China’s Vaccine Diplomacy

Health diplomacy, soft power, and health silk road are all power-laden and apt descriptions for China’s long-term exercise of diplomacy in relation to health issues. Chinese leaders and policymakers including President Xi Jinping often use the term ‘Health Silk Road’.

Whatever China does, or does not do, is significant and controversial, especially after COVID-19 originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan spread globally from early 2020.

Notoriously, the then-US-president Donald Trump repeatedly called COVID-19 the ‘China virus’.That China tried to hide the outbreak in Wuhan or was slow in reporting it flamed a narrative of blame, especially from the US. The way in which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under President Xi contained the pandemic within China with extensive restrictions on movement also came into focus. Subsequently, China’s help for other countries is also a matter of international attention.

China employs two main strategies to absolve itself of direct or indirect responsibility for the trail of biomedical, economic, political and social devastation left by COVID-19.

First, China aggressively rejects any further calls for international investigations into the origins of COVID-19. China shows remarkable sensitivity to the ‘Lab Leak’ theory that postulates that the novel corona virus was created in the Wuhan Institute of Virology and accidentally, or deliberately, leaked outside it.

Second, China has targeted diplomacy, ‘health silk roads’, in the developing world in Asia, Africa and the Middle East which have been particularly badly affected by COVID-19 via the donation of vaccines, masks, gloves, protective clothing, and emergency medical teams. Many, if not most, developing countries will not have finished vaccinating their peoples until mid-2022 or beyond and rely on China for help.

In July 2021, a joint letter from 55 nations to the WHO opposed the politicisation of COVID-19 and supported the inconclusive results of the World Health Organisation study in China in January and February of that year. Subsequently, Chinese government officials and government-owned or -linked media have celebrated this and others that followed as support of China.

But China may not escape further scientific scrutiny on the origins of COVID-19; and may still find it useful to enlist as much support from as many nations as possible. Building health silk roads is one among policy choices.

In truth China does not itself articulate a ‘health silk road’ narrative in Myanmar, perhaps because the broader Myanmar society is wary of Chinese economic and political interests. As a result, China commonly uses the familial Myanmar term pauk-phaw (siblings or relatives), which has the implied Confucian meaning of ‘love your family first’ and connotes that Myanmar and China are on a par with each other as ‘siblings’. Pauk-Phaw is used frequently on COVID-19 donor banners, posters and signboards, by Chinese officials and leaders including President Xi, and on the Facebook page of the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar.

The China Myanmar Health Silk Road (CMHSR) is part of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor that was effectively suspended after the coup on 1 February 2021, when the State Administration Council overthrew the National League for Democracy. When, or if, it is completed, the corridor will connect China’s landlocked Yunnan Province to the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone in Myanmar’s Rakhine State in the west, with access to the Indian Ocean. This would enable China to bypass the maritime chokepoint of the Strait of Malacca, and have access to Yangon and Mandalay respectively.

China began the CMHSR 18 months ago and has worked with both the former democratically elected National League for Democracy (2016–2020) and the State Administration Council. Business matters and for China Vaccine diplomacy is big business.      


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Vol 54, No. 29, Jan 16 - 22, 2022