While Western countries spar over access to the world’s vaccine supply, China and Russia have been busy giving away theirs. This distribution of millions of doses, either for free or cheaply, to low- and middle-income nations has been met with skepticism by leaders in the United States and Europe, many of whom have raised concerns over the safety of the jabs, as well as Beijing’s and Moscow’s motivations for sharing them.
In their telling, Chinese and Russian vaccines lack transparent data about their efficacy, and are being leveraged as a form of soft power to bolster the countries’ global standing. More fundamentally, China and Russia are using their jabs to entrench their presence in parts of the world where they seek greater sway, as part of a “vaccine war of influence.”
All of this is undoubtedly true. But if a war is taking place, the U.S. and Europe have been notably absent, prioritizing their domestic needs instead. This inward focus, coupled with the vaccine nationalism that has seen wealthy countries dominate the available supply, has created an accessibility gap that Beijing and Moscow have proved all too willing to fill. Though U.S. and European leaders might not like it, they are effectively complaining about a problem that they helped create, and, paradoxically, they are undermining their own interests—in fact, Russian and Chinese vaccine diplomacy is helping the West.
Before the pandemic, neither of the two countries was particularly known for vaccine production. But when COVID-19 began spreading, both sensed an opportunity. For China, it was a chance to reshape the narrative so that the country would be remembered as the source not of the pandemic, but of the solutions that brought it to an end. Russia, meanwhile, saw the opportunity to showcase its science and technology. China had produced more than 225 million doses as of March 26, nearly half of which were sent abroad, according to Airfinity, a London-based science-analytics company that tracks global vaccine production. Russia is responsible for 14 million doses, 31 percent of which have been exported elsewhere.
The U.S. has produced just less than a quarter of the world’s vaccine supply, though scarcely any of it has gone beyond its own borders. Of the 164 million doses made in the country, it has agreed to part with only 4 million doses of its AstraZeneca stockpile, which the Biden administration committed to give to its neighbors in Canada and Mexico. Across the Atlantic, Britain and the European Union have also largely been consumed by their domestic needs.
The U.S. and its European partners have contributed billions of dollars to a multilateral initiative aimed at equalizing vaccine distribution around the world, but it guarantees to provide participating countries with only enough doses to cover 20 percent of their population, a far cry from herd immunity.
That’s where China and Russia come in. The pair have supplied vaccines to 49 and 22 countries, respectively, across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Brazil, which is once again the global epicenter of the pandemic, has struck deals securing tens of millions of doses of Russian and Chinese vaccines. Venezuela is relying solely on Russian and Chinese jabs. In the Middle East, even strategic U.S. partners such as Egypt, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates have turned to them for supplies.
For many of these countries, accepting the vaccines isn’t a political decision so much as a public-health one. Czech President Miloš Zeman, who has long sought closer ties with Beijing and Moscow, has been a vocal proponent of using their jabs—a decision he says has less to do with his own foreign policy than with the state of the pandemic in the country, which has the world’s highest COVID-19 death rate per capita. “In a war—which this situation is, though we fight against an invisible enemy—you need to do whatever you can to make it stop,” Zeman told me in an email. “I frankly don’t think that receiving vaccines means losing independence, or any similar repercussions. It’s a business deal, for God’s sake.”
Russia and China are not the only countries engaging in vaccine diplomacy. India and, to a smaller extent, Israel have both sought to export doses to select countries as a means of generating strategic goodwill and furthering their diplomatic interests. The main difference, of course, is that India and Israel aren’t Western adversaries, nor are they using vaccines that haven’t been approved by Western public-health institutions. The West stands to gain from India’s and Israel’s vaccine diplomacy as much as it does from China’s and Russia’s: The distribution of safe and effective vaccines, regardless of where they come from, is vital to ending this global crisis. By bridging the accessibility gap, India and Israel, much like China and Russia, are contributing to that aim.
This isn’t to say that China’s and Russia’s strategies are faultless. U.S. and European leaders have leveled plenty of legitimate criticisms against their vaccine drive, including their aggressive sales tactics, their lack of transparency, and their efforts to undermine trust in other vaccines. But Western countries haven’t offered any alternatives. The U.S. and Britain, both of which have excelled at their vaccine rollout, have committed to sharing their surplus doses only after their needs are met. Though French President Emmanuel Macron has called for the EU to share its doses with countries that need them, the bloc also has its own vaccine shortage to deal with—a crisis that has prompted some of its member states, including Hungary and Slovakia, to appeal to China and Russia for vaccines despite none having EU regulatory approval. As Europe undergoes its third wave of COVID-19, leaders in Germany and Italy are considering doing the same.
China’s and Russia’s vaccine diplomacy isn’t driven by altruism, but whose is? If Russia’s and China’s vaccines are safe and effective as is claimed (Russia’s Sputnik V was found to be 91 percent effective, according to a peer-reviewed report by The Lancet medical journal; China’s state-backed Sinopharm vaccine claims 79 percent efficacy, though Beijing hasn’t been as forthcoming with its trial data), surely they are better alternatives to no vaccine at all? When I put these questions to Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, he said that fears of Moscow and Beijing leveraging their influence over receiving countries are overblown. “We grossly exaggerate the payoff you get from trying to play geopolitics with humanitarian crises,” McFaul said. Plus, “it doesn’t do any good to say that China or Russia are using their vaccines to undermine our interests if you don’t have something else to offer.”
Western countries could yet choose to engage in their own vaccine diplomacy. At a virtual summit this month, leaders of the U.S., Australia, India, and Japan agreed to collaborate on the production of 1 billion doses of the Johnson & Johnson jab by the end of 2022, in an apparent effort to counter China’s vaccine drive in the Indo-Pacific.
But countries that desperately need vaccines are unlikely to be able to wait that long, nor is it necessarily in the world’s interest that they do so. It’s well established that the pandemic won’t meaningfully end anywhere unless it is addressed everywhere—something that can be achieved only through mass vaccination. With global supplies still largely limited, it’s in everyone’s interest that safe and effective doses make it into as many arms as possible, irrespective of who happens to be providing them. In that sense, leaders in the U.S. and Europe should embrace the Chinese and Russian efforts, which—regardless of their intent—serve to help the West too.
“The more people that are vaccinated, the better it is for the health of the American people,” McFaul said. “It’s just that simple.”