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Is vaccine diplomacy the new political ploy?

Is vaccine diplomacy the new political ploy?

By

Farai Tinashe Munoriarwa.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about dismay and changes to the world. From the large of loss lives and livelihoods, to the increased dependence on technology, the geopolitical shift and the mere collapse of diplomatic relations among states.

The pandemic has also given room for global superpowers to seek and exert themselves through the use of soft power on the less privileged regions like the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa and the Balkans.

In 2020, the world witnessed, mask diplomacy with China issuing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) across the globe. It even went as far as countries outbidding each other for the purchase of PPE which were largely in demand at the time.

For the layman one would think Mask diplomacy at the time was a kind gesture, a donation or aid to helping ailing countries with collapsing or collapsed health care systems. A thorough analysis would show that Mask diplomacy was a ploy to score points, gain favour and an image booster to these countries mainly China to appear as a responsible leader within the global arena especially with the USA taking a backseat in the international area. In addition, mask diplomacy fitted the politics of the day as people where in need of a solution to the chaos occurring globally. This accentuated that it is easier to influence and win the hearts and minds of people when they are in time of need.

Mask diplomacy led to the soaring rise of Chinese influence in the both in the South and the North as some analysts and critics felt the USA had abandoned the world. This hypothesis at the time was true especially under the leadership of President Trump who fuelled a nationalist and protectionist agenda in the international arena.

Flashback to a couple of years before the COVID19, the world was experiencing an economic downturn brought about by the Trade War between America and China. During the tenure of the economic downturn there was a large reduction in investment especially resulting from the Chinese Belt and Road initiative (BRI) also known as One Belt One Road. In short, BRI is a development strategy that seeks to equate the Old Silk Road of the Roman Empire creating an infrastructure corridor connecting Asia, Europe, Eurasia and Africa with an estimated cost of US$4 to 8 trillion. The initiative has been adopted and employed in over 70 countries with investments and loans from the Chinese government.

Mask diplomacy was the saving grace for the ailing BRI as Northern Atlantic Members States viewed it as a security threat and called for the recalling of any current and future agreements with China. The suspension of 5G infrastructure provided by Chinese tech giant Huawei is one of those agreements that fell through.

Fast forward into 2021, where we bear witness to power of Science through Research and Development and the world sees the numerous vaccines emerge into the international area from global superpowers such as China, Russia and the United States America. Again soft power politics is at play as Vaccine Diplomacy emerges similarly to the way Mask Diplomacy was rolled out just a year ago.

Leading the pack with Vaccine Diplomacy is China (through Sinopharm and Sinovac) employing the same strategy used to introduce BRI and Mask diplomacy which was targeting the global South consisting of Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and parts of Asia, Balkans and parts of Eastern and Central Europe. The aim is still the same which is build the image and influence of China in the world and build on the successes of Mask Diplomacy which was an absolute success.

Vaccine Diplomacy has seen a rise in the ranks as Russia and America are engaging in it. Russia has made some strides in Central Europe and Eurasia with their version of the vaccine (Sputnik V) and has gone as far giving production rights to other countries. America has joined vaccine diplomacy especially with their need to strategically re-engage into the international arena after a catastrophic 4 years under President Trump.

Delay is not denial this is evident in the case of America that was last to have a full scale global roll out and has tried to counter both Moscow and Beijing vaccines by improving on their deficiencies. American vaccines have made head way into Europe and North America. During the recent G7 summit, America pledged to disperse 60 million vaccines across the globe in a bid to subdue the surge of COVID19. For America this serves a part of their global strategic plan to re-assert themselves into the international arena and re-branding their image in international politics. This is on top of their re-engagement into the Paris Agreement for Climate Change.

Not much light has been shown on the vaccine diplomacy being engaged by the Arabs. In the MENA region, Tunisia has been a being recipient of vaccines from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria and the United Arab Emirates. For the majority of the Arab nations it’s not matter of being able to produce the vaccines but the ability to buy it and dispense to other Arab nations expanding their political influence. MENA region possess a different type of soft power political field as the vaccines being used are dependent which countries lean to the West or East and not on availability. American Vaccine diplomacy can be seen in West-leaning countries Israel and other Gulf countries. China and Russia vaccine diplomacy is concentrated in Syria, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq and Palestine which are countries that are East-leaning.

Delving into prior experiences, Vaccine diplomacy has become the new ploy to leverage and grease the wheels of international relationships whilst expanding influence throughout the world, it is the new doctrine for nation-state public relations within the international arena. This is due to a very fragile international arena with so many events happening around it. There is a need to stabilise it and figure out which global super power will come out on top and be the leader of a post-COVID-19 international arena. Furthermore, Vaccine Diplomacy especially by China and Russia has been a ploy to embarrass and illustrate the lack of action by Western countries and present themselves as the saviours of the developing world and the world at large.

For this reason, the response and mitigation of COVID-19 will face challenges as there is a lack of cooperation among global super powers to address ailing health and socio-economic effects of the COVID19 pandemic. In addition, the lack of clear cut political leadership and united mobilization is amongst the challenges we face.

The way forward is for the international arena to practice inclusive multilateralism with all regions being part of the process to derive of a solution to mitigate Covid-19 as the pandemic has affected us all devastating lives and livelihoods. The process and solution to mitigating COVID19 should not solemnly be held under auspices of the G7 and G20 it should a global effort with science diplomacy fuelling the agenda in order to find a solution. Global leaders should be moving away from elements of power and dominance at the cost of humanity, multilateral cooperation at this point and time will best suit the fight against COVID-19.

Some food for thought regarding Vaccine Diplomacy is that for China there has been some strong waning in Asia in areas and countries like Indonesia, Thailand and Taiwan with these countries changing the vaccine policy. Russia on the other hand has made some success outside their border but domestically have failed dismally with encouraging nationals to partake in their inoculation programme.


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A Guest Contributor is any of a number of experts who contribute articles and columns under their own respective names. They are regarded as authorities in their disciplines, and their work is usually published with limited editing only. They may also contribute to other publications. - Ed.

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