China recently made it mandatory for people coming from India and 19 other nations to received Chinese-manufactured COVID-19 vaccines if they wanted to enter the country. The problem is, of course, that there are no Chinese vaccines available in India and nor are they likely to be given that India is a major producer of vaccines itself. It is tempting to call the Chinese decision a thoughtless act and one of wanton malice towards the thousands of Indians – students, professionals, family members – waiting to return to China, over a year after many left the country to visit their homes for the long Chinese New Year holidays.
Beijing’s action is entirely in keeping with a consistent narrative that China has sold to the rest of the world that the novel coronavirus did not originate from the country and that it has done and continues to do not just all it can to counter the pandemic but also more than other countries.
On the face of it, accepting vaccinations made by other countries should not necessarily undermine this narrative but it is a symptom of the simultaneously narrow worldview and siege mentality of the Communist Party of China (CPC) that it seeks to enforce such a rule. It is a sign that China sees itself as powerful enough to get away with even unreasonable demands as well as of a powerful xenophobia that bubbles beneath the surface polish and rhetoric of Chinese diplomacy.
Beijing’s position could well be explained also by the fact of the massive hit the Chinese economy took following the outbreak of the pandemic. Given that the extreme measure of lockdowns is seen as the most viable way to stop outbreaks from spreading and the high economic costs these come with, the Chinese Party-state has probably decided not to take any risks.
In fact, the lockdown is itself now something of a model of supposedly efficient pandemic response closely identified with China. Further outbreaks would destroy the CPC’s carefully constructed narrative both at home and abroad of competence vis-à-vis the shambolic response of many Western governments to the pandemic. Inconveniencing a few thousand foreigners then, seems to be a far more preferable option.
It is, nevertheless, difficult to see this Chinese position continuing for too long. The Chinese will most likely relax their position once foreign vaccines are proven conclusively to be effective and some internal assessment is made of an appropriate amount of time having passed in which the pandemic and ascription of blame to China are seen as less of a concern for its image.
In the meantime, China’s vaccine diplomacy bears closer watching.
Naturally, countries like India and China with the capability of mass-producing vaccines will not want to let go of the opportunities for gaining soft power that such diplomacy provides. The question is of whether China will actually gain soft power given the fact of China’s role in allowing the novel coronavirus to escape the country in the first place – despite Beijing’s continuing efforts, it is not the case that even those dependent on China are buying into Chinese narratives on the origins of the virus, even if they might be willing to forget and move on. This is a problem for the CPC because it fears, perhaps rightly so, that the accusation might be resurrected at another time to hold China to hostage or to undermine its interests. It is, thus, that China has apparently pressured countries into accepting its vaccines, and alleged that vaccines made in other countries were ineffective and dangerous.Its vaccine diplomacy is, therefore, a tool for rewriting of the facts and far from an altruistic gesture.
Meanwhile, there is no doubt that India has been successful in its efforts to provide the world with vaccines. This it has also done in keeping with its own diplomatic record and traditions, even if competition with China might be one of its reasons. New Delhi should, however, be wary of being carried away by its success. The problem is not so much the calls for India vaccinating its own people first. It is in the character of great powers to not be churlish and necessary for ambitious or rising ones to be able to perform tasks simultaneously not sequentially. As External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar noted at a public lecture in 2019, it is about “having many balls up in the air at the same time and displaying the confidence and dexterity to drop none.”
But it is equally important to note that that everyone or mostly everyone will be vaccinated eventually and that the pandemic will one day be over. Goodwill or soft power rarely lasts for long in international politics. It is an asset that countries maintain with much effort. But even so, it is really of little use if it is also not complemented by hard power capabilities. As in vaccine diplomacy, India will in the future be required among other things, to simultaneously meet its own physical infrastructure requirements as well as provide these to other countries, to ensure its own security as well as those of other countries and to do all this with far more limited economic and military capabilities than China. And soft power can quickly disappear if expectations are not met or delayed. As India builds global partnerships and competition with China becomes entrenched, it will be important to remember this reality.
This article was originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘China’s vaccine diplomacy bears closer watching’, Moneycontrol, 23 March 2021.