer was the first to publish data on its vaccine’s effectiveness, which surpassed 90 percent. Two days later Russia also unveiled its trial data with same result, but with lower research statistics (the comparison was done on 20 recorded infections against 94 in the Pfizer trials). Russia faced global criticism for trying for keeping up in the vaccine race by any means necessary.

During the November BRICS summit Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly touted the high effectiveness of Sputnik V and called on forum partners to participate in the vaccine’s joint production and deployment. In January 2021, in order to encourage massive worldwide inoculation with the Russian vaccine, Putin called Sputnik V “the best in the world.”

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China also stresses it was one of the first few countries to start developing vaccines, with five prototypes reaching the third phase of clinical trials. Xinhua, China’s state news agency, highlighted the claim that Chinese-made vaccines would be made a “global public good,” adding later that the inoculations would be distributed at reasonable prices to the developing world.

How has this played out in practice? Unsurprisingly, a country’s preference in diplomatic partners has a big influence on whethere it sources its vaccines from China, Russia, or the United States.

Indonesia and the Philippines are touting the Chinese Sinovac vaccine, while Vietnam and Malaysia are considering using Chinese vaccines. Brazil and Uzbekistan are simultaneously opting for vaccines from Russia and China.

The largest purchaser of Sputnik V is India, with 100 million doses on order as of January 13, followed by Mexico with 32 million doses ordered, then Egypt and Nepal, both with orders of 25 million. As of January 2021, Russia publicized that 1 billion orders had been placed worldwide for Sputnik V in an attempt to spotlight its popularity and potential.

Meanwhile, the U.S. pharmaceutical producer Pfizer is reported to be supplying 14 percent of the global population with vaccines after the majority of the world’s richest countries opted for its shots. Customers include some of the United States’ long-standing allies: Canada with a purchase of 40 million doses, the EU with 200 million doses, and the U.K. with 40 million doses.

It’s noteworthy that the “vaccine diplomacy” race is not only the domain of global power competition; regional powers are joining in as well. India recently made global headlines with its so-called “vaccine friendship” aimed at wooing South Asian nations against the backdrop of intensive competition with China’s expanding regional dominance. India has directed domestically produced doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Myanmar, Mauritius, and Seychelles. India’s vaccine diplomacy comes amid border tensions with China, including recent clashes in Sikkim.

It seems true that the geographic distribution of vaccines is based not on practical calculations but rather on diplomatic preferences. Some media outlets pointed to the price tag as a justifying factor for countries that chose the cheaper Russian and Chinese vaccines over costlier American options. However, while the Russian and Chinese vaccines – at roughly $10 and $14 per shot, respectively – cost less compared to Pfizer’s option, they are more expensive than the $3 AstraZeneca vaccine co-developed by Oxford University and widely used in the United Kingdom. Clearly cost is not the only factor.

Russia and China will stay committed to their diplomatic rhetoric of multilateralism with their promises to deliver vaccines at competitive prices worldwide. China is part of the COVAX global vaccine partnership, aimed at making inoculations more available to less developed counties. The United States has recently expressed support for the initiative, alongside one of President Joe Biden’s first orders bringing the country back into the World Health Organization. Given the new president’s intention to focus more on reinvigorating allied networks and “engaging with world once again,” as underscored during his inaugural speech, the United States will continue to compete in politically-motivated vaccine diplomacy.

However, with the Biden administration’s focus on combating the pandemic at home the global rollout of U.S. vaccines may slow down. Even though the Biden administration, in a clear contrast to its predecessor, is set to make anti-COVID-19 drugs globally available, the alarming domestic shortage of the United States’ flagship vaccine will make it almost impossible for Washington to speed up the global rollout in the short term. Chinese state media have highlighted this fact, with a prime news program emphasizing that “many places in the U.S. are currently facing vaccine shortages.”

The vaccine race has not only become a new domain for China-Russia and U.S. strategic competition, but once again proved the effectiveness of the Moscow-Beijing partnership. In addition to their separate efforts, Russia and China are also exploring a new dimension of cooperation: the collaborative development of a COVID-19 vaccine and the exchange of research results and data from clinical trials. From the very beginning, Moscow and Beijing have been in a close contact over vaccine development; they successfully adopted a “one team mindset” on COVID-19. In August 2020, both states agreed to set up a joint laboratory for COVID-19 research. Such a collaboration may prove crucial in the future, with more global pandemics expected by experts.

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Danil Bochkov is an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council. He earned his Master of Economics at MGIMO-University under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia. He also has a master’s degree in world economy from the University of International Business and Economics (UIBE, Beijing). He tweets at @danil_bochkov