Vaccine diplomacy and the US-China rivalry in Africa

Forget the 5G tussle. The Chinese-US rivalry in Africa is about to enter a whole new phase amid the COVID vaccine race.

Zimbabwe Minister of Local Government and Social Welfare July Moyo receives a box of medical equipment from Chinese ambassador Guo Shaochun on May 11, 2020, at a ceremony at the Robert Mugabe International Airport in Harare [File: AFP/Jekesai Njikizana]

Earlier this year, the China-United States global rivalry escalated, as both countries deployed their diplomatic arsenals to try to sway the competition for 5G contracts. The US managed to get the United Kingdom to rescind a deal with China’s Huawei to set up the country’s 5G network, which was seen as a major win for Washington.

This rivalry extended into Africa, with both superpowers trying to recruit client African states to their side. The US has tried to put pressure on Kenya and South Africa, among other African countries, to reconsider Huawei’s involvement in the set-up of 5G systems. China, for its part, has put its weight behind the tech giant.

However, with the raging coronavirus pandemic causing country-wide shutdowns and major economic downturns, the 5G race took a back seat as another one emerged: the competition for a COVID-19 vaccine.

Earlier this year promises were made by various countries and global institutions that once a COVID-19 vaccine is discovered, it will be made affordable to all. Here, in sub-Saharan Africa, many believed these pledges and hoped that by the time winter starts in the Northern Hemisphere, there will be a vaccine available and millions of doses will be shipped to African states to help curb the spread of the virus.

How naïve these hopes have been. Today, there is still no vaccine – only false hypes for dubious electoral gains, as concerns grow over trials being rushed and safety protocols undercut. On top of that, the global cooperation efforts have actually descended into what looks like a rat race.

Rich states are disbursing funding to large pharmaceuticals and pre-ordering millions of doses to ensure an immediate supply for their own populations while ignoring concerns over affordability for the rest of the world.

This is laying the ground for the future use of COVID-19 vaccines as a diplomatic coercion tool against poorer states, including in sub-Saharan Africa. And China and the US will most certainly use it in their escalating rivalry.

Even without a firm vaccine on the table yet, this is an arena where China is already out-winning America. Though a newbie on the world’s vaccine market, China aims to be the world’s vaccine factory. There are already several anti-COVID-19 vaccines being developed by Chinese pharmaceutical corporations.

With a massive production capacity, these vaccines, once approved, will be made available quickly and in large quantities which would allow Beijing to deploy them as a diplomatic tool much faster than its rival. This would likely see Africa capitulate to Beijing’s pressure, as it will have no affordable alternative. China will quickly organise shipments of the vaccine under the banner of “strategic donations”.

A primer on this process is already underway. Propagandist planeloads of COVID-19 hospital gowns, nasal swab sticks, and surgical masks “donated” by China have been landing frequently since April across African airports, from Addis Ababa to Harare to Luanda.

In countries like Zimbabwe where public hospitals are stripped to their bare bones due to years of looting, China’s COVID-19 “donations” have been met with gleeful cheers, as top officials and Beijing’s diplomats have lined up on the tarmac to watch “friendly masks” being unloaded from planes. Chinese medical teams, too, have traversed dusty rural districts, checking in on COVID-19 isolation clinics.

This medical-supplies diplomacy is already bearing fruit. In September, Zimbabwe gave concessions to Chinese companies to mine for coal in its Hwange National Park, one of Africa’s most precious wildlife reserves. Only a global outcry stopped the deal.

In the coming months and years, China will probably get a lot in return for its “donations”, especially given the dire state in which most sub-African economies are in.

The COVID-19 outbreak has picked apart so many African economies that GDP growth may slump to 1.5 percent in 2020 (down from 3.5 percent in 2019). In South Africa, where the pandemic has resulted in some 19,000 deaths (the most on the continent) and impoverished millions, the United Nations Development Programme estimates that 34 percent of households will highly likely vanish from the middle-income bracket. With stressed healthcare budgets, the South African government, like others on the continent, is likely to quickly warm up to the idea of accepting a “cheaper” COVID-19 vaccine from Beijing, once it is available.

While China is capturing “hearts, minds and government favour” in Africa with its COVID-19 “donations”, its main competitor, the US, is nowhere to be seen. Washington used to claim bragging rights when it came to medical diplomacy in Africa. For example, since 2003, its PEPFAR funding for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, has helped save five million adults from HIV-related mortality in sub-Saharan Africa.

But the COVID-19 pandemic caught the US ill-prepared and brought to the fore the failings of its own dysfunctional, overly-privatised health system. The country is reeling from a record 236,000 COVID-19 deaths and it is still struggling to curb the spread of the virus.

By contrast, China has been successful so far in controlling the outbreak of the disease at home and has been able to step up its medical diplomacy. Once its pharma giants get an approved vaccine, this effort will expand further.

This will not only strengthen Beijing’s sway in African capitals even more, but it will also help it displace the US and European Union as Africa’s largest suppliers of generic pills, hospital equipment, and medic trainers – and the main destination for the African elite’s medical tourism. European and American influence is on the decline in Africa, and China’s medical diplomacy will only further accelerate it.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.