Needle Diplomacy

March 15, 2021

A vaccine race, to defeat COVID19, is underway between the world’s three geopolitical superpowers, as they vie medicinally to foster goodwill or to buy off corrupt regimes. Their tactics differ and represent the new post-pandemic geopolitics as well as a glimpse into America’s strategic re-positioning under President Joe Biden.

In pole position is America which, following a slow start, is poised to lap the others in short order by inoculating its populace by the fall. China is in second place but has slowed domestic vaccinations in order to undertake an aggressive vaccine initiative to curry favor or bribe targeted nations. But, most importantly, Beijing is trying to erase the fact that its poor public health practices, and incompetence, instigated the COVID19 catastrophe in the first place.

Finally, there’s Russia, with an economy slightly smaller than that of its oil rival Texas, but with a massive nuclear arsenal and Vlad “the Poisoner” Putin in charge. True to form, the Kremlin wages malevolent vaccine “diplomacy” by spreading lies through social media that American vaccines are harmful in order to sow doubt and slow its economic recovery. Russia’s vaccine entry, nostalgically called Sputnik after its only “product” that overtook America’s technology, is being targeted at countries it once ruled and hopes one day to recapture.

The European Union has urged caution regarding Sputnik but even so, both Hungary and Serbia have been willing benefactors. They have vaccinated 14 percent and 25 percent of their populations with Putin’s vaccine compared with Russia itself, where skepticism and inefficiency reign and only 5 percent have been vaccinated. Meanwhile, Russia’s slander against Western science is ho-hum and reminiscent of the Soviet KGB’s accusations decades ago that the CIA spread malaria in Pakistan and dengue fever in Cuba.

By contrast, over the past month, the efficient Chinese have been shipping more than 1 million doses a week across Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. Its vaccine is not approved, and yields questionable results compared to Western ones, but China has donated 10 million vaccine doses to developing nations through the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) and to 20 African nations directly. Furthermore, China’s Foreign Ministry has announced vaccines will be provided to more than 60 countries and is entering into a licensing agreement with Indonesia’s state-owned pharma giant to produce 2.5 million doses per month.

China’s vaccine diplomacy is also a cynical add-on to its $1-trillion Belt and Road Initiative begun in 2013 to build infrastructure -- from dirty coal plants to transportation and port facilities designed to control a nation’s trade -- in strategically selected countries. China offers loans to finance these things, then floods client countries with Chinese workers to build the projects, Chinese goods, and corrupt practices. Its vaccines are just another “sweetener” designed to win contracts and political influence, or, alternatively, an offer that cannot be refused.

China’s biggest competitor in this race is India and the two are going head to head in peddling or handing out vaccines since disengaging frontline troops from their borders. India has an advantage and produces 60 percent of the world’s legitimate vaccines and has jumped into the fray to disrupt China’s do-gooding. But Delhi just one-upped the Middle Kingdom by joining forces with the United States in a significant way.

The Biden administration’s priority is to vaccinate all Americans first, but Washington has also committed to helping protect the entire world -- and, by so doing, shore up the world’s trading system. This will be done partially through WHO, but America’s biggest vaccine charm offensive is the centerpiece for a new global institution called the “Quad” which consists, at the moment, of four founding nations -- the United States, India, Japan, and Australia.

The four joined forces in 2004 to provide assistance after the disastrous Indian Ocean tsunami, but have been forging a high-level political and military entity to protect the region and keep a watchful eye on China. To underscore its importance, the four heads of state met virtually on March 13 to discuss regional issues and announce a huge vaccine commitment: One billion doses to be supplied to Southeast Asian nations -- where China is actively trying to make political, economic, and possibly military inroads -- and beyond.

The vaccine will be produced by India, will be funded by the United States and Japan, and distributed by Australia. This marks the launch of Asia’s “NATO”, a new global institution with military, intelligence, and diplomatic clout to patrol the region and keep an eye on an increasingly aggressive China. All other Asian nations will be invited to join and most will.

“At this moment, it’s a purpose that I think we all are concerned about,” Biden said as he welcomed the three leaders to the Quad summit via video call. “A free and open Indo-Pacific is essential to each of our futures, our countries.”

To underscore America’s commitment to the “Quad”, its new Defense Secretary and Secretary of State will meet with their counterparts in Japan and South Korea before a meeting with Chinese officials on March 18 in Alaska. Further, the White House has invited Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to be the first foreign leader to personally visit Biden this year. “The Quad has come of age,” India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said after the meeting.

Japan, India, and Australia have been alarmed at China’s bellicosity, and talking with U.S. officials for some time about bolstering the prestige and power of the “Quad” as a counterbalance to China’s incursions in the South China Sea, in India, and Hong Kong as well as its threats toward Taiwan. Combined, these four democracies represent a formidable force: The U.S. and Japan are twice the size of China economically, India is rapidly rising in importance, and Australia’s military capability is over-sized and the country has a vested interest in the region.

All four are aware of other challenges presented by China, such as trade cheating, Huawei’s 5G spread, and technology theft. And the entire world was appalled -- and China’s brand permanently soiled -- after Beijing downplayed COVID’S dangers to WHO, which was run by China-nominated Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of Ethiopia who praised the country for its efforts despite evidence to the contrary. Last year, as Beijing scrambled to contain the virus to Wuhan, the epicenter and a city of 20 million, it allowed 100,000 foreigners to fly in and out for weeks which spread the disease worldwide.

The WHO ignored information and warnings from Taiwan because, after China-fan Tedros took over as its director-general, Taiwan was excluded from its policymaking body, the World Health Assembly. Taiwan has also been prohibited for years, at China’s demand, from the United Nations.

Besides India’s vaccine competition, China is also clashing with Russia and others in Central Asia, once controlled by the Soviets. Beijing has been unable to sell its vaccine to Kazakhstan even though it’s become a large client of its Belt and Road Initiative. Instead, the Kazakhs have bought some Sputnik doses, and have ordered US-German Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. Uzbekistan is using both Chinese and Russian vaccines while Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, poor countries, will get doses through WHO.

Clearly, the modern-day plague has altered the geopolitical landscape. China’s standing in the world has been permanently diminished as a result of its COVID mishap and cover-up, and its military aggressiveness and economic expansiveness from now on will be counterbalanced by a powerful new alliance in Asia. Biden’s pivot toward the “Quad” will also attract other Asian democracies that want to contain China just as NATO European members have remained committed in order to restrain an increasingly malign Russia. It’s a nudge toward a new world order that may inoculate Asia from war and help restore health everywhere.

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