In China’s attempt to project its soft power, it engaged in vaccine diplomacy in Southeast Asia to counter the narrative of the virus’ origins and to build a reliable image.
When Joseph Nye coined the term ‘soft power’, it was heavily misunderstood as it had many different connotations. The concept of soft power, was merely seen as “non-commercial forces such as cultural and commercial goods”.
The soft power today, rules out the conventional foreign policy tools and replaces them with the idea of spreading “influence” by building narratives, establishing rules of international relevance, and drawing attention to the country’s resources, making it organically lucrative to the world.
Though it took time for the global platform to understand the true essence of the term, it soon came to be known as the most pre-existed yet unrecognised fundamental of foreign policy. Some countries like the West and Europe took the clichéd take on ‘soft power’ via spreading their culture through Hollywood, blue jeans fashion, or a global market. But some countries like China were late bloomers yet are astoundingly relevant now.
China is often seen with a lot of scepticism when it comes to meeting the basic needs or the triad of soft power defined by Nye—culture, values, and policies.
As the western culture became a norm in the rest of the world and became globally accepted as the “new normal” or “modern” era; China started countering by putting an edge on the table through means of the modern Chinese medicine, herbal teas, Confucius institutions, historical richness, and the popularity of its language as its soft power diplomacy.
China is often seen with a lot of scepticism when it comes to meeting the basic needs or the triad of soft power defined by Nye—culture, values, and policies. Unlike America, Japan, and South Korea, China fails to reflect its country’s reputation abroad.
From there, till the present day, a lot has changed and China has excelled to use its soft power with rather “between the lines” peculiarity. Today China can be seen as the leading example of a nation standing up to its “smart power” capabilities. From having established Confucius institutes around the world to its manifold vaccine diplomacy of the present day, China has proved to be the dragon of the world, especially inf Southeast Asia.
Alongside harvesting political leverage in the region of Southeast Asia, Beijing is utilising the opportunity to harness its pharmaceutical and economic prowess via vaccine distribution.
The implementation of the China-ASEAN Public Health Co-operation Initiative (under ASEAN-China Dialogue for the periods of 2005–2010, 2011–2015, and 2016–2020), increased the support provided to the ASEAN Medical Emergency Medical Materials Reserve which in turn strengthened the region’s public health capacity building as well.
In 2020, the spread of SARS-Cov-2 was majorly viewed by the global community as China’s fault or rather a more scandalous lab mishap in Wuhan. The conceived hypothesis that the SARS-CoV-2 virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology gained significant ground. The ongoing soft power-enhancing efforts were crushed when the virus soon started gaining popularity as the “Wuhan Virus” in the media.
China was quick and effective in managing cases in its own home so it can look outwards and bloom in the golden hour of crisis and play this as a public relations strategy.
However, soon the narrative shifted in China’s favour as it took the pandemic not only as damage control of its reputation but also as an opportunity to come out to the forefront by globally supplying vaccines, kits, and other healthcare necessities . China decided to use its vaccine diplomacy soft power to divert the attention of the global audience from the origin of the virus.
China was quick and effective in managing cases in its own home so it can look outwards and bloom in the golden hour of crisis and play this as a public relations strategy. Not only had this turned out to be a chance for China to show its great power position around the globe but also to reinforce and leverage its existing soft power initiatives.The vaccines entering Southeast Asia were a way of projecting its hegemony in the region yet again and optimising its soft power to the fullest.
In July 2020, China’s first vaccine trial took place in Brazil and marked the commencement of its vaccine diplomacy. Soon after, in November 2020, China signed deals with companies of mostly middle and lower-income countries for the export of these Chinese-made vaccines. Egypt was one of the first countries to accept vaccines from China’s state-owned vaccine maker Sinopharm.
In line with Nye’s description, “the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment”, vaccine diplomacy is a powerful tool for China to project its soft power. China had exported vaccines and aid to 102 countries total, with approximately 476.8 million dosages, of which over half were delivered in Asia-Pacific. ASEAN has set up COVID-19 Regional Fund in April 2020 to respond to the pandemic. China donated US$ 1 million to this fund.
China signed deals with companies of mostly middle and lower-income countries for the export of these Chinese-made vaccines.
Chinese initiatives did experience hurdles in Southeast Asia with the main block being the Delta variant. Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam had seen the Delta variant daily cases highly, but Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines were less than effective in tackling the new virus strain.
Table 1: Overview Of China’s vaccine diplomacy
|Sinovac, Sinopharm, CanSino
|Sinovac, Sinopharm, CanSino
|12,000,000; 20,000,000; 3,5000,000
|Purchased and Donation
|25,0600,000 (600,000 + 25,000,000)
Source: Ivana Karásková and Veronika Blablová, “The Logic of China’s Vaccine Diplomacy,” The Diplomat, 24 March 2021
According to the Global Soft Power Index of 25 February 2021, China saw a fall from the fifth to the eighth position. The report stated that it “was likely impacted by the global media coverage of COVID-19 cases in the city of Wuhan, even though the authorities addressed the crisis very effectively and China is one of only a few countries around the world to have got the epidemic under control and to register positive GDP growth at the end of 2020”.
Though, as far as the Southeast Asian countries are concerned, they were left with almost no alternative but to rely on China. Only lately, the West and Europe have focused on the export of vaccines after having their internal cases under control.
China’s vaccine diplomacy has proved to have a dichotomy of consequences. It may have experienced questions on the effectiveness of its vaccine but what remains true is that it came up for assistance when the West could not. Already through means of ASEAN as well as regional security benefits; China relishes an advantage in the Southeast Asian region. Adding to its efforts the pandemic has only turned out to be a blessing in disguise for China and it has yet again proved its hegemony in the region.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.