The “vaccine production power” developed by some global actors to fight the COVID-19 pandemic has turned into a soft power tool to influence the international global order. While Western countries have focused primarily on accelerating the vaccine rollout within their national borders, two autocratic powers – China and Russia – have attempted to strike a balance between domestic vaccination campaigns and a bold promotion of their vaccines abroad, with the aim of increasing their geopolitical leverage. In particular, China and Russia seem to employ their national vaccines to foster humanitarian ties, initiate new cooperation on biological security with strategic countries, and increase their prestige globally. Interestingly, Moscow and Beijing have been playing on the same side, supporting each other’s claim about universalizing the access to vaccines. They are also critical of the US’ and the EU’s lack of confidence in transparency and safety in the development of Chinese and Russian vaccines. In response, China and Russia reinforce each other's narrative against Western suspicions.
Authoritarian powers - roaring versus silent vaccine diplomacy
While Beijing has opted for a silent and prudent vaccine diplomacy, Moscow is carrying out a roaring one in terms of the strength of its propaganda and use of social media. To this end, Russia is using the Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) that searches for financial resources and physical capacities to produce Sputnik V in Russia and overseas. In the case of China, the authorities rely on three vaccine producers – Sinopharm, Sinovac, and CanSino.
The supply abroad comprises donations, purchasing contracts or both. Some estimates show that around 70 countries have received the Chinese vaccines, while about 35 received the Russian one – the Sputnik V. Moreover, Russian vaccine diplomacy has not been particularly successful in its own neighborhood, where smaller EU / NATO member states like Romania have been sending significant supplies, traditionally subject to strong Russian influence. In contrast, Chinese vaccines are inaudibly advancing, including in those post-Soviet countries where Russia’s influence is opposed, namely Ukraine and Georgia.
Russian vaccine diplomacy’s louder propaganda, alongside with some initial opacity concerning relevant data on Sputnik V’s development, has attracted more scrutiny and criticism from the international community. Furthermore, with only 15 million doses exported out of 35 million produced domestically, Russia is failing to ensure a fluid supply to its international clients and match the expectations of its roaring propaganda. To overcome somehow the supply handicaps, Russia has sealed up deals with India, South Korea, and China to “increase the production” and honor the contracts in time.
At the same time, Russia is struggling harder to vaccinate its own population with Sputnik V - 62% of citizens are unwilling to take the Russian vaccines. In fact, at the end of May 2021, Russia vaccinated three times less of its population than China (about 10% against over 30%).
Imitation, not competition
The two authoritarian regimes hold identical position against the West on various international issues surrounding the non-interference in the domestic affairs and the anti-COVID-19-vaccine is not an exception. China promotes the idea of converting its vaccines into a “global public good”. Similarly, the Russian side applies the humanitarian argument about the necessity to “immunize the population of the planet”, insinuating that the Russian vaccine is discriminated against through the rigorous safety regulations used by Western medicine agencies. For instance, while the RDIF is forced to address the legitimate concerns of the EU regulator, even following the procedures of verification of the production sights, political actors in Moscow resorted to disinformation tactics accusing the West of deliberate politicization of the approval of Sputnik because this “would increase Russian authority and reputation”. So far, Hungary is the only EU country that has received both the Chinese and Russian vaccines. To gain the market authorization in the EU and further Europe-wide inoculation, China and Russia require the approval of the European Medicines Agency. In spring 2021, the European medical regulator started to review Sputnik V and Sinovac’s vaccine along with two Western ones – produced by Germany and Canada. This decision is still pending. However, in the meantime, the members of the European Commission declared the EU is self-sufficient in terms of vaccine supply.
To gain worldwide recognition, the certification by the World Health Organization (WHO) is a valuable stepping stone. The WHO has recognized two of China’s vaccines (Sinopharm and Sinovac) in May and June, allowing its emergency use globally and participation in the international COVAX platform. Sputnik V is on a similar trajectory, almost eight months after submitting the request to the WHO in October 2020. Even without this approval, Russia’s RDIF signed a deal with UNICEF for the delivery of 220 million doses of Sputnik V. With an international endorsement, authoritarian regimes can more easily overcome the reluctance of the Western countries, compensating for their damaged reputation.
Do liberal democracies have a vaccine diplomacy?
While China and Russia are investing political energy in their vaccine diplomacies, some Western countries have taken steps that resemble a form of "diplomacy" in the field of anti-COVID-19 vaccines. Some liberal democracies indeed use vaccines in foreign policy, providing empirical evidence that liberal "vaccine diplomacy" can also develop. For example, the vaccine donations supplied by Romania to Moldova or by Lithuania to Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine had political connotations along with their humanitarian goal. The expansion of vaccine donations from liberal democracies to others allows a better-targeted expression of solidarity towards pro-Western governments or political leaders in non-consolidated democracies, accompanying the allocation of jabs from COVAX, also with the financial support from the EU.
The external actions of the liberal democracies in the field of supply might gain further momentum after immunization in the West reaches the necessary 60% to build herd immunity against the virus. As Russia and China are using the vaccines to obtain trade and geopolitical benefits, the West should instead promote the easy access to efficient vaccines as a merit of the liberal order.