Beyond the proliferation of the Chinese vaccine

Enters Sinopharm

On 14 January, Hungary’s government signed an agreement with the giant company Sinopharm in order to purchase millions of doses of the Chinese CoronaVac (CCV) (“In EU first, Sinopharm Coronavirus vaccine approved by Hungary”, Nikkei Asia, 31 January, 2021). One week before, it had made a deal with Russia to buy doses of the vaccine Sputnik V.

Turkey, Serbia, and Bosnia, for example, signed similar agreements (Hamdi Firat Buyuk, Danijel Kovacevic, Edit Inotal and Milica Stojanovic, “Turkey, Serbia, Bosnia, Hungary put trust in Russian, Chinese vaccines”, Balkan Insight, January 22, 2021). Their health authorities are approving the Russian and Chinese vaccines, while deploring the too slow imports of the Pfizer vaccine by the EU.

On 10 December 20, Egypt received its first cargo of Sinopharm vaccine (“Egypt starts vaccinating medics with Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccine”, Xinhuanet, 25 January 2021). On 9 January 21, Jordan similarly approved the Chinese vaccine (“Coronavirus: Jordan approves China’s Sinopharm vaccine”, Al Arabya News, 10 January 2021). Then, on 20 January, Iraq’s health authorities followed the same path (Ahmed Asmar, “Iraq, Egypt purchase Covid-19 vaccine”, Anadolu News, 25 December 2021). The same day, the United Arab Emirates approved it.

In Lebanon and Morocco, governments are also buying dozens of millions of doses of the Chinese vaccine. In Iran, health authorities are importing the Russian Sputnik V, while exploring the possibility to buy the Chinese CoronaVac (CCV) (Reid Standish, “Appeal grows for Russian, Chinese serums, as Western vaccine effort get bogged down”, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, February 4, 2021).

Its neighbour, Pakistan, follows a more diversified approach. The Pakistani government approved both the Chinese Sinovac and the Russian Sputnik V for people under the age of 60. However, Pakistan also ordered the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine in order to inject people aged 60 and older (Asif Shazad, “Pakistan to approve Russian Sputnik Covid-19 vaccine for emergency use – Pakistan has not yet rolled out a vaccination campaign, waiting for the first shipment of the Sinopharm vaccine at the end of this month”, Zawya, 25 January 2021).

The emergence of a new pattern… and its correlated risks?

A pattern emerges here. The countries of the Middle East and the Balkans that are buying the Chinese and Russian vaccines are members of the “Chinese Belt and Road initiative / New Silk Road”.

In other words, as we shall see, numerous member-states of the Chinese Belt and Road initiative are going to vaccinate their population or part of it with the CCV. This fact bestows new layers of geopolitical meaning to this “Health Silk Road” (HSR). In fact, the HSR appears as a mean to insure the continuity of the countries that are part of the B&R.

It also appears as a driver of the “international Covid order” that Hélène Lavoix identifies and defines (“The emergence of a Covid-19 International Order”, The Red Team Analysis Society, June 15, 2020).

Then, we shall see how the international distribution of the Chinese vaccine may turn China into a strange new kind of “sanitary power”. Reciprocally, China needs to support the health of its partner countries.

However, the Health Silk Road is also potentially dangerous for China, because it could backfire, if the Chinese CoronaVac was not efficient enough, especially on the British, South-African and Brazilian variants that are rapidly spreading .

From the “Health Silk Road” to the “Belt and Road Initiative”

Since Fall 2020, the Chinese medical supplies exports are also dubbed as the “Health Silk Road” (HSR). As it happens, this notion of “Health Silk Road” has been a dimension of the “Belt & Road initiative” since 2015 (Elizabeth Chen, “Chinese vaccine diplomacy revamps the Health Silk Road amid Covid-19”, The Jamestown Foundation, 12 November 2020). 

At first, it was a fluid and inclusive notion. It was aiming at qualifying bilateral talks and deals about the exports of Chinese traditional medicine to B&R members. But the recent exports of the Sinopharm vaccine literally transcend this notion.

From the Covid-19 pandemic to the full Health Silk Road

The “Health Silk Road” truly materialised with the transition from a Covid-19 Chinese epidemic to a worldwide pandemic, during the first quarter of 2020 (Hélène Lavoix, “Dynamics of Contagion and Covid-19 Second wave”, The Red Team Analysis Society, June 3, 2020).

Those exports travel along the land and sea transport infrastructures that incarnate the B&R (Jean-Michel Valantin, “China and the New Silk Road – From oil wells to the moon … and beyond”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, July 6 2015). Since March 2020, those exports are notably made of masks, gloves, surgical gowns, pharmaceutics, etc.. They reach more than 120 countries. Among them many are members of the Belt and Road initiative, such as Pakistan, Egypt or Italy (Elizabeth Chen, ibid).

Then, as we write this article, numerous African countries are considering buying the Chinese vaccine. This decision process is gearing up because of the difficulty for African countries to buy significant quantities of the American and Americano-German vaccines, such as Pfizer-BioNTech’s and Moderna’s. This is the consequence of the massive purchases made by the U.S. and the EU (John Campbell, “Vaccine Diplomacy: China and Sinopharm in Africa”, Council on Foreign Relations, January 6, 2021).

The Chinese vaccine as a “global public good”

As it happens, China proposes massive discounts on its Sinopharm vaccine. This follows the May address by president Xi Jinping, stating that Covid-19 vaccines should be a “global public good” (“China’s Covid-19 vaccine to become global public good when available: Xi”, Xinhuanet, 2020-05-18).

Consequently, China would propose it at an affordable price. This offer is all the more alluring that the Chinese vaccine is the result of the decades-old vaccination method of injection of an inactivated virus. Thus, it does not need the impressive logistics that necessitates the recent ARN messenger technologies (Hélène Lavoix, “Covid-19 Vaccinations, Hope or Mirage?”, The Red Team Analysis Society, January 27, 2021).

We must also note that more than 42 African countries out of 54 are part, at a degree or another, of the B&R. As such, they integrate the multiple transportation infrastructures that constitute the different segments of the “Road” (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Chinese New Silk Road in East Africa”, The Red team Analysis Society, 30 January 2017). The development of these infrastructures is making it easier for the countries to import their purchases of medical supplies from China.

One may note that the multiple medical supplies that China sends to African, Arab, Asian and European countries since March 2020 are obviously going hand in hand with a massive diplomatic and “soft power” effort. It was especially true during the 2020 spring. That was when the U.S. Donald Trump administration was particularly vocal about the responsibility of China in the pandemic (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Chimerica 3: the Geopolitics of the US-China Turbo-Recession”, The Red Team Analysis Society, June 29, 2020).

From the Health Silk Road to China’s geo-economic security

The HSR and the Covid-19 World

However, we must keep in mind that the “Health Silk Road” is not “simply” a geopolitical opportunity for China, forcefully seized by Beijing in the midst of a profound global crisis. As it happens, it is a necessity for the “Middle Kingdom”, because its rapid and mammoth development generates immense needs.

In the context of the global pandemic and, as Hélène Lavoix puts it, of the emergent international Covid-19 order, the “Health Silk Road” appears to many commentators as a diplomatic tool. It may even be a new form of soft power (Hélène Lavoix, “The emergence of a Covid-19 International Order”, The Red Team Analysis Society, June 15, 2020).

Indeed, this international system of exports is a powerful display of the Chinese industrial and biopharmaceutical capabilities. Furthermore, the Sinopharm vaccine provides China with a formidable mean to create a sphere of “health geopolitics”.

The Chinese CoronaVac and China’s geo-economic security

However, from a Chinese point of view, the “Health Silk Road” has a deeper geopolitical function.

Indeed, it is an extension of the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI). This grand strategy aims at ensuring a constant flow of energy resources, commodities and products towards China. As it happens, those flows are necessary to the current industrial and capitalist development of the 1,4 billion strong “Middle Kingdom” (Jean-Michel Valantin, “China and the New Silk Road – From oil wells to the moon … and beyond”, The Red Team Analysis Society, July 6 2015).

Since 2013, China has been deploying this “initiative”. Its success attracts the interest and commitment of numerous African, Asian, European and Middle Eastern countries.

The B&R is de facto a new expression of the Chinese philosophical and strategic thought (Valantin, “China and the New Silk Road: the Pakistani strategy”, The Red Team Analysis, May 18, 2015). It is grounded in an understanding of the spatial dimension of China.

The HSR as a “safe bubble”

In this civilizational context, space is conceived not only as a surface, but also as a support. The Chinese influence and power spreads from this support to the “outside”. It also allows the Middle Kingdom to “aspirate” what it needs from the “outside” to the “inside” (Quynh Delaunay, Naissance de la Chine moderne, L’Empire du Milieu dans la globalisation, 2014).

This is why we qualify some spaces as being “useful” to the deployment of the BRI. It is also why each “useful space” is related, and “useful” to other “useful spaces”. In the same dynamic, the different countries involved in the B&R deployment are “useful spaces” for the Chinese “Initiative”. 

Thus, the Chinese vaccine could turn the members of the “B&R” into a chain of what Hélène Lavoix qualifies as “safe bubbles”. Thus, these “safe bubbles” would define the new international hierarchy of the “Covid-19 World” (Hélène Lavoix, “The emergence of a Covid-19 International Order”, Ibid.).

The Health Silk Road: grand strategy and high strategic risk

Grand strategy and the creation of useful spaces

Hence, the string of member-states of the “Health Silk Road / B&R” vaccine distribution system constitutes a “geographic useful space” for China. As a result, supporting the health condition of these countries is of paramount importance for China. Indeed, China needs its partners to be “in good health” in order to answer the gigantic “China’s need”. Thus, the B&R member-states will remain “useful spaces”. As such, they will be able to maintain the flow of resources that the “China’s Empire of Need” attracts.

In other terms, the “Vaccine Silk Road” is also the equivalent of an international life support system for China.  This means that the vaccine is now part of a new definition of national security, or national safety (Hélène Lavoix, “Covid-19 Vaccinations, Hope or Mirage?”, The Red Team Analysis Society, January 27, 2021).

It also means that the international system of interdependency it creates is all the more important in a time of deep geopolitical crisis between China and the U.S. This system may help to alleviate the effects of this crisis. And reciprocally, providing vaccines to Arab, African, Asian and European countries will also reinforce the international legitimacy of China.

Backfire and the paradoxical logic of the Chinese vaccine success

However, the Health Silk Road is also carrying a high potential of backfiring. As it happens, the Chinese vaccine needs to be sufficiently efficient to contain the pandemic in the different nations that buy it (note that the latter shows mixed results, including a low 50.4% effectiveness, Smriti Mallapaty, “China COVID vaccine reports mixed results — what does that mean for the pandemic?“, Nature, 15 January 2021). It also has to be efficient against the new variants, especially the British, South-African and Brazilian ones.

If not, the “Health Silk Road” may become a case study in “the paradoxical logic of strategy”.

Indeed, developing a project, be it political, commercial, military, or of any other nature, creates the emergence of situations that are driven by a paradoxical logic: the implementation of a given project attracts opposing forces, which can even use violence, or difficulties. Those opposing forces threaten with failure the very project that created them (Edward Luttwak, Strategy, the Logic of War and Peace, 2002).

Failure, in this case, would have several intertwined dimensions. It would mean a continuous state of pandemic for the concerned countries, and probably a high level of resentment. A weakening of the international status of China would follow that would certainly become an opportunity for its adversaries, especially the U.S..

And, at a fundamental level, it would undercut the ability of numerous countries to answer the mammoth “Chinese needs”. This would have massively dangerous economic, social and political repercussions in China. Indeed, the current regime could loose “the Mandate of Heaven”, i.e. its legitimacy.

When a crisis of legitimacy happen, the Chinese society usually knows very profound and violent disruptions, while the regime topples (see John King Fairbank, Merle Goldman, China, a New History, Enlarged Edition, Harvard University Press, 1998; Andrea Janku, “‘Heaven-Sent Disasters’ in Late Imperial China: The Scope of the State and Beyond,” in Christ of Mauch and Christian Pfister, eds., Natural Disasters, Cultural Responses: Case Studies Toward a Global Environmental History, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books), 233–64; Chris Courtney, “The Dragon King and the 1931 Wuhan Flood: Religious Rumors and Environmental Disasters in Republican China,” in Twentieth-Century China, April 2015 and Cohen, Paul A., Paul A. Townsend, History in Three Keys, Columbia University Press, 1997).

In this context, we shall (soon) have to see the geopolitical role that Russia and its Sputnik V vaccine are going to play alongside China, in the midst of the evolving pandemic.

Published by Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris)

Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defense sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy. He is the author of "Menace climatique sur l’ordre mondial" (Climatic threat on the world order), "Ecologie et gouvernance mondiale" (Ecology and world governance), "Guerre et Nature, l’Amérique prépare la guerre du climat, "(War and nature: America gets ready for climate war) and of "Hollywood, the Pentagon and Washington".

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