The Biden administration says it is committed to strategically countering China on the global stage, but Beijing has already seized the public relations high ground in the soft-power fight to win friends and influence through strategically placed COVID-19 vaccine deliveries to countries in need.
Amid storied complaining that the world’s wealthier nations are hoarding precious stocks, China has grabbed the international spotlight by pledging roughly half a billion vaccine doses to more than 45 countries, with Russia and India also competing in the scramble to ship doses around the world.
The competition is hitting close to home. Across the southern U.S. border, Mexico has accepted shipments of Chinese and Russian vaccines to help fight the pandemic.
Doubts over the efficacy of Chinese-made Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines are swirling among some scientists, who argue that the Biden administration is wise to avoid shipping U.S.-made vaccines anywhere before the U.S. stockpiles enough doses for its own residents. But others say the administration is asleep at the switch while Beijing exploits the pandemic to score a Cold War-style propaganda victory over the West.
“We are clearly losing on messaging and optics at the moment,” said Dr. Krishna Udayakumar, founding director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center at Duke University. “Right now, if you’re Peru or Mexico, where are you getting vaccines from? It’s not the U.S.; it’s from China or Russia.”
“I think countries are going to have long memories of who helped them in a time of crisis,” he said. For all the rhetoric about “reasserting U.S. engagement” around the world, the Biden administration is “losing a moment of opportunity to reassert U.S. leadership in the global arena” through vaccine distribution.
The Associated Press reported this week that Chinese vaccines have been shipped to more than 25 countries, with shots delivered to another 11, while only a small clutch of wealthy nations has managed to get the pricier, U.S.-produced Pfizer and Moderna shots.
With just four of China’s many vaccine makers able to produce at least 2.6 billion doses this year, the news agency reported, a large part of the world’s population will end up inoculated not with the fancy Western vaccines boasting headline-grabbing efficacy rates, but with China’s less-celebrated shots.
India, which is manufacturing two vaccines, started donating doses to a number of neighboring countries in January, while Russia has given doses of its Sputnik V vaccine to more than a dozen nations. Sputnik V has been registered or approved for emergency use in more than 40 countries around the world, and Russian ambassadors in countries such as Iran and Bolivia have made it a point to publicize heavily when the Sputnik V vaccine arrives for the locals.
Chinese officials publicly deny that they are waging a vaccine diplomacy race. They describe the vaccine as a “global public good.” Chinese experts also have rejected ties between vaccine distribution and any attempt by China’s communist regime to burnish its global image after facing widespread criticism for its handling of the first outbreaks of the virus in Wuhan, China, in late 2019.
But some can’t resist comparing what they say has been China’s generosity with American stinginess.
“By the end of February, China has provided vaccine assistance to 69 countries and two international organizations,” Wang Wenwen, an editor with the state-controlled Global Times, wrote Thursday. “It has also exported its vaccine to 28 countries.
“Meanwhile,” he added, “the U.S. is living in its self-built wall of unilateralism and the lingering ‘America First’ mentality.”
Focused on home
When asked this week whether the administration is considering sharing part of the U.S. vaccine supply with Mexico, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki responded with a flat “no.”
Once the U.S. population is taken care of, she said, “we’re happy to discuss further steps.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken also sidestepped questions about whether the White House fears it is ceding its leadership to China, even as the administration frames Beijing as the chief threat to the United States.
“I think as the months go on and as we vaccinate our own people and make sure that every American is protected, we’ll also be engaged in helping the world get vaccinated,” Mr. Blinken told PBS’s “Newshour.” “Because at the end of the day, we will not be fully secure until the world is vaccinated, not just Americans.”
He said the U.S. is “contributing billions of dollars to creating greater access to vaccines.”
Indeed, the Biden administration went to lengths in mid-February to highlight the decision to commit some $4 billion to COVAX, the international effort orchestrated by the World Health Organization to bolster the purchase and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to poorer nations.
Officials framed the commitment as a stark contrast with the Trump administration, which spurned both the WHO and the multinational COVAX effort. But even the $4 billion now authorized by Mr. Biden has strings attached.
The president told a virtual Group of Seven summit last month that Washington will deliver half upfront, with the rest contingent on other G-7 nations making good on their own pledges.
The U.S. record on supporting global vaccine efforts has drawn mixed reactions from experts.
“I believe in a modest form of vaccine nationalism,” said Arthur Caplan, a professor of medical ethics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. The Biden administration, he said, was wise to vaccinate key segments of the U.S. population such as health care workers first, even when there may be a diplomatic advantage to sharing doses with other nations in need.
“You’ve got to take care of the neediest folks in your own country first,” he said. “If you’re not in control of what’s going on in your own country, it’s hard to help others. … Think of it as the airplane mask rule: Put your own mask on before you help others.”
“I don’t think the Chinese are giving enough to make a huge difference, and we don’t even know that their vaccines work that well,” he said. “I’m not overly worried that we’re getting outmaneuvered or somehow asleep at the international security switch.”
He added, “I think these are minor chess moves that are not going to have a long-term impact on foreign policy, because it’s too little in the way of help and it’s too obvious in terms of trying to curry favor. The bigger questions of help will be here soon, in say four or five months, when we have a lot of vaccines around and you could really do some serious distribution.”
A push to prepare
But others say the U.S. should be doing more now.
“As Americans get vaccinated, we need to do more to vaccinate others,” said Patrick Cronin, the Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute in Washington.
While Mr. Cronin told The Times that “President Biden’s commitment of $4 billion to the global vaccine fund is a demonstration of U.S. leadership,” he stressed that “even more should be done” and suggested a “bolder” move may be for the United States to “lift the patent on vaccine formulas.”
Others say the patent issue is sticky because few nations have the scientific expertise to quickly reproduce vaccines on their own.
In the interim, there are signs that the Biden administration is exploring a joint plan for distributing vaccines in Asia with allies Japan, India and Australia — member nations of the “Quad,” an informal alliance that U.S. officials have increasingly sought to promote as a counter to China.
Biden administration Indo-Pacific policy coordinator Kurt Campbell has spearheaded the effort, according to the Financial Times, which reported this week that Mr. Campbell has held several meetings with ambassadors from the Quad.
The White House has declined to comment on details of the behind-the-scenes effort, although a spokesperson told The Times on Thursday that “expanding global vaccination, manufacturing and delivery” are “issues the United States is regularly discussing with allies and partners like Australia, India and Japan.”
Duke’s Dr. Udayakumar, meanwhile, said reliance on “existing platforms like the Quad would make sense as part of overall strategy but doesn’t address needs and vaccine diplomacy efforts in Africa and Latin America.”
“It also leaves open the question of the role of COVAX relative to bilateral and other multilateral efforts,” he said, adding that the U.S. should be engaging in public diplomacy tied to an initiative for sharing vaccine doses in the near future.
“We will pretty confidently have vaccines in excess of our needs by July, so we need to start planning now for what we’re going to do with excess,” Dr. Udayakumar told The Times.
He added that the Biden administration may be holding back a more aggressive policy for delivering vaccines internationally because pushing such a policy at the current moment could complicate difficulties the administration is already having in getting Congress to pass a domestic COVID-19 relief bill.
But, Dr. Udayakumar said, “even if we were just talking about making doses available in June or July, that would be a lot better than the current story, which is that the U.S. is hoarding doses while India, China and Russia are sharing them.”
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