A staff member displays samples of a Covid-19 inactivated vaccine at Sinovac Biotech in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua/Facebook/Zhang Yuwei

Beijing is launching a charm offensive to dole out its upcoming Covid-19 vaccines to neighbors still in the grip of the plague, after China’s image was tarnished by the emergence of the virus in the city of Wuhan. 

Southeastern Asian nations are set to become the first recipients, starting from as early as next month. By that time, Chinese drug makers will have wrapped up the overseas final trials of their vaccine candidates for safety and efficacy. 

Foreign Minister Wang Yi recommitted China to donation and sharing programs earlier this month, capping his whistle-stop visits to several ASEAN nations including Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore with face-to-face talks with senior officials from Indonesia and the Philippines in the southwestern province of Yunnan.

Beijing is anxious to shore up relations since the contagion dragged Beijing’s name and cooperation programs into disrepute. 

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, right, with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Bangkok. Photo: Handout

Beijing also wants the world to see it make good on its pledges of supplying homegrown vaccines as “global public goods,” after President Xi Jinping assured the developing world of Beijing’s help when addressing a United Nations General Assembly on Covid-19 last month. 

In August, Premier Li Keqiang underscored vaccine collaboration in mending ties with ASEAN to tide the bloc over. Li teased observers with hints about possible vaccine donations for Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. 

Earlier this month in Tengchong, Yunnan, Wang met Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s envoy, and it was revealed by Hong Kong’s Ming Pao daily and Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao that Beijing had agreed to offer no fewer than 100,000 doses starting from November to the most populous country in ASEAN that also has the highest caseload in the region.

Beijing is also said to have set aside batches of 15-20 million doses primed for Indonesia in 2021, provided that Chinese pharmaceutical companies can crank out more next year. 

Wang is quoted by the Lianhe Zaobao as saying that with its manufacturing capacity and China’s sharing of ingredients and technology, Indonesia could become the region’s chief supplier of vaccines.   

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, the Indonesian President’s special envoy, in Tengchong city, Yunnan province. Photo: Handout

Wang also received Filipino Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin in Yunnan, after Rodrigo Duterte urged Xi to share vaccines and volunteered to back down on the country’s territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea. 

Yet Zhang Mingliang, a professor with the Guangzhou-based Jinan University’s Center for Southeast Asia Studies, said that, contrary to some interpretation that Beijing’s vaccines could come with a hook at the end and that recipients like the Philippines must yield ground on its South China Sea stance, Beijing was “not that naive” to hope that its gesture of solidarity and vaccines could silence or even proselytize adamant South China Sea claimants like the Philippines.

“Beijing is pragmatic and its sharing and donations may not impact on specific issues like the South China Sea or Belt and Road projects,” Zhang said.

“The best effect these vaccines may deliver is to give substance to Beijing’s goodwill when the United States tries to drive a wedge between China and ASEAN.”

Zhang said recipients would at best tone town their rhetoric and not rile Beijing too much as territorial claims take a back seat amid the epidemic.     

Zhang said Beijing’s offer of help may be seen as a bid to atone for its perceived cover-up and the initially botched bid to contain the outbreak hitting Wuhan in December and January, since many, including people across Southeast Asia, believed the respiratory disease was from China. 

What has been omitted in Chinese state media’s reports about Jakarta’s gratitude is a statement from the country’s foreign minister vowing no changes to its South China Sea stance, as well as theories spreading among some Indonesians that Chinese drugmakers like SinoPharm could want more Indonesians to get jabs for a secret human trial to verify vaccine safety. 

Also, the only major ASEAN country that is glaringly missing on Wang Yi’s itinerary is Vietnam, with almost no official exchanges between the two Communist nations since the pandemic erupted. Beijing is understandably incensed by Hanoi’s bid to muster efforts in ASEAN to oppose its moves not only in the South China Sea but along the Mekong River basin.

Meanwhile, Beijing appears to be undecided over which of its more pliant neighbors should get vaccines for free, and how much it should charge for the transfer of vaccine formula and ingredients. 

A lot will be at stake once Beijing ships its vaccines overseas next month, as any adverse side effects reported in recipient countries could be a hefty blow to its vaccine diplomacy. Beijing could do little to muzzle overseas media and bashers to stop the spread of the news.  

It is understood that Beijing has gone for the traditional attenuated vaccines developed by SinoPharm as a safer bet. The use of another type, an adenovirus vector vaccine developed by the People’s Liberation Army’s Military Science Academy, would be initially limited to PLA personnel.

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