By Alexander Smith/NBC News
Washington April 12: Although Beijing and Moscow deny it, experts say they are beginning to see how the strategy of selling or donating their vaccines abroad is allowing them to expand their influence.
It didn’t take long for the seeds of Russia’s vaccine diplomacy in South America to show green shoots. Soon after Moscow sold 5.2 million doses of its Sputnik V vaccine, President Vladimir Putin was on the phone with his Bolivian counterpart, Luis Arce, in late January, discussing topics as varied as building a nuclear power plant to lithium mining and gas reserves.
In North Africa, Algeria didn’t pay a dime for the Chinese vaccines that arrived in March. What it did offer was to support Beijing’s “core interests” and oppose interference in its “internal affairs” — language China has used to defend against criticism over Hong Kong’s autonomy and allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, which it denies.
Although China and Russia deny it, experts say they are beginning to see how Beijing’s and Moscow’s strategy of selling or donating their vaccines abroad is greasing the wheels of their international relationships and allowing them to expand their influence throughout the world.
It’s a development that should cause grave concern for the United States and other democracies, according to former U.S. ambassadors and other ex-diplomats.
What rankles these observers is not that China and Russia are winning at vaccine diplomacy, it’s that the U.S. and others aren’t even in the game yet. Washington and its allies have instead chosen to prioritize their domestic populations, keeping most doses at home and causing resentment abroad.
“The United States, until recently, was the go-to country for any major health disaster,” said Thomas Shannon, the former U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, the third-highest-ranking role in the State Department. “So to pull itself off the playing field is very disconcerting.”
Shannon, who served in the administrations of presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump and was ambassador to Brazil from 2010 to 2013, said Trump’s decision to step back from the international Covid-19 response has sent a “chilling and worrisome message to many countries that find themselves at a very vulnerable moment.”
Unless that changes under President Joe Biden and into the future, “the world will realize we’re not a reliable partner, and that would be dangerous for us,” he said. “I believe it’s something that will be remembered.”
Few would argue that sending lifesaving vaccines around the world is a bad thing.
“We’re not talking arms sales here,” said John Campbell, who was the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007. “We’re talking about something citizens around the world want and desperately need.”
Indeed both countries deny exporting vaccines for diplomatic gain.
This idea is “extremely narrow-minded,” Guo Weimin, spokesman for the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, said at its annual meeting last month. President Xi Jinping has vowed to make vaccines a “global public good.”
Similarly, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said that Russia merely believes “there should be as many doses of vaccines as possible” so “all countries, including the poorest, have the opportunity to stop the pandemic.”
After a cloud of skepticism, recent studies suggest that the state-made vaccines, China’s Sinopharm and Russia’s Sputnik V program, are as effective as others. They have been approved by dozens of regulators.
Of the near 250 million vaccine doses it had produced so far, China has sent 118 million to 49 countries, according to Airfinity, a pharmaceuticals analytics company based in London.
Russia has sent vaccines to 22 different countries, and India has exported or donated 64 million of the nearly 150 million shots it has produced, according to Airfinity, which some experts interpret as New Delhi’s attempt to counterbalance the vaccine diplomacy overtures of its regional rival, Beijing.
By contrast, the U.S. has delivered just over 200 million vaccine doses to is own population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It has agreed to share only a tiny number — around 4 million AstraZeneca-Oxford University shots that it wasn’t using anyway — with Mexico and Canada.
The West’s own vaccine nationalism has created a vacuum in which lower-and middle-income countries have been unable to get access to shots. And Beijing and Moscow have been only too happy to step in.
The majority of Chinese and Russian vaccine doses have gone “where Western powers and Russia and China have been competing for years for more influence,” said Agathe Demarais the global forecasting director at the Economist Intelligence Unit, a research group based in London.
Statistics from the Chinese Foreign Ministry show that more than 200,000 overseas Chinese citizens have been inoculated so far since Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced the action plan on March 7.