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As the pandemic drags on, vaccines became a political tool

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Realpolitik does not stop in the middle of a pandemic. International affairs continue to influence local courses of action—the most evident at present being vaccine distribution. Launching into a global market for COVID-19 vaccines, the Philippines faces not just the challenge of vaccine supply inequity but also the need to keep an eye on the geopolitical implications of international deals.

As of May 30, over eight million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been delivered to the Philippines, while three million Filipinos have been vaccinated for the first dose and one million for the second dose. Former Health Secretary Manuel Dayrit estimated that the government inoculates approximately 350,000 to 500,000 Filipinos a day—with an aim to vaccinate 70 percent of the population for the rest of the year. 

An exercise of soft power

For most developing countries, vaccine accessibility is considered a privilege rather than a necessity. While different COVID-19 vaccines have been formulated by countries like Russia and China, the distribution of these jabs to developing countries has been viewed as a form of vaccine diplomacy, where relations between nations are fostered through guarantees of a steady vaccine supply. 

Russia and China are in a better position to use these vaccines for diplomatic affairs as they are being produced by state-owned corporations, reasons Dr. Renato De Castro, holder of the Charles Lui Chi Keung Professional Chair in China Studies. By comparison, pharmaceutical companies in other Western countries are privately owned and are less concerned with state interests. 

According to International Studies professor Dr. Dennis Trinidad, this form of state power gives vaccine-producing states leverage over more vaccine-dependent countries. 

States have two ways of exerting their power, he says. One is through “hard power”, which involves coercion such as military intervention. On the other hand, a state can also employ “soft power”, a more persuasive approach. 

“Soft power provides an opportunity for countries to improve [their] image in the international community,” Trinidad explains. 

Having been the epicenter of the pandemic and facing the brunt of criticism for failing to control the initial outbreak, China stands to benefit the most in the ensuing vaccine deployment by using it as a conciliatory tactic which in turn can help expand its influence over other countries.

This diplomatic game has been a great concern in geopolitical affairs as they strategize to distribute COVID-19 vaccine jabs globally to develop their diplomatic relations with other countries. Last March, leaders from the United States (US), Australia, India, and Japan held a virtual meeting to discuss China’s vigorous vaccine diplomacy as they geared to produce over 500,000 vaccine doses in an effort to expand their political influence. China has developed over four different versions of COVID-19 vaccines, and most of these are produced and distributed “to promote their diplomatic game,” De Castro adds. 

‘Receiving end’

In a bid to increase confidence in China-made vaccines, President Rodrigo Duterte claimed in a televised address last January 13 that Chinese vaccines are as good as those produced by American and European pharmaceuticals. This statement was met with public backlash, which was further fueled when the administration moved to secure 25 million COVID-19 vaccine doses from Chinese firm Sinovac to be delivered in tranches. As of May 20, 5.5 million doses of Sinovac’s COVID-19 vaccine have already arrived in the Philippines. 

Lawmakers also questioned the seeming preference of the government for vaccines developed by China. “There are other vaccines with a much higher efficacy at lower, if not more competitive, cost. Why are we insisting that we buy Sinovac?” Sen. Franklin Drilon questioned task force officials in a hearing last January 15. 

Trinidad, however, points out that the administration’s relations with China may have little to do with the acquisition of Chinese vaccines. “Because our country is at the receiving end of the vaccine production, we do not have much of a choice to choose the vaccine we want,” he explains. 

However, he also notes that exporting Sinovac and Sinopharm—two of the several COVID-19 vaccines being developed in China—to developing countries like the Philippines and Indonesia will allow China to promote their scientific and technological advancement. “To a certain extent, Chinese vaccines may create a better image for China, especially if they are proven to be effective against the disease,” he posits. 

Another factor that affects vaccine confidence is transparency. “Pfizer, Moderna, Oxford-AstraZeneca—they’re very transparent regarding the tests,” De Castro states. “China, on the other hand, has not been so transparent.” Until recently, Sinovac had kept quiet about its clinical trial data, in particular the third phase of the trial. The shot, however, is more effective than it proved in the testing phase, making up for its earlier lack of data transparency.

Not a new Cold War

“States will always utilize whatever instruments or tools of power [are] available in order to pursue their national interests (including commercial and diplomatic goals) in the international system,” Trinidad states.

According to De Castro, the vaccine’s diplomatic opportunities are mostly being utilized in the context of the two great powers: the US and China. China, he maintains, continues to challenge the dominance of the West in the international stage. China’s success in improving its image through its vaccine distribution will provide the country with the soft power to pursue its national interests of being at par with Western influence, and the US will try to oppose this in claims of preventing China from becoming a hegemony.

The current race for vaccine distribution has allowed for the revival of China’s 2017 proposal of a “Health Silk Road” where the country presents itself as an “alternative” to Western leadership in global health. “China will try to,” says De Castro, regarding China’s likelihood of success, “but of course, I don’t think the United States and the Western powers will take it lying down—they will also react.”

Last May 17, US President Joe Biden announced that he will send an additional 20 million doses of domestic-approved vaccines abroad, noting that the US has promised to donate more than any country. This move, he explained, aims for the country to lead the world with a demonstration of “innovation, ingenuity, and the fundamental decency of American people.” On the other hand, China argued that, unlike the US, it will not use vaccine diplomacy to “lead the world.”

Considering this, Trinidad laments that amid the US-China rivalry, international politics are returning to a “zero-sum perspective,” which he argued would be dangerous. Similar to the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, the former seems to label China as a “strategic competitor” whose gains will be at the expense of the West. He maintains that while China’s world health initiatives will be helpful to countries without their own vaccine production, it only becomes a concern if viewed from such a mentality.

“I hope that the Philippines would not be forced to choose between the US and China in the future,” Trinidad writes.

By Orville Apostol

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By Jemimah Tan

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