It wasn’t long before the seeds of Russian vaccine diplomacy began to sprout in South America.
Shortly after Moscow sold 5.2 million doses of its Sputnik V vaccine, President Vladimir Putin telephoned his Bolivian counterpart Luis Arce in late January about topics such as building a nuclear power plant for lithium mining and gas reserves.
In North Africa, Algeria didn’t pay a penny for the Chinese vaccines, which arrived in March. What it offered was to support Beijing’s “core interests” and to oppose interference in its “internal affairs” – a language China has used to defend itself against criticism of Hong Kong’s autonomy and allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang it denies.
Though China and Russia deny this, experts are beginning to see how Beijing and Moscow’s strategy of selling or donating their vaccines overseas is lubricating the wheels of their international relations and allowing them to expand their influence around the world.
According to former US ambassadors and other ex-diplomats, this development is likely to cause serious concern in the United States and other democracies.
What outrags these watchers is not that China and Russia are winning in vaccine diplomacy, but that the US and others are not even in the game. Washington and its allies have instead chosen to prioritize their native populations, keep most of the doses domestically, and cause resentment abroad.
“Until recently, the United States was the go-to for every major health disaster,” said Thomas Shannon, former US Secretary of State for Political Affairs, the third-highest role in the State Department. “So it’s very unsettling to get off the field.”
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Shannon, who served in the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump and was ambassador to Brazil from 2010 to 2013, said Trump’s decision to withdraw from the international Covid-19 response was “a terrifying one.” worrying message “sent to many countries at a very vulnerable moment. “
Unless this changes under President Joe Biden and in the future, “the world will realize that we are not a reliable partner and that would be dangerous for us,” he said. “I think it’s something to be remembered.”
Few would argue that sending life-saving vaccines around the world is a bad thing.
“We’re not talking about arms sales here,” said John Campbell, who was US ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007. “We’re talking about something that citizens around the world want and urgently need.”
Indeed, both countries refuse to export vaccines for diplomatic reasons.
The idea is “extremely narrow-minded,” said Guo Weimin, spokesman for the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, at his annual meeting last month. President Xi Jinping has vowed to make vaccines a “global public good.”
Similarly, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said that Russia only believes “there should be as many doses of vaccine as possible” so that “all countries, including the poorest, have a chance to stop the pandemic”.
After a cloud of skepticism, recent studies suggest that the state-made vaccines, China’s Sinopharm and Russia’s Sputnik V programs, are as effective as others. They have been approved by dozens of regulators.
Of the nearly 250 million doses of vaccine to date, China has sent 118 million to 49 countries, according to Airfinity, a London-based pharmaceutical company.
Russia has sent vaccines to 22 different countries and India has exported or donated 64 million of the nearly 150 million shots, according to Airfinity, in what some experts interpret as New Delhi’s attempt to offset the overtures of its regional rival’s vaccine diplomacy. Beijing.
In contrast, the United States has released just over 200 million doses of vaccine to its own population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was agreed to share only a tiny number – around 4 million AstraZeneca-Oxford University recordings that were not used anyway – with Mexico and Canada.
The West’s vaccine nationalism created a vacuum where low- and middle-income countries had no access to shooting. And Beijing and Moscow were only too happy to intervene.
The majority of Chinese and Russian vaccine doses went “where western powers and Russia and China have been competing for more influence for years,” said Agathe Demarais, global forecasting director for the Economist Intelligence Unit, a London-based research group.
A major battlefield is Egypt, which receives US $ 1.3 billion in aid every year, but whose human rights situation has resulted in strained relations with the West. It ordered tens of millions of cans from Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Sinopharm and the Russian Sputnik V program. But the first to arrive in Cairo in January were from China.
“For the man on the street” in African countries that use the vaccines, “Russia and China are becoming a little more attractive as possible models for the future,” said Campbell, the former ambassador to Nigeria. “It will probably help to make authoritarian forms of government more attractive at the expense of more democratic forms of government.”
The pandemic has also allowed Russia to forge relationships in Latin America that go beyond Venezuela’s traditional foothold, Shannon said, while the call between the Russian and Bolivian presidents was clearly linked to their vaccination deal, Demarais said. The Bolivian Presidency did not respond to a request for comment.
In Eastern Europe, thanks to Chinese and Russian shots, Serbia and Hungary were able to rise above neighbors who were struggling with suffocated Western supplies.
Sharing vaccines is by no means the only way Moscow and Beijing are trying to increase their influence. It is dwarfed, for example, by Russian arms sales or China’s Belt and Road infrastructure plan.
Rather, vaccine diplomacy is “another building block” in its decades-long attempt to influence the global South and challenge the post-war order, said Demarais, a former French diplomat who worked in Moscow and the Middle East.
“The pandemic has not spawned any new trends. It just speeds up the shifts that are going on,” she said. “The fragmentation of the global world order took a very long time.”
Meanwhile, China has two advantages that western countries don’t. After quickly putting down its outbreak, leaving vaccines at home is less of a urgency. And its one-party state doesn’t have to worry about voter dissatisfaction.
“It would be political suicide for Biden to say, ‘My dear fellow Americans, I will send millions of vaccines to South America or Africa just because we have to compete with Russia and China,'” said Demarais.
Beijing and Moscow have also perfected the art of vaccine publicity.
“The Chinese were very adept at moving forward, making token donations – and getting a lot of press coverage,” said Richard Olson, former US ambassador to Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.
“We lost the game”
Now the US seems to be trying to change the international picture.
While Trump showed little interest in global vaccination efforts, Biden has changed the tone dramatically. He gave $ 4 billion to COVAX, a vaccine sharing plan, and urged allies to pass their surpluses on to poorer countries.
The US, India, Japan and Australia recently launched a counter-offensive that plans to donate 1 billion doses of vaccine by 2023.
Foreign Ministry deputy spokeswoman Jalina Porter was asked about vaccination diplomacy at a briefing last month and declined to discuss China. “The US has taken a leading role in fighting this pandemic around the world.”
But many fear that it will be too late.
Biden’s focus was still outrageously domestic. He bought hundreds of millions of shots for American weapons and didn’t want to donate to developing countries until every adult in the US was offered a vaccination.
“If I were still in an embassy I would say we have to come into play here,” said Demarais. “But I would also say we lost the game.”