As COVID-19 hits the world, two experts from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) published an article in the Nikkei Asian Review, revealing four major problems with the vaccine diplomacy practiced by the authoritarian regimes in Russia and China, and warning that if not recognized and acted upon, this vaccine diplomacy will undermine the practice of democracy around the world.
Kevin Sheives, deputy director of the International Forum for Democracy Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy, and Ryan Arick, program associate, published an article in the Nikkei Asian Review titled “Authoritarian States Are Using the COVID Vaccine to Subvert Democracy.
According to the article, Russia and China are embarking on a diplomatic offensive to maximize the benefits from the global distribution of their vaccine. Asia, Latin America and Africa are expected to be the main recipients of these vaccines.
In the article, Shewers and Erik note that China has provided more than 240 million doses of vaccines to at least 78 countries, while Russia has provided 12.8 million doses to more than 30 countries. Regrettably, however, these authoritarian regimes have used these vaccine distribution pipelines to serve the interests of their regimes, in some cases above the interests of people in recipient countries who desperately need vaccinations.
In their research over the past year, Shewers and Erik say they assessed the impact of COVID-19 on democracy and found four problems with authoritarian governments’ model of vaccine diplomacy: 1) spreading completely false information about Western vaccines; 2) prioritizing “being first” rather than trust as a priority; 3) giving access to vaccines to political elites in some countries first; and 4) ensuring that vaccines are used as leverage for political gain.
Spreading Disinformation about Western Vaccines
As the vaccine was developed, China and Russia employed information manipulation tactics to reinforce distrust of Western vaccines, Shewers and Erik said.
U.S. officials say Russian intelligence agencies launched an online disinformation campaign to undermine confidence in the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, openly questioning the effectiveness of Western vaccine clinical trials and overemphasizing the vaccine’s reported side effects.
A Beijing-organized propaganda network quickly spread misinformation and disinformation on social media after Pfizer reported its clinical data, and Beijing diplomats quickly amplified the fabricated social media posts.
These networks promoting disinformation are coordinated, government-led campaigns aimed at combating competing vaccines that have been proven effective, Shewers and Erik said.
Gao Fu, director of the Communist Party’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, admitted in April at the Communist Party’s National Conference on Vaccines and Health that China’s domestic New Crown (Communist virus) vaccine is not very protective and that it is important to mix different vaccines. This was a direct slap in the face of his own comments that had touted domestic vaccines.
Speed is more important than trust
Sheves and Erik said the authoritarian government prioritized speed and “being first” in developing vaccines over following scientific and international norms that build trust in public health initiatives.
Russia launched its COVID-19 vaccine, “Sputnik-V,” last August. The vaccine was launched before proper testing was completed.
Russia claims to be the first country to launch a vaccine. Russia immediately distributed these untested doses of Sputnik-V to its allies Guinea and Venezuela.
Despite the lack of transparency from Chinese vaccine suppliers, Beijing has vigorously rolled out domestically produced vaccines abroad, raising concerns in the West. In an April 1 article, Nikkei Asian Review contributor Giannis Seferiadis said that while Chinese manufacturers have not applied to the European Medicines Agency for licenses to distribute the Chinese Communist Party state-owned Sinopharm and other COVID-19 (pneumonia disease caused by a Chinese Communist virus) vaccines, they are looking for a way to enter European countries.
On Feb. 9, the Communist Party of China (CPC) made a strong effort to promote Chinese vaccines to Western countries at a “17+1” summit with Central and Eastern European countries.
Polish President Andrzej Duda had talked to his Chinese counterpart about buying Chinese vaccines to speed up vaccination. But a few days later Polish Health Minister Adam Niedzielski said he was not recommending the use of Sinopharm’s vaccine at the moment because of a lack of information on the data.
Targeting the elite
China and Russia are also targeting elites in foreign governments for early access to domestically produced COVID-19 vaccine, Shewis and Erik said. This approach is in line with Beijing and Moscow’s preference to give special treatment to foreign political elites as a mechanism for their influence on the country.
In Peru, Beijing prioritized providing early access to the vaccine to the country’s senior government officials and their crony networks over prioritizing access to more vulnerable populations. Leaders in the Philippines, Venezuela, and Uganda prioritized vaccination of their crony networks and security personnel over the elderly and medical professionals after receiving the Sinovac vaccine from China early on.
Vaccine a bargaining chip in exchange for political favors
For the Chinese Communist Party, the vaccine was a crucial bargaining chip in the deal, Shewers and Erik said. The CCP will sell or donate vaccines to other countries as leverage in exchange for gaining political advantage. Once again, public health goals are placed second to the CCP regime’s foreign policy.
Paraguay accuses Chinese manufacturers of forcing Paraguay to break off diplomatic relations with Taiwan by providing Chinese-made vaccines as a bargaining chip. Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benítez said that Paraguay is willing to negotiate directly with Chinese manufacturers for the purchase of vaccines, but does not accept any form of “blackmail” in exchange for diplomatic relations.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi promised Malaysia the vaccine, but then immediately demanded that the country release the Chinese fishermen arrested for trespassing in Malaysian waters. Shewers and Erik said, “Beijing’s vaccine has become more than a tool of influence, it’s a bargaining chip.”
Acceptance of Chinese vaccines must not abandon democratic principles
The two experts also warned that when countries around the world accept these vaccines from authoritarian regimes to fill gaps in global vaccine distribution, they must not abandon their own democratic principles and interests in the process. Political leaders and public health experts should maintain their strict requirements for vaccine testing, transparency and data sharing.
Journalists and activists should pay close attention to the entry points of the Russian and Chinese vaccines in order to go and discover what they are doing to pressure or quid pro quo vaccine supplies to some national political elites in exchange for political advantage. Some state officials should also be aware of the enduring political risks that can be posed by authoritarian-sourced vaccine deals. Social and traditional media platforms should continue to apply content review rules to combat Russian and Chinese disinformation dissemination about those vaccines that have been rigorously tested.
According to both experts, the goal of vaccine distribution is to build public trust and defeat COVID-19, not to glorify the ego and regime interests of authoritarians. Without these linking measures, the vaccine diplomacy of these authoritarian regimes would subvert democratic practices around the globe.