Updated: Feb 22, 2021
The most valuable resource to the average person today is a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. For China, which has rolled out two vaccines so far (Sinopharm and Sinovac), with another on the way (CanSino Biologics), providing vaccines to other countries is a key component of its efforts to reshape the narrative about the pandemic. Chinese officials want their country to be remembered for Silk Road health diplomacy and successful vaccine development, not China's role in the pandemic's origin and spread. In a June 2020 White Paper on COVID-19 the Chinese government outlined its aim to develop a "global public health system that will benefit all of humanity," a goal patterned on the "community of common destiny" long espoused by Xi Jinping as China's overall global governance objective.
Russia has a similar agenda for vaccine diplomacy. Calling their vaccine Sputnik V--harkening back to the October 1957 satellite launch that changed global perceptions of Soviet military and space power --Kremlin officials see Sputnik V enhancing its soft power overseas and raising the profile of Russian science. Sputnik V made headlines as the first COVID-19 vaccine to be released to the public, but also for cutting corners in the interest of speed. Russian authorities approved the vaccine for domestic distribution on August 11, 2020, prior to the conclusion of Phase III trials, which typically test the effectiveness and safety of a vaccine in large sample groups.
On February 2, 2021 The Lancet, a highly regarded medical journal, published interim findings from these trials indicating a 91.6% efficacy rate for the Sputnik V vaccine after 21 days and no adverse side effects. Despite this apparent vindication, concerns about sufficient testing have depressed demand. The Russian government claims, without releasing any national data, that 1.5 million people have received the Sputnik V vaccine, but Russian regional data belies a much lower number--300,000 as of mid-January 2021. According to a December 23, 2020 poll by Moscow's Levada Center, just 38% of respondents (though 48% of those over age 55) said they were prepared to be vaccinated, largely due to concerns over incomplete testing of the vaccine and its side effects.
China and Russia are strategic partners and are cooperating in vaccine production. Russia is carrying out trials of the CanSino vaccine and China will begin producing Russia's Sputnik V at the end of February 2021, after what Russia's ambassador to China Andrei Denisov termed "very difficult" negotiations over a range of complex issues, presumably including intellectual copyright issues which have long vexed Sino-Russian military ties. If resolved, vaccine cooperation would support ongoing high-level Russian and Chinese efforts to boost their technological cooperation in 2021.
In addition to vaccine co-production, their COVID-19 response has other shared features: both Russia and China have been accused of underreporting their COVID-19 cases. The independent website Meduza reported that Rosstat, the Russian statistics agency, published some figures on Russian mortality in 2020 that revealed that Russia placed second after the U.S. in deaths from COVID-19. The World Health Organization continues to seek data from China about the pandemic and the U.S. and other countries have urged greater data sharing regarding the virus' origins.
Even as they have been criticized for their own lack of transparency, Russia and China have acted in parallel to spread disinformation, according to a February 14th report by AP and the Atlantic Council. Russia has echoed China's false claims about COVID-19 originating as a U.S. biological war attack or from other western countries. China has sought to discredit U.S. vaccines, contributing to U.S. vaccine skepticism in the process. For China and Russia, the disarray in the U.S. handling of COVID-19 and challenges faced by European countries have provided an opportunity to promote their vaccine achievements and the superiority of authoritarian pandemic responses, while distracting from their own domestic problems.
The apparent Sino-Russian harmony belies a competition for vaccine markets in traditional areas of Russian influence in Central Asia and Mongolia. If you look at the distribution of Russian and Chinese vaccines, despite China's Silk Road health diplomacy and efforts to expand Chinese soft power in Eurasia, it is Sputnik V that has been embraced more enthusiastically, with Indian vaccines placing second in the vaccine race. Kazakhstan and Mongolia have both approved the Russian vaccine, as has Turkmenistan (despite claiming not to have any COVID-19 cases!). Mongolian officials demurred on an offer from China to supply vaccines but accepted India's offer of locally made AstraZeneca, the vaccine developed jointly with Oxford University. Kazakhstan, which is the first country to locally produce Sputnik V, is also interested in access to Indian vaccines.
Only Uzbekistan, which has long sought to maintain its freedom of maneuver with Russia and China, has approved both Sputnik V and trials of two Chinese vaccines (Sinopharm and Anhui Zhifei Longcom Biopharmaceutical). Although there was some criticism in social media about participating as "guinea pigs" in the Chinese trials, Uzbekistan sees an opportunity to produce the vaccine locally. Uzbekistan is also negotiating with the Russian company Vektor on the development of the EpiVacCorona vaccine.
Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan are eligible for the World Health Organization's COVAX initiative which is to provide vaccine access to developing countries. While China is slated to contribute 10 million doses to the initiative, Kyrgyzstan expects to access the U.K.'s Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and possibly some other European and American vaccines via COVAX. Tajikistan is also slated to receive the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine through COVAX, though it is also discussing receiving supplies of Sputnik V from Russia, as is Kyrgyzstan. An Economist Intelligence Unit study predicted that COVAX was unlikely to be able to vaccinate many developing countries, including most of the Central Asian states, until the end of 2023, making alternatives more attractive in these countries.
Where's the Risk?
China's claim of success in keeping COVID-19 at bay has enhanced the priority of vaccine diplomacy over domestic inoculation. The vaccine rate in China (3 doses per 100 people) is much lower than in the U.S. (15 doses per 100 people). Reluctance, due to incomplete data, combined with lower efficacy compared to other approved vaccines, may prevent Chinese people from achieving herd immunity, and put them at risk of future outbreaks. Curiously, as it sends its own vaccines abroad, China has purchased 100 million doses of the German BioNTech vaccine to innoculate its own population by the end of 2021.
While many of China's immediate neighbors have opted for Sputnik V, China has successfully leveraged vaccine supplies in exchange for other benefits from other countries. A delay in Turkey's receipt of Sinovac vaccines has led to speculation that China has been seeking to pressure the Turkish parliament to sign an extradition treaty that would pave the way for repatriating Uyghurs to China. Vaccine deals with Middle East countries could expand China's geopolitical clout in the region and donations to Southeast Asian states could be a quid pro quo for agreement to Chinese positions on South China Sea maritime disputes. Donations of Chinese vaccines also have been seen as a mechanism to encourage their approval in some countries such as the Philippines and Nepal.
China's "sharp" power in Turkey. Photo: AP
Vaccines are being used for political leverage in cross-straits relations as well. Taiwan's health minister Chen Shih-chung claimed in February 2021 that pressure from China led to the collapse of a December 2020 deal for 5 million doses of the German BioNTech vaccine which is being produced in China by a joint venture with a Chinese company, Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceuticals. However, the German company has reaffirmed its intention to fulfill the contract without a Chinese intermediary. Taiwan is on track to receive vaccine supplies from a number of countries, though not China, despite Beijing's offer to provide it with free vaccines on a priority basis. Taiwan's epidemic command center has banned Chinese vaccines due to incomplete data about their efficacy and risks.
A speedy end to the pandemic depends on global access to vaccines. Despite WHO promises to aid poorer nations, the vaccine rollout has been far from smooth and has highlighted the geopolitical stakes involved. While the focus has been on great power competition, vaccine nationalism is more than a race to inoculate the world between the U.S. and Europe on one side and China and Russia on the other. Chinese and Russian vaccines are in direct competition with one another, especially farther afield in the post-Soviet space and the Balkans. Belarus embraced Sputnik V but, not surprisingly, Ukraine opted for Sinovac. Others, like Georgia, hope for western vaccines while poorer countries like Moldova look to COVAX. Delays in EU vaccines reaching the Balkans have led to a Sino-Russian competition for market share there.
COVID-19's Origins: A Fishy Business
As they compete to provide vaccines to their foreign partners, China and Russia are in danger of losing hold of their joint messaging on the pandemic's origins. China now seeks to blame the introduction of COVID-19 into the country on frozen food, including fish from Russia, potentially crippling its exports. Some 60% of Russian fish, mostly from the Russian Far East, is exported to China, which has refused to accept it since COVID-19 traces were found on Russian frozen fish in Jilin in September. Faced with more than $3 billion in losses, Russian fish exporters are seeking other markets in Southeast Asia and even in Africa, as officials try to negotiate an end to the Chinese ban.
Although most experts argue that the pandemic was most likely transmitted by a bat to a wild animal sold in China, the WHO mission to China in February 2021 declared the possibility of transmission via frozen food worthy of future study, perhaps in an effort to assuage Chinese sensibilities and encourage greater data sharing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and FDA have rejected that interpretation, claiming that "there is no credible evidence of food or food packaging associated with or as a likely source of viral transmission" of COVID-19.
The WHO did reject as "extremely unlikely" the theory, still propagated by Chinese officials, of the virus originating in a U.S. military lab (or in a Chinese lab, as some in the Trump Administration had argued). Despite this apparent setback in their messaging, Chinese media triumphantly reported the WHO's press conference statement that the virus origin would be fully explored and need "not be bound to any location." However, China's eagerness to uncover a foreign origin for the pandemic now threatens its message of collaboration with Russia in pursuit of Silk Road health diplomacy and creates a new irritant in Sino-Russian regional relations, always the weakest link in their partnership.