The WHO's COVAX scheme aims to secure global access to Covid-19 vaccines. Photo: AFP / STR / NurPhoto

A new term has been added to the Covid-19 dictionary: vaccine diplomacy.

Russia, China and, to a lesser extent, India and Israel have established bilateral deals to provide supplies of vaccines to countries across Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East as part of efforts to secure influence and soft power. However, those efforts are likely only to have marginal success. On the other hand, where they will succeed is in helping expose a seam of hypocrisy on the part of a wide swath of Western nations.

The criticism of this vaccine diplomacy – which comes largely from countries and commentators in the West – sees such efforts to use access to vaccines to strengthen international standing and influence as cynical and unhelpful. But it is worth remembering that we have seen diplomacy and power politics play out over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic from all sides.

Whether efforts by the former Donald Trump administration in the US to “blame” China for the pandemic, or China’s efforts to demonstrate a globally responsible power status by shipping PPE (personal protective equipment) around the world or the recent spat between the European Union and Britain over vaccines, the virus and the response to it have been a space for power diplomacy.

The question is whether the latest engagement in virus global-politics will succeed in generating influence, support and soft power. The role of international aid as a soft-power tool has long been acknowledged.

Generally, soft power is the ability to achieve national goals and interests through attraction and co-option, rather than through command or transaction. As a result, soft power rests in creating a narrative about political values, foreign-policy ambitions and the moral authority of a national government that makes other countries want to support it.

In other words, soft power emerges not from a simple transaction and exchange of goods (we will give you access to the vaccine in return, or as a reward, for a specific end), but from the creation of a narrative about the government that generates an impression of global responsibility and power that is attractive to other powers, and who may therefore be more willing to offer their support when required.

Under this definition, Israel is perhaps using vaccines in a much more transactional way – allegedly financing the cost of vaccines for Syria in exchange for the release of one of its citizens, for example. From a soft-power perspective, Israel might arguably achieve far more by focusing on providing vaccines to Palestine.

For Russia and China, their engagement in vaccine diplomacy is much more focused on enhancing their reputations as responsible global superpowers. In the case of Russia, it is part of a concerted effort to counter narratives that have focused on democracy, human rights and kleptocracy within Russia, and alleged foreign-policy misadventures such as the Salisbury and Alexei Navalny poisonings. 

For China, it forms part of a much longer-standing strategy for establishing itself through international aid and investment, commitments to addressing climate change, and through engagement in global health issues, to reinforce its status as an outward-looking, globally engaged superpower that can rival the US in its moral legitimacy on the world stage.

But is it likely to work? The example of the Scandinavian donors, especially Norway, gives us some clues.

Norway’s role as a global power belies its political and economic size. It is respected and listened to because it has successfully established its reputation for responsible, impartial and morally legitimate action across the world. Its aid budget is among the world’s most generous. Its aid is seen as impartial – focusing on poverty rather than self-interest.

Above all, Norway’s actions are seen as consistent. This suggests that transactional models of vaccine diplomacy are less likely to be successful – friends will remain friends, others will remain cynical about motives.

For Russia and China in particular, there may well be significant soft-power gains to be made. But not necessarily ones that will bring immediate returns, or see significant realignment of global power politics in regions like the Middle East or sub-Saharan Africa (which have long been subject to the competing overtures of Russia, China, the US and EU and newer entries to the soft-power dance of international aid, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia).

Such gains as may come their way could still serve to enhance their reputation and global image in important ways.

But vaccine diplomacy will not affect the world global order, nor threaten the role of the US or European donors in regions like the Middle East or sub-Saharan Africa. Not least because the amounts of vaccine supplied are relatively small, and once the multilateral COVAX (Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access) facility is up and running, it will be from there that global access to vaccines will be secured.

In Africa and the Middle East, Chinese aid (development, health and others) has not supplanted other donors, but added to them. And in reality, many governments have often been wary of Chinese aid and investment, the strings attached perhaps less visible but no less controlling than aid from Western donors.

What has created the space for China and Russia to pursue their vaccine diplomacy is the failure of Western governments to live up to their commitments in supplying vaccines to COVAX.

More important than boosting their own credentials, perhaps, China and Russia’s offer of vaccines also tells global citizens something about the priority of Western governments. But it is mostly these governments, through their inaction, that have shown the truth of some of these narratives of self-interest and putting themselves first, as well as having squandered an opportunity to generate their own soft power.

Countries in the Global South will take their vaccines where they can get them. But as with all aid, promises of friendship may be less firm and long-lasting than those proffering gifts may wish for.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Michael Jennings

Michael Jennings is reader in international development at the School of Oriental and African Studies, or SOAS University of London, where he works on issues related to global health and the politics and history of global development.