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Yes, of Course, China’s Using Vaccines to Boost Its Soft Power

A man wearing a face mask holds the Chinese national flag as he looks on while workers offload an Air Zimbabwe airplane with a donation of 200,000 doses of the Sinopharm coronavirus vaccine from China. Jekesai NJIKIZANA / AFP

A lot of people in the U.S. and Europe are really struggling to get their heads around the implications of China’s increasingly successful vaccine distribution push in the developing world.

On the one hand, there’s often (but not always) a begrudging acknowledgment that their own societies are on the wrong side of history on this issue. The fact that wealthy countries are indeed hoarding the world’s vaccine supply for themselves, sometimes ordering well beyond what their own populations need, is shameful. Truly, truly shameful.

So, when one considers that China has actually exported more vaccines to poor countries than it’s allocated for its own people at home, well, that’s an awkward reality for Beijing’s critics in the U.S. and Europe. Here, the Chinese have the upper hand and based on what we saw yesterday with Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s speech at the UN Security Council, they’re going to bludgeon Americans and Europeans on this point for as long as they can.

And given the fact that the State Department can’t even vaccinate its own staff abroad and is literally begging other countries for jabs, well, it’ll be a while before the U.S. is going to be able to blunt that attack.

Then there’s the suggestion that the Chinese are using vaccines to advance diplomatic or political ambitions… as if that’s unexpected or even a bad thing. The news narrative goes something like this: the Chinese aren’t altruistic with these donations, there’s an agenda even if it’s not always apparent.

What’s so intellectually dishonest about that argument is that it implies that U.S., European or Japanese aid, for example, is conducted altruistically and without any political motivations — which is absurd. Aid and relief policies have always been inherently political acts, as NYU scholar William Easterly has eloquently explained in detail over many decades.

Of course, the Chinese are using their advantage in vaccine production and distribution to enhance their soft power in the Global South. Why wouldn’t they? They’d be stupid not to.

That this actually needs explaining is a bit strange, but that’s the way it is. Nonetheless, let’s be clear that this is what hardball, competitive geopolitics looks like, and until the West actually comes up with an alternative to the Chinese vaccine offer in the Global South, the U.S. and Europe will fall further behind in the soft power race and no amount of sanctimony will change that. 

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