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Global vaccine cooperation to fight pandemic

By Tom Fowdy Source: Updated: 2020-10-16


A staff member displays samples of the COVID-19 inactivated vaccine at Sinovac Biotech Ltd., in Beijing, March 16, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]

It was recently announced that China has joined an initiative by the World Health Organization (WHO) to ensure global access to a COVID-19 vaccine. In doing so, China has pledged to assist in donating over 2 billion doses of the vaccine to the world, criticizing what it has described as "vaccine nationalism" by certain countries. 

Having had a head start after being hit by the virus earlier on, a number of Chinese companies are now in the final stages of developing a vaccine, with some already having moved onto assisting in the vaccination of essential workers. Earlier in the year, China pledged to ensure the drug will be widely distributed. 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 unilateralist "America First" doctrine espoused by President Donald Trump. It is also a continuation of China's long held ties of solidarity with the developing world.

First of all, the developing world faces unprecedented challenges from COVID-19. Although many African countries have in fact done better than the west in confronting the virus – at least based on observable results – because they lack the cultural complacency and superiority complex against diseases rife in Western society, nevertheless, they face long term difficulties: a lack of resources and reduced capability to bounce back from economic decline compared with Western countries, or to create or acquire a vaccine.

This makes the global balance of power concerning COVID-19 unequal. Besides China, a select group of Western countries have a monopoly over the technology, expertise and funding required to create a vaccine. This means that it is the West that ultimately calls the shots on which countries receive access, and how much they ought to pay for it. This puts the developing world at a disadvantage.

The situation 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 U.S. has been driving this shift, and not surprisingly under Trump's "America First" doctrine, Washington has approached COVID-19 with an "every man for himself" attitude. This involves "vaccine nationalism" whereby the White House wants to keep a U.S.-developed vaccine for Americans alone, whilst also aggressively buying out those produced by other countries. This puts the third world out of the picture.

On the other hand, China's foreign policy has long been oriented towards the developing world. 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 developing countries. These longstanding diplomatic ties have laid the foundation for China's contemporary ties with developing countries and its policies in assisting economic development, as well as programs such as the Belt and Road Initiative. As a result, China is 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, it 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 caused by 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 contribute to the global recovery.

Tom Fowdy 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.

The views don't necessarily reflect those of Qiushi Journal.