The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the daily life of people around the world and changed the shape of global politics. Health diplomacy, which had attracted limited attention compared to political, economic, and military diplomacy, has gained new importance over the last year. Unlike during previous crises, however, rising powers are playing increasingly central roles in health diplomacy, especially in the developing world. China and India, in particular, have been proactive in using medical supplies and, more recently, vaccines to advance their diplomatic goals.
Being the country where the Covid-19 virus first broke out, China initiated vaccine research in January 2020, before cases appeared in many other countries. Vaccine development teams featured public-private partnerships that combined state research institutions’ resources and pharmaceutical companies’ manufacturing capabilities.
China has a global ambition to provide vaccines to developing countries across regions as it aspires to become an economic and technology giant with unrivaled R&D as well as manufacturing capabilities. To achieve this goal, it has invested heavily in vaccine development, translational clinical trials, and marketing, which ultimately won orders for hundreds of millions of doses. China’s vaccine diplomacy, just like its “go out” policy and Belt and Road Initiative, also aims to export jobs, technology, and supply chains.
Unlike military and resource competition, however, this competition to provide public goods offers more opportunity than risks to regional countries. Neither China’s nor India’s vaccine aid or sales are exclusive, and smaller countries are better off by diversifying their vaccine supply and hedging between powers to get more doses. This dynamic has important implications for the new normal in Asia.