Earlier this year, China’s leader Xi Jinping pledged to African leaders in the China-Africa summit that Beijing would supply them with a covid-19 vaccine. Last week, it was announced that China had joined an initiative by the World Health Organization (WHO) to ensure global distribution to the product once its research is completed. In doing so, Beijing has pledged to assist in donating over 2 billion doses of the vaccine to the world with a focus on developing countries, criticizing what it has described as “vaccine nationalism” by certain countries.
Having had a head start from suffering from the virus earlier on, a number of Chinese companies are now in the final stages of developing a vaccine, with some companies already moving ahead to assist in the vaccination of essential workers.. The United States on the other hand, has refused to join the vaccine alliance.
China’s global cooperation on the covid-19 vaccine is part of its multilateral and international development focused foreign policy, which has long sought to contrast itself to the “America First” and unilateralist doctrine espoused by Donald Trump. It is also a continuation of China’s long held solidarity ties with the developing world stemming from the Mao era, or what is otherwise known as “South-South” cooperation based on a common legacy of post-colonialism.
First of all, the developing world faces unprecedented challenges from the pandemic. Although many countries on the African continent have in fact done better than the west in confronting the virus at least based on observable results, as they lack the cultural complacency and superiority complex against diseases rife in western society, nevertheless they face long term struggles due to their lack of resources and less capability to bounce back from economic decline than western countries, or for that matter to create or acquire a vaccine.
This makes the global balance of power concerning the covid-19 vaccine, unequal. Besides China, a select group of western countries have a monopoly over the technology, expertise and funding required to create a covid-19 vaccine. The leading candidates have included companies in the United States, the European Union and Britain’s Oxford University. This means that it is the west that ultimately call the shots on which countries get access to the product, and how much they ought to pay for it. This puts the non-western, developing world, at a disadvantage.
This has become particularly problematic because the present international environment is deteriorating from a global multilateral order into a fragmented one marred by great power competition, protectionism and unilateralism. The United States has been the country driving this shift, and not surprisingly under Trump’s “America First” doctrine Washington has approached the covid-19 with an “every man for himself” attitude. This involves “vaccine nationalism” whereby the White House wants to keep a developed U.S vaccine for Americans alone, whilst also aggressively buying out those produced by other countries. This puts countries in Africa out of the picture.
On the other hand, China’s foreign policy has long been orientated towards the developing world, especially the African continent. In the famous Bandung Conference in Indonesia in 1953, China embedded itself as a leading power within the “Non-aligned movement” and sought to establish postcolonial solidarity with a number of countries. These longstanding diplomatic ties have laid the foundation for China’s contemporary ties with Africa and its policies in assisting economic development, as well as programs such as the Belt and Road initiative. As a result, Beijing is constantly inclined to support these countries as it allows them to break the “lock” of the western ceiling being placed on them.
Therefore, although China has 1.4 billion people to vaccinate and account for, Beijing is also prepared to create and donate an enormous portion of vaccines to assist the developing world as a whole. This will be as a show of solidarity, as well as a gesture to uphold the importance of multilateral cooperation. Western countries can afford to look after themselves, but others do not have that privilege. Only by working together can the world feasibly overcome the damage of the covid-19 and return to normal life, it is no good if some regions of the world have access to a vaccine, but others do not. Therefore, China is serving an international good, and will continue to act as a leader in the global recovery.
Tom Fowdy is a Political Columnist for The Southern African Times. He is a British political and international relations analyst and a graduate of Durham and Oxford universities. He writes on topics pertaining to China, the DPRK, Britain, and the U.S.