A Chinese team, led by PLA senior bioengineer Major General Chen Wei, has worked almost around the clock since late January to develop a vaccine candidate, which is now in third-stage human trial. Photo: China News Service

Beijing is stepping up its medical supplies diplomacy but there are signs that its offer of Covid-19 vaccines to Southeast Asian neighbors has strings attached.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Monday assured his counterparts from Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Burma they would get priority when deciding the foreign recipients of Beijing’s largesse.

Li said at the third Mekong River Cooperation Conference that Beijing would reserve substantial doses for Southeast Asian nations or share with them vaccine formulas and ingredients.

State media did not flesh out Beijing’s offer but some journalists in China as well as reports in Hong Kong and Singaporean newspapers have revealed that Beijing’s generosity has conditions.

Citing a source privy to Li’s meeting with ASEAN leaders, a Xinhua reporter noted on his Weibo account that Li had made ASEAN’s backing for the World Health Organization a prerequisite for these donations.

Beijing, which has showered its neighbors across Southeast Asia and allies in Africa with masks and hazmat gear, is seeking to assume a leading role at the United Nations organization after Washington backed off on its advocacy of the international body.

Beijing is also rallying support for a WHO-coordinated global response to the evolving global pandemic, while steering carefully to sidestep international pressure for an independent probe into the origins of the virus, which first cropped up in the central city of Wuhan at the end of 2019. 

Hong Kong’s Ming Pao Daily and Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao both reported that Beijing had planned to offer its vaccines in exchange for concessions from these countries on other thorny issues, in particular the long-simmering row over China’s cluster of hydro-power projects in the southwestern Yunnan province that straddle the upper reaches of the Mekong.

Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia have long attributed the retreating water levels of the Mekong to the many Chinese dams that harness the largest international river in Southeast Asia. 

Xinhua, however, quoted the Chinese premier as saying that on top of the joint bid to fight the virus, Beijing would fund research and treatment programs on water-borne infectious disease in the region and start sharing the Mekong’s hydrological information with the countries on the continental portion of the ASEAN.

Li also floated the idea of setting up a public health fund under the “1+5” China-Mekong Nations cooperation mechanism for such donations, according to Xinhua. 

Beijing has also commit itself to medical and vaccine aid for Africa once Chinese pharmaceutical companies can churn out enough vaccines by the end of the year.

Researchers are involved in what is becoming a nationalistic race to develop a vaccine for Covid-19. Image: Facebook

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated the goodwill for the continent this month during talks with Morocco’s foreign minister. Wang said Beijing would never seek to profiteer from the global demand for Covid-19 vaccines despite its “astronomical outlay” on research and human trials. 

“The Chinese vaccines will be global public goods and we will give priority to African countries like Morocco once we can ramp up production at the end of the year,” said Wang.

Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed when addressing a WHO emergency meeting in May that Beijing would share its vaccines and formulas with other developing counties, on top of US$2 billion in aid to the developing world, in particular Africa, to fight the virus and reopen their economies. 

China has reputedly assured Pakistan, one of its closest allies, of reliable supplies of no fewer than 40 million doses. The same pledges have also been made to Afghanistan and Nepal, as well as to the Philippines as a tacit reward after Rodrigo Duterte shot down Washington’s plan to redeploy troops back to his country. 

The population of all these countries throughout Southeast Asia and Africa covered by Beijing’s pledges is roughly two billion. 

Beijing will also very likely offer vaccines to Hong Kong and Macau. 

Though it remains to be seen how China’s vaccine largesse will be received overseas, its donation pledges have raised eyebrows among observers and ordinary Chinese about the country’s production capacity and whether Beijing will ship vaccines overseas before its own people can get at least one jab. 

Still, state media including the Global Times insist that such pledges can also be an indication that Beijing is confident about the safety and efficacy of its vaccines. 

Meanwhile, China National Pharmaceutical Group (SinoPharm), the state-owned drugmaker spearheading vaccine development and trials, said this week that initial doses would be widely available in November and December to first inoculate medical and essential workers. The company could produce at least 200 million doses within a year. 

The group is speeding up its third-stage human trial in Argentina as it cannot find enough Covid-19 patients and virus carriers at home after Beijing’s lockdowns and border closures effectively suppressed the epidemic since March.  

SinoPharm president Liu Jingzhen also told CCTV that the retail price for two doses would be about 1,000 yuan (US$145). 

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