Butterfly Effect: Putin, Xi Are Trumping America at Vaccine Diplomacy - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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Vaccines will shape the future of soft diplomacy. And Russia and China are beating the U.S.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

Speaking from his room at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center last Saturday, President Donald Trump briefly turned his personal fight against COVID-19 into a message for the world. “I’m fighting for them, not just in the U.S, I’m fighting for them all over the world,” he said, referring to the “millions of people” who — like him — have been infected by the virus.

Is Trump genuinely positioning himself as a global leader fighting against the pandemic “for them all over the world?” We don’t know. Little about the president is predictable. What is clear though is that the world has left America behind as a storm of vaccine diplomacy shapes the future of soft-power influence.

Trump has sought the early availability of a COVID-19 vaccine in the hope that it might boost his flagging reelection campaign — Democrat Joe Biden currently has an 81 percent chance of winning, according to the latest OZY-0ptimus election forecast. Other major nations and regions — some of which have also sidestepped scientific rigor in their hurry for an immunization shot — are instead engaged in a race of unprecedented proportions for global diplomatic and economic influence via vaccines. The methods some of them are deploying are dangerous, but their strategic logic is simple: For the next few years, countries that can offer coronavirus vaccines to millions around the world will enjoy the same global clout that money and military weaponry have traditionally held.

China, which has three COVID-19 vaccine candidates currently undergoing Phase 3 clinical trials for safety and efficacy, has promised more than 100,000 free doses to Bangladesh. Its leaders have committed to loans worth $1 billion to Latin American and Caribbean nations for them to buy Chinese vaccines. Beijing has also promised early access to its vaccines for several Southeast Asian nations including the Philippines and Cambodia, whose leaders have publicly sung praises of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s leadership. It has also committed to preferential access to its doses for countries that are carrying out Phase 3 trials on its vaccines: Jordan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are testing a vaccine by Sinopharm; Brazil and Indonesia, one by Sinovac; and Pakistan and Russia, the vaccine developed by CanSino Biologics. All three of these Chinese firms are state-owned.

Russia has likewise struck deals with Brazil, Mexico, India and Saudi Arabia to supply them with its controversial vaccine, Sputnik V, which it approved even before Phase 3 trials were over. Subsequent research has so far shown the vaccine to be effective and safe, and trials are on in India, the Philippines, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Others with advanced pharma industries, such as India and Europe, are equally desperate not to get left behind as this race enters its final laps. Addressing the U.N. General Assembly virtually in September, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised that the nation — the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer — would make sure shots are available globally. India and South Africa have also petitioned the World Trade Organization asking for waivers from standard intellectual property regulations so that vaccine licenses can be issued more broadly than would otherwise be possible — a move that will resonate with poorer nations. Europe meanwhile is driving COVAX, a global effort to pool resources in a way that allows the purchase of vaccine doses for poorer nations.  

America, meanwhile, is still at the starting line in this game of vaccine diplomacy. The Trump administration — true to its America First philosophy — has not offered U.S.-made vaccines to any other nation.

To be sure, no nation’s motives here are altruistic. Instead, pragmatism and strategic interests guide these initiatives. Like Russia, China has mass-tested its COVID-19 vaccines on hundreds of thousands of citizens while clinical trials are still on. By doling out doses to multiple other nations, Moscow and Beijing hope to enhance the credibility of their vaccines and ultimately dominate the global market for COVID-19 shots.

China and Europe both also suffer from a second — good — challenge. Even with occasional spikes in infections, they have far too few active COVID-19 cases to meaningfully carry out Phase 3 trials. They need countries where cases are mounting faster as labs for their vaccines. Offering subsidized doses or priority access is a useful sales strategy.

Through its vaccine diplomacy, China hopes to soften the global anti-Beijing sentiment that grew at the start of the year because of its opacity over the origin of the coronavirus. Once countries are dependent on Chinese and Russian COVID-19 vaccines, getting them to support U.S.-led measures against Beijing and Moscow won’t be easy. And if doses made in India, Europe or China get a first-mover advantage in key markets, it will be that much harder for American manufacturers to compete.

None of this will play out in time to affect Trump’s reelection chances. But it could help redraw the map of global influence for years to come. Whether it’s Trump or Biden in the White House in January, the loss will be America’s. 

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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