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Injecting influence: China’s vaccine diplomacy in Central and Eastern Europe

The popularity of Russia’s Sputnik V is helping Chinese products establish themselves as other alternatives to Western breakthroughs. Ivana Karaskova says this undermines the EU’s approach.

Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries have been looking into using Chinese-developed COVID-19 vaccines even though China’s four vaccine makers have not applied for authorization by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). Serbia has begun administering Sinopharm’s vaccine, while Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Ukraine are reported to be on the track to use Chinese vaccines as well. Sinopharm’s product is also popular among EU member states: Hungary is using it, the Czech Republic has asked Beijing for its delivery, Poland has considered it. While looking for a “silver bullet” to end their national crises, CEE governments risk opening a new window of opportunity for China to raise its influence in the region.

The official narrative that flanks the use of Chinese vaccines in the region is that vaccines know no politics. Vaccines allegedly do not pose any security risk – unlike letting Chinese vendors build 5G communication networks or Russian companies to participate in critical energy projects. In reality, the use of vaccines from China – as well as Russia – is a deeply political issue. The fact that Chinese vaccines are being used without EMA approval carries a message conducive to Beijing and Moscow: the European Union’s efforts to tame the pandemic are failing, the EMA is needlessly biased and painfully slow, Russia and China are extending a helping hand to a struggling CEE.

Comprehensive, region-wide research into debates about Chinese and Russian vaccines is scarce. A Czech study that looked at mainstream, alternative and social media was a first attempt. It revealed the Czech debate to be Russia-centric, focusing on the Sputnik V vaccine, with China’s Sinopharm and SinoVac vaccines treated more like secondary options for non-Western alternatives. Still, the analysis demonstrates that once a country considers using the Russian vaccine, it lowers the bar for using Chinese products, too. The Czech Republic, for example, ordered Sinopharm’s vaccine only days after approaching Russia about Sputnik V.

The discourse in CEE countries suggests more affinity for the Russian product than China’s offerings. Cultural proximity and historical experience with Russian (or Soviet) vaccines are probably the main reasons for this. As Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán said: “Under Communism we were vaccinated with Soviet vaccines as children; and, as you can see, we’re fine.” Czech scientists have also expressed more confidence in Russian than in Chinese vaccine research. But Chinese vaccines now are regularly grouped with Sputnik V as an “alternative tandem.”

Beijing’s Covid diplomacy – from masks to syringes

The current situation is akin to that in spring 2020, when the lack of protective medical equipment evident after the start of the pandemic prompted CEE countries to court China. People in the region witnessed Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš welcoming the first cargo planes from China, or Serbian president Alexandar Vučić devotedly kissing the Chinese flag. During that first wave of the coronavirus epidemic, China strove to improve its image in CEE countries through “mask diplomacy” by casting itself as a part of the solution to – rather than the source of – the problem.

“Vaccine diplomacy” can be understood as a natural extension of this process. However, unlike last spring, China is no longer the sole provider of a scarce resource, having to compete with various other vaccine producers. In order not to clash directly with the mRNA vaccines produced by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, mostly earmarked for developed countries, China offered its vaccines – based on the inactivated SARS-CoV-2 virus – to neighboring, developing-world and semi-periphery countries. It then offered its vaccines to CEE countries during the 17+1 Summit, held virtually in February. But rather than setting vaccine quota for the region, Chinese President Xi Jinping said heads of state or government would have to make individual requests.

Xi’s approach undermines the argument that vaccines are not a political issue. The Czech government, for one, felt compelled to ask the Chinese ambassador in Prague whether the country qualified for the offer. After all, the mayor of Prague in 2019 had angered Beijing by raising questions of a sister city agreement, Czech Senate President Miloš Vystrčil in 2020 sparked another round of a diplomatic row by visiting Taiwan, and the government in 2021 announced the likely exclusion of Chinese energy company CGN from the Dukovany nuclear power plant tender. But China’s ambassador assured the government Beijing would provide help if Prague asked for it.

CEE governments are under intense public pressure to tackle the protracted epidemic as quickly and efficiently as possible. Due to the delays with the deliveries of the Western vaccines, more and more appear to be opting for “the next available product” – typically Russian, but in an increasing number of cases also Chinese. Understandable as such moves may be, they clearly undermine the legitimacy of EU institutions like the EMA, risk applying a solution that misses important elements of standard vaccine development, and open up new political space for authoritarian actors to occupy – actors that may prove difficult to dislodge again in the future.