Vaccine diplomacy - tensions and contestation in Southeast Asia

The geopolitics of vaccine distribution has exposed the disaggregated nature of politics within Southeast Asia, writes Caitlin Byrne.

Vaccine coverage is the single most significant factor in fighting COVID-19 infection rates and driving long term economic recovery around the globe. Yet the imperative to produce and distribute vaccinations has led to new forms of ‘vaccine diplomacy’. It’s become ‘the ultimate geopolitical game’, and the contest is playing out ferociously in Southeast Asia.

China leads the way, with vaccine diplomacy at the centre of China’s global engagement narrative. In May 2020, Chairman Xi Jinping affirmed China’s vaccine development and deployment efforts as a ‘global public good’ noting to the opening of the World Health Assembly that ‘this will be China’s contribution to ensuring vaccine accessibility and affordability in developing countries.’ A powerful narrative with significant cut-through, their program has gained traction amongst nations hardest hit by the pandemic.

Indonesia was the first Southeast Asian nation to take up Chinese vaccinations with the Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia close behind. The nature of the arrangements are unclear, but the clear tendency is towards bilateral engagement incorporating various gifting, preferential and conditional arrangements, often advanced under the rhetoric of ‘enduring friendship’. Ultimately, China is working to ensure Southeast Asian nations choose Beijing as their partner of first choice, and not only when it comes to the choice of vaccine.

China’s program has drawn criticism. Some Southeast Asian leaders have expressed reticence at the idea of being part of a human trial process associated with vaccine distribution. And concerns regarding the efficacy of China’s vaccines may see the need for booster shots in the short to medium term. At the same time, discrepancies in distribution patterns point to worrying signs of vaccine smuggling alongside an emerging black-market for doses, particularly in the Philippines. Notably, the concerning role that China’s military apparatus plays as a critical mechanism for vaccine development and distribution has attracted limited critique in the midst of crisis.

Yet China is not alone. Other nations, including Russia, the UK and India have signalled the use of ‘their jabs to strengthen regional ties and enhance their own power and status’ in Southeast Asia, accentuating the fault lines of global power, influence and interest within the region along the way.

Australia too has stepped up its rhetoric on vaccine response measures in recent months. Although not a vaccine producer, Australia has committed $500 million to support access to safe and effective vaccines plus ‘wrap around support’ for Southeast Asia and the Pacific nations. This is in addition to other measures, including $21 million to fund an ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases, and ongoing bilateral programs. It is a welcome contribution intended to shore up Southeast Asian resilience as a core element of long-term recovery. And it reflects Australia’s bid to build influence as a reliable, dependable and capable partner in the region.

Australia’s position has been bolstered by the strategic heft of the Quad nations (US, Japan, India and Australia), having committed to the delivery of 1 billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to the region by 2022. However, recent issues related to production and supply blockages, including those arising from the devastating outbreak in India, will put Australian diplomatic competence and credibility to the test.

Vaccine diplomacy has implications for the texture of longer-term diplomatic cooperation across Southeast Asia. Firstly, it is clear that China and others are actively vying for soft power leverage within the region.

Secondly, the response of Southeast Asian states in the face of diplomatic overtures matters. Not to be seen as passive recipients, Southeast Asian leaders are keeping options open and exercising agency where they can. Indonesia provides a case in point. Having signed up as a potential regional hub for China’s vaccine production, the Indonesian government has also signed deals to secure other vaccine doses. The degree to which individual Southeast Asian states will exercise their agency is neither to be overlooked nor underestimated.

Yet the heightened agency of individual states does not necessarily translate into regional coherence. If anything, the geopolitics of vaccine distribution has exposed the disaggregated nature of politics within Southeast Asia. Recent waves of vaccine diplomacy across Southeast Asia have amplified the fragmented nature of ASEAN. Despite clear examples of regional coordination in pandemic preparedness, it seems that ASEAN has been slow to engage with the strategic nature of COVID-19 vaccine diplomacy. It’s not too late, but it is unlikely for ASEAN to develop a coherent and coordinated vaccine roll-out, as the stakes in this ultimate geopolitical game ratchet up to the next level.

Professor Caitlin Byrne is the Director of the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. This piece was first published in the La Trobe Asia Brief Issue 5 - Australia-Southeast Asia Relations: The post COVID-19 regional order.