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ASEAN distances from China's Covid-19 vaccine diplomacy

Covid-19 vaccine

In a major setback to China’s devious vaccine diplomacy, ASEAN members Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia on Friday sealed deals for procuring Covid-19 vaccines from Britain and the US.

China deliberately delayed divulging details of the genetic material of the coronavirus, that originated in Wuhan at the end of 2019, which had handicapped efforts of other countries to develop a vaccine to fight the pandemic.

Since China was the only country to have key information about the deadly coronavirus in the initial stages, it got a head start for developing a vaccine. Ironically, the authoritarian nation then started offering its potential vaccine to other countries with strings attached so that it could gain more geopolitical clout.

This was reflected in the visits of senior Chinese leaders, including Premier Li Keqiang to the ASEAN region, during which these countries were assured that they would get “priority” for the vaccine. However, newspapers in Hong Kong and Singapore have reported that as a quid pro quo for the vaccine, the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian nations) members had been asked to support China at the World Health Organisation (WHO) as it has been facing the heat for hiding information on the highly contagious coronavirus.

Citing a source privy to Li’s meeting with ASEAN leaders, a reporter from China’s Xinhua news agency had also posted on his Weibo account that Li had made ASEAN support at the WHO a prerequisite for the assistance to fight Covid-19.

Beijing has been looking for support to ward off international pressure for an independent investigation into the origins of the virus in China which would expose the dubious role that it played in concealing information that could have saved thousands of lives worldwide. With the US blaming both China and the WHO for not disclosing the true facts about the dreaded virus, China is keen to replace Washington in playing a bigger role at the international organisation.

However, the ASEAN countries are wary of China as it has been flexing its military muscle and laying claim to their territories as part of President Xi Jinping’s increasingly expansionist foreign policy. The Philippines and Thailand on Friday secured millions of doses of the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca.

The Thai government has signed a deal to procure 26 million doses of the vaccine to fight the pandemic. Officials in the Philippines said they would secure 2.6 million shots and were negotiating purchase of another 1 million doses. The UK government, which has secured 100 million doses of the vaccine is aiming to start distributing it for public use before Christmas.

Similarly, Malaysia on Friday signed an agreement with US pharma giant Pfizer to obtain its Covid-19 vaccine for 20 per cent of the population as it struggles to rein in the resurgence of coronavirus cases. The accord for 12.8 million doses to inoculate 6.4 million people is contingent on Pfizer’s vaccine being approved by the US Food and Drug Administration and the Malaysian drug regulator, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said at a press conference.


In the global race to develop vaccines against Covid-19, the Oxford University and AstraZeneca candidate is seen as offering one of the best hopes for many developing countries because of its cheaper price and ability to be transported at normal fridge temperatures.

This vaccine is also being produced at the Serum Institute of India in Pune from where it is also expected to be despatched to other countries in Asia and Africa as part of the global war on the pandemic.

India also plans to supply the vaccine to Nepal. An assurance was given to the friendly neighbour on Friday at a high-level meeting in Kathmandu between foreign secretary Harsh Shringla and Nepal’s top leadership.

Shringla said that India has “at least five promising vaccine candidates at advanced stages of trials. Dozens of sites across the country are conducting vaccine trials on all ages and social groups.”

The assurance to Kathmandu comes at a time when the Nepalese leadership appears to be realising that falling into the clutches of China was not in the Himalayan country’s best interest.