In mid-March, Kyrgyzstan received 150,000 free doses of China’s Sinopharm vaccine. The country became the first one in Central Asia not to begin its national vaccination campaign with Russia’s Sputnik V, although Uzbekistan had already beaten Bishkek in approving a Chinese vaccine at the beginning of the same month. At a first glance, vaccine ties between China and Kyrgyzstan may appear puzzling, as expectations were for Kazakhstan —Beijing’s closest Central Asian partner— to be the prime target of China’s vaccine diplomacy in the region. Nur-Sultan, however, has chosen first to turn to Moscow’s aid and eventually to launch QazVac, Kazakhstan’s own, nationally produced vaccine.
Although Bishkek maintains a less comprehensive relationship with Beijing than Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan is the most promising recipient of China’s vaccine diplomacy today. Indeed, the country’s recent political turmoil —which also contributed to precipitate Bishkek’s democracy score in 2020— resulted in Kyrgyzstan’s gradual detachment from Western powers. As noted by the “Economist Intelligence Unit,” a detachment from the West is a crucial element in ensuring the success of Beijing’s current diplomatic efforts, as it is argued that troubling relations with the West make it easier for China to position itself as a major foreign donor.
Protecting National Interests Through Free Vaccines
Having Kyrgyzstan begin its national vaccination campaign with Sinopharm instead of Sputnik V has a highly symbolic meaning for China. Bishkek, in fact, is commonly associated with turmoil and instability – a threat to China’s Western regions and borders. Kyrgyzstan’s negative reputation notwithstanding, Beijing has pursued pressing economic and energy interests in the country over the last decade. However, 2020 put most of China’s plans for Kyrgyzstan on the line because of the threefold effect of the pandemic, a growing national sentiment of Sinophobia as well as the 2020 Kyrgyzstani protests.
Since 2013, China has financed Kyrgyzstan with about USD 4.3 billion, including investments and construction contracts, mainly in the transport and energy sectors. By re-constructing China’s positive image in Kyrgyzstan through vaccine aid, Beijing is attempting to protect its national interests, whilst also making sure that previously financed projects will not go to waste. Moreover, as argued by other observers, due to these investments and contracts, China currently holds around forty per cent of Kyrgyzstan’s total foreign debt (USD 1.8 billion) and, in light of its staggering crisis-torn economy, the country runs the risk of becoming insolvent. Therefore, stepping up support would also increase China’s negotiating power when the time comes to re-negotiate Bishkek’s debt.
What Building a “Chinese-Kyrgyz Health Community” Actually Means
When China’s free Sinopharm vaccines arrived in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s governing authorities hosted an on-site “donation ceremony”, which was attended by both the country’s Prime Minister, Ulukbek Maripov, and the Chinese Ambassador, Du Dewen (杜德文). The ceremony was an attempt to accentuate two central tenets of China’s pandemic-related global political discourse. First, Chinese media reiterated the notion of building a “Chinese-Kyrgyz health community”; the Kyrgyz adopted a similar frame, despite choosing less flamboyant terms, arguing for Bishkek’s willingness to partner up with China in fighting the pandemic.
Second, by stressing bilateral cooperation in the healthcare sector, Beijing made a connection to the “Health Silk Road” (健康丝绸之路Jiànkāng sīchóu zhīlù) — a newly established vector of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI). Moreover, by mentioning the notion of a “health community”, the Health Silk Road is also tied to the “Community of Common Destiny” (人类命运共同体Gòngtóng mìngyùn gòngtóngtǐ), one of President Xi Jinping’s most broadcasted slogans, which describes a world of “mutual cooperation” that is based on “shared interests” and “responsibilities.”
Free vaccines, therefore, serve the dual aim of helping China construct a positive reputation with its BRI partners (especially in areas where the pandemic fuelled Sinophobic sentiments) and convey the message that the fight against the pandemic is in the interest and the responsibility of a community of states, thus deflecting blame away from China.
China’s round of vaccine diplomacy in Kyrgyzstan does not exclusively respond to Beijing’s desire to support its neighbours in the fight against Covid-19. Both from a discursive and pragmatic viewpoint, Beijing has exploited Bishkek’s healthcare needs to promote a strategy aimed at restoring China’s global reputation on the one hand, and protect its national strategic interests on the other. Due to recent political turmoil, Kyrgyzstan is potentially more receptive to this strategy than other Central Asian nations, as the democratic downturn the country experienced with the October 2020 protests — and the subsequent change in government — further estranged Kyrgyzstan from its Western partners. Furthermore, the country’s high debt level towards China made Bishkek more prone to cooperation with Beijing, especially at a time when Kyrgyzstan’s economy is staggering, with a -8.6% contraction in 2020 and the possibility of insolvency becoming more likely.
This contribution falls within the scope of the project entitled ‘The BRI and the Impact of Covid-19 on China’s International Projection’ (BRIICoPIC) by the University of Trento.