China's so-called vaccine diplomacy is well-received in much of Southeast Asia. Image: Twitter

MANILA – In America’s latest bid to shore up regional support against China, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an eleventh-hour visit to key Southeast Asian nations ahead of next week’s US elections.

But the top US envoy’s efforts fell largely on deaf ears in Indonesia, where there is an obstinate aversion to strategic alignments as well as a deep commitment to pragmatic engagement with China, including for Covid-19 vaccines.

While the US seeks to build a coalition against China over its South China Sea aggression, Beijing is leveraging its first mover’s advantage out of the health crisis into a “vaccine diplomacy” campaign.

Beijing’s health drive appears to be resonating among the region’s worst-hit nations. This month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi conducted a regional tour, with stops in Thailand and Malaysia, where he touted the reliability of China’s vaccines.

Three Chinese companies have committed to providing 250 million doses of vaccines to Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest and perhaps worst pandemic-hit nation. 

In contrast, Pompeo arrived in Jakarta largely empty-handed and left the same. According to reports, US officials failed to convince their Indonesian counterparts to grant the US Air Force landing and refueling rights for its P-8 Poseidon aircraft surveillance missions on China in adjacent waters.

According to Dino Patti Djalal, a veteran Indonesian diplomat, “China is smartly and strategically using the Covid crisis to advance their [regional] relationships.”

China is recovering quickly from the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: AFP/Hector Retamal

“They are striking that theme they have always been pushing: When there are difficulties, it is China, not the US, that you can rely on,” the former Indonesian ambassador to Washington said.

That’s a matter of perception. US Assistant Secretary of State David Stillwell recently announced that the US has donated 1,000 ventilators as part of a $12.5 million coronavirus aid package to Indonesia.

But US efforts seem a drop in the ocean in a country with more than 400,000 confirmed Covid-19 infections and which is also grappling with its worst economic crisis since the 1990s. 

State-backed Chinese companies, meanwhile, entered third phase vaccine tests in the second and third quarters of this year, including trials among officials and soldiers.

They are now jointly developing vaccines with neighbors including Indonesia, a potential hub for regional production and distribution of the drug.

The US, on the other hand, looks like a less reliable public health partner. America is now confronting a second wave of infections, with new cases hit a daily record of 88,521 on Thursday.

America’s stubborn struggle to impose effective lockdowns and observe basic social distancing measures has caused major reputational damage to the self-reputed champion of the free world.

Southeast Asia’s most prominent leaders, including the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, are both banking on the early arrival of Chinese vaccines to alleviate their twin health and economic crises.

Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte takes questions while wearing surgical mask on April 8, 2020. Photo: Facebook

On multiple occasions, the Filipino president has cited China (along with Russia) as his nation’s likely primary sources of vaccines, with shipments expected to arrive before the end of the year. At the same time, he has criticized Western nations for their perceived as lack of action and reliability.

“We will give preference to Russia and China provided that their vaccine is as good as any other in the market,” he said in a recent national address while emphasizing his country’s commitment to acquire vaccines as early as possible.

He praised China for its generous terms, including the suspension of advance payments and a vaccine “reservation fee” it apparently has asked from other nations interested in procuring its jabs.  

“They want you to finance their research and the perfection of the vaccine…They want cash advance before they deliver the vaccine. If that’s the case, then all of us will die,” the Filipino leader said complaining about the West.

Indonesia’s Widodo is similarly betting on China in the vaccine stakes and pushed for a swift acquisition of vaccines via Presidential Regulation No. 99/2020.

Indonesia’s Research and Technology Ministry is overseeing a joint effort by the nation’s leading institutions to develop a homemade “Merah Putih” Covid-19 vaccine.

State-owned enterprises such as Bio Farma and Kimia Farma reportedly can store up to 123 million out of 352 million doses needed to universally jab the world’s fourth most populous nation, with the former co-developing a Covid-10 vaccine together with China’s Sinovac Biotech.

Indonesians on a boat destined for remote islands in the city of Batam, Riau Islands, Indonesia, on July 29, 2020. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/Teguh Prihatna

Human trials are already underway in Bandung, West Java, as the Indonesian government explores other partnership schemes with Chinese manufacturers Sinopharm and CanSino Biologics.

As early as late-June, the Tianjin-based CanSino Biologics pharmaceutical company, in partnership with the People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences, started human trials.

SinoPharm, meanwhile, has signed a deal to deliver 300 million doses to Indonesians before the end of 2021.

Perceptions matter in the global race for a vaccine. In Wuhan, the initial epicenter of the pandemic, large-scale gatherings including a music concert that went viral online have led to speculation of successful mass vaccine trials in the Chinese city.

Despite China’s apparent strides, it’s “vaccine diplomacy” could still backfire, critics say. For starters, the country has come under heavy criticism for its initial handling of the crisis, with widespread accusations of a coverup and early downplaying of the disease’s contagious threat.

A Pew Research Center survey published in early October showed record-high increases in anti-China sentiment worldwide. In the Philippines, a recent survey showed that 77% of respondents believe “China should be held accountable for not immediately sharing their information on Covid-19 to the world.” 

In contrast to its Western rivals, including the US, China faces what some see as a “dual responsibility” and expectation to provide much-needed assistance to neighboring countries as the pandemic’s initial source.

Not everyone in Southeast Asia is sold on Chinese vaccines and its medical diplomacy. Image: AFP

Growing resentment against China has also coincided with intensified scrutiny of its vaccine diplomacy drive and emerging concerns over the safety of Chinese-made vaccines amid quality control concerns about its pharmaceutical industry.

Pandu Riono, a leading Indonesian epidemiologist,  has warned of premature reliance on Chinese-made vaccines. He called on the Widodo administration not “to jump to do a deal and decide with China only. We should wait and seriously work with the WHO.”

Meanwhile, the US is moving amid trial hic-cups and intense regulatory scrutiny to develop at least three vaccines in the coming months. Unlike China, US pharmaceutical companies enjoy credibility and trust worldwide, including in Southeast Asia where they have decades of experience.

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