Flat White

China’s concerning Covid diplomacy

3 June 2021

4:00 AM

3 June 2021

4:00 AM

Covid-19 has so far caused the deaths of near three and a half million globally and led to significant social and economic disruption. Meanwhile, enabled by our island geography and prior economic successes, Australia is living in a bubble sustained by financial stimulus and border closures. Beyond our shores, the Chinese Communist Party is masterfully using the Covid crisis as an opportunity to reshape our region and the world order.   

In the very early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a global shortage of Personal Protective Equipment.  Items such as gloves, masks and face shields were in scarce supply.  Leveraging its position as the dominant global manufacturer, China utilised its PPE production facilities to support its foreign policy goals.   

China-based PPE manufacturers, including N95 mask producers, were nationalised so supply could be reprioritised for China’s political objectives. This included redirecting PPE supplies to Africa where China’s belt and road initiative investments were being undermined by China’s plummeting standing because African leaders and citizens blamed China for the source and spread of Covid.   

Notwithstanding its PPE diplomatic charm offensive, opinions of China collapsed across advanced economies. According to Pew research, unfavourable perceptions of China are at all-time highs. This was likely in part because, in sending PPE to Africa, China sold low quality masks and faulty test kits to Europe. 

For Australia, despite closed borders and near economic and social normality, significant national security risks are emerging.   

As various Covid vaccines have been developed, China has replicated the previously successful health diplomacy strategies of advanced economies and has sold and donated around the same number of vaccines that it has distributed to its own citizens.    

Despite China’s Sinovac CoronaVac vaccine low efficacy rate of 50.4%, China has shipped its vaccines to more than 80 countries, including giving free vaccines to 53 poor and developing nations. Meanwhile advanced economies, Australia included, are pursuing ‘me first’ vaccination policies. For poor and developing nations, a sub-effective Chinese vaccine is still better than a non-available Western vaccine.   

This Chinese diplomatic strategy is already bearing fruit. 

In November 2020, a prominent member of the Brazilian parliament and the son of the President announced Brazil would build a secure 5G system, one of the largest 5G networks in the world, “without Chinese espionage. This was a clear signal Huawei was to be banned from participating. Then in February 2021, following a Chinese diplomatic offensive coupled with its acquisition of Chinese vaccines, Brazil announced its 5G system rules would permit Huawei’s participation.   

In April 2021 China offered to supply millions of doses of its vaccine to Paraguay. Paraguay is one of the very few nations that recognised Taiwan’s sovereignty but China’s provision of vaccines was conditioned on severing diplomatic ties with Taiwan renouncing recognition of Taiwanese sovereignty.   

Not limited to poor and developing nations, China has supplied its vaccines to strategically important nations, including in Australia’s backyard. 

In April 2021 China committed to provide 200,000 of its vaccines to Papua New Guinea, whereas Australia donated 8,500 AstraZeneca doses to vaccinate frontline health workers. And in May 2021, Indonesia undertook joint naval exercises with China off the coast of Jakarta. According to China’s People’s Liberation Army, these exercises “help improve coordination between the warships, deepen professional communication, enhance mutual trust and cooperation”. It is unlikely a coincidence that nearly half of Indonesia’s vaccines have come from China. 

Australians are quibbling over the speed of vaccine deployment and the brand of vaccines for domestic use while China is providing vaccines to Australia’s close and strategically important neighbours. 

But it is not just China’s vaccine diplomacy that is contributing to a reshaping of world order. Poor policy choices of developed nations are also contributing. 

As India suffers from a catastrophic Covid wave, the administration of President Biden has refused to lift its embargo on vaccine ingredient exports despite pleas from Indian drug manufacturers. In doing so, the US is demonstrating its priorities to a key ally and member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialog. This is clearly a bad signal to send to India, which is as a member of the Quad, with America, Japan and Australia, and is meant to be a key element of the US Government’s ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific. 

The closure of Australia’s borders to minimise local Covid infections should not result in a closure of the eyes of our political and security leaders to the significant risks emerging. China is seeking to affect a regional power shift as Australia and other developed nations seem oblivious.   

Covid-19 will not be the last disaster we will face in our lifetimes. Particularly in our region, Australia should work to ensure that our friends and neighbours have access to a diversity of vaccine supply so that they are not beholden to the Chinese Communist Party.    

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