China, Russia Stumble on Vaccine 'Soft Power'

As governments enthusiastically import their vaccines, the public shies away

Having developed the world’s first vaccines against Covid-19, both China and Russia have made vaccine diplomacy a centerpiece in their soft-power armory, shipping hundreds of millions of doses to virus-hit countries long before the western powers could get untracked to create their own versions.

But both countries appear to have stumbled despite a vow by China earlier this month, for instance, to supply 2 billion doses to the United Nations-sponsored COVAX program, having previously delivered 770 million to dozens of countries. In country after country in Southeast Asia, while governments are enthusiastically acquiring millions of Chinese-manufactured doses, the public is in revolt.

Thailand’s reliance on Chinese vaccines has played a major role in the unrest against Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, for instance. In Indonesia, according to a source, they are reluctantly accepting Chinese vaccines “because we don’t have anything else” although there is considerable resistance and Jakarta has earned harsh criticism for failing to order enough soon enough from western sources.

(Related story: Indonesia Turns to China in Vax Desperation)

In the Philippines, reportedly the military high command slowed distribution because they didn’t trust it despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s overtures to China for massive shipments. In Malaysia, distribution of the Chinese vaccines has almost stopped in favor of western vaccines, as it has in Thailand.

In the meantime, Russia’s Sputnik V, which President Vladimir Putin touted as the world’s first successful one, got off to a dramatic start, with Russia shipping doses to more than 70 countries. One observer told the BBC that “Once again many outsiders have underestimated Russia. This is potentially the most powerful tool of soft power that Moscow has had in its hands for generations."

But today, according to a report by the Carnegie Foundation, Russia’s vaccine program is bogged down with production problems, a failure to manage its global supply chain, and with millions of potential beneficiaries leery of being jabbed with needles from either country.

Alexey Kovalev, writing in Foreign Policy on July 5, said that “Despite having access to the brain power and resources of one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world, Russian authorities have repeatedly squandered almost every chance to beat the pandemic. Their massive, bloated propaganda apparatus failed to do the one job it was designed for: Get the message out. Instead, the pandemic has exacerbated the crisis of trust between the Russian government and citizens.”

Although Sputnik V is apparently safe according to medical data published in The Lancet, “lingering questions about data discrepancies and the lack of transparency caused an international group of scientists to question the findings in an open letter to the journal,” according to the Carnegie study, partly because the vaccine was rushed through clinical trials to get it on the market before all others, raising questions about safety and slowing important regulatory approvals from the EU and the WHO.

Russians themselves don’t trust Sputnik V, with the country’s vaccination rate just 18 percent, one of the lowest in Europe and behind many countries including Azerbaijan, Cuba, El Salvador, and Morocco.

Meanwhile, according to recent research by Khairulanwar Zaini, a research officer at the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Program at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. at the University of Singapore, China’s vaccine diplomacy has been less than a total success. That is at least partly because, months into distributing it to multiple countries, Chinese health authorities haven’t provided effective results against the variant based on large-scale data in clinical trials or real-world use, nor offered detailed information from lab tests, according to a Reuters report.

“China’s exercise of soft power through vaccine diplomacy has yet to generate strategic trust in Southeast Asia, mainly due to Beijing’s assertion of hard power in other domains, especially in the South China Sea,” Zaini wrote: “To live up to its promise of providing vaccines as a ‘global public good’ and counteract criticism that the country is engaging in self-serving ‘politics of generosity.” Zaini suggested that China cooperate with the West in accelerating the production and distribution of vaccines to the developing world.

As Zaini pointed out, the littoral nations of Southeast Asia are a key target for China’s vaccine diplomacy, with all the countries in the region have either purchased or received donations of Chinese-made shots, with outreach helped by its first-mover advantage through steady deliveries of supplies. Collectively, they have ordered hundreds of millions of doses. But “Beijing’s propaganda about its generosity and its assertive actions in other domains – such as the South China Sea – have significantly constrained the soft power effect of its vaccine outreach, thus limiting the strategic trust it is able to foster in the region.”

Beijing has aimed its effort at low- and medium-income countries, supplying huge numbers of doses to African countries and to Hungary – where Prime Minister Viktor Orban posted a photo of being inoculated with a dose from Sinopaharm – as well as, Serbia and Turkey. As the European Union thinktank Breughel pointed out, “Recently, however, concerns have grown about the relatively low protection rates given by Chinese vaccines and about their availability.” Trust in the reliability of Russian data and the comparability of its tests is still wavering as well, as Breughel pointed out.

Vaccine diplomacy, Zaini wrote, “is an exercise in soft power. The point is neither to compel nor coerce, but to convince or “co-opt” – usually by example.” Both China and Russia have been using the vaccines to overcome massive distrust of their regimes. China, he says, “is still finding its feet in terms of cultivating soft power with the necessary nuance and finesse. For one thing, Beijing’s propaganda efforts accompanying its vaccine outreach lack subtlety. Moreover, China has yet to recognize that its exercise of hard power has to be recalibrated to avoid undermining its soft power efforts.”

Blunting China’s soft power “is the fact that many countries are conscious that China’s congeniality can be capricious,” Zaini writes .”As Australia and Canada have learned, “China has a record of retracting its generosity and banishing countries to ‘the doghouse’ (as the Economist magazine memorably puts it) for perceived slights. And while Southeast Asia has been generally spared the worst of China’s ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy,’ it is not blind to how China punishes those failing to toe Beijing’s line. China may offer vaccines today, but trade sanctions tomorrow.”

After Australia called for an investigation of the source of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, it found its exports of wine and other products to China curtailed. Canada has seen seemingly innocent expatriates in China arrested and charged in the wake of its detention of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of the manufacturing giant Huawei.

(Related story: Fate of Accused Canadians Hinges on Huawei Heiress's Extradition)