China suffered a significant setback this week when its devious vaccine diplomacy failed to rope in partners as members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia — sealed deals on 27 November for procuring vaccines against coronavirus infection (Covid-19) from the UK and the US.
The Philippines and Thailand on 27 November secured millions of doses of the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, not giving two hoots to China and its conditional offer of its own vaccine.
China had deliberately delayed sharing details of the genetic material of the coronavirus, right since Australia had asked for it, as the biological agent originated in Wuhan in 2019. This adversely impacted the efforts of other countries to develop a vaccine to fight the pandemic.
Since China was the only country to have key information about the potentially fatal Covid-19 in the initial stages, it got a head start for developing a vaccine. Ironically, the communist-capitalist regime then started offering its potential vaccine to other countries with riders so that it could gain more geopolitical clout.
The visits of senior Chinese leaders exposed the sinister strategy. Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to the ASEAN region, for example, saw him assure these countries that they would get “priority” for the vaccine. However, newspapers in Hong Kong and Singapore reported that, as a quid pro quo, the ASEAN members had to support China at the World Health Organisation (WHO) as it has been facing the heat for hiding information on the highly contagious coronavirus.
A journalist working with China’s Xinhua news agency had, citing a source privy to Li’s meeting with ASEAN leaders, posted on his Weibo account that Li had made ASEAN support at the WHO a prerequisite for the assistance to fight Covid-19.
Beijing has been looking for support to ease the international pressure on it for an independent probe into the origins of the virus in China. Such an investigation would expose the possibly shady role it played in concealing information that could have saved thousands of lives worldwide.
Furthermore, as the US blames both China and the WHO for not disclosing the facts about the pandemic-causing virus, China wants to replace the US as the greater player at the international organisation.
However, the ASEAN countries are apprehensive of China that has been flexing its military muscle and laying claim to their territories. While China has always considered itself the “Middle Kingdom”, a reference in its lore that calls the nation ruled once by the Qing dynasty the “centre of the world”, President Xi Jinping has made it his obvious agenda by throwing his country’s military weight around along the island and coastal countries on the South China Sea.
The Thai government has signed a deal to procure 26 million doses of the vaccine to fight the pandemic. Officials in the Philippines said they would secure 2.6 million shots and were negotiating the purchase of another 1 million doses. The UK government, which has secured 100 million doses of the vaccine is aiming to start distributing it for public use before Christmas.
Malaysia that very day signed an agreement with US pharma giant Pfizer to obtain its Covid-19 vaccine for 20% of the population as it struggles to rein in the resurgence of coronavirus cases. The accord for 12.8 million doses to inoculate 6.4 million people is contingent on Pfizer’s vaccine being approved by the US Food and Drug Administration and the Malaysian drug regulator, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said at a press conference.
In the global race to develop vaccines against Covid-19, the Oxford University and AstraZeneca candidate is seen as offering one of the best hopes for many developing countries because of its cheaper price and ability to be transported at normal fridge temperatures.
The Serum Institute of India (SII) in Pune is producing this vaccine too. Once developed and tested okay, the SII will despatch the vaccine to other countries in Asia and Africa as part of the global war on the pandemic.
India plans to supply the vaccine to Nepal too. It gave this assurance to the northern neighbour on the day ASEAN countries snubbed China at a high-level meeting in Kathmandu between foreign secretary Harsh Shringla and Nepal’s top leadership.
Shringla said that India had “at least five promising vaccine candidates at advanced stages of trials. Dozens of sites across the country are conducting vaccine trials on all ages and social groups.”
The assurance to Kathmandu comes at a time when the Nepalese leadership appears to be realising that falling into the clutches of China was not in the Himalayan country’s best interest.