The Quad alliance, comprising the US, Japan, India and Australia, on March 12 made a commitment to deliver one billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations by the end of 2022, in an apparent bid to dent China’s vaccine diplomacy.
The Quad will coordinate with the WHO and COVAX initiative for equitable global access to Covid-19 vaccines. The US, which under former president Trump’s America First policy had pulled out of WHO and refused to join COVAX, has now rejoined both to counterbalance China’s growing influence in these global institutions.
Tension between the Quad, led by the US, and China is bound to rise as both sides are going to take a hardline approach. The fight is as much about defending national interests as the important need to play to domestic nationalistic audiences.
Assembling like-minded allies against China
To the Quad, China’s aggressive and coercive behavior and actions threatened their national interests and is therefore going to warrant progressively powerful retaliation. According to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, handling Washington’s relationship with Beijing is the “biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century”.
It is no coincidence that China’s recent border disputes with Japan, India and trade spate with Australia have reinforced their resolve to follow the US’ lead to pool their negotiating leverage and collective power to position the alliance both diplomatically and militarily to defend their national interests.
The Quad will almost certainly try to rally more Asian countries to contain China in its own backyard. Effectively, the US is asking countries to choose sides. It is speculated that if the US can keep up the momentum, then more countries may either implicitly or explicitly stand with the Quad.
For example, South Korea’s President Moon Jae In, long known for his ambiguous stance of playing both sides and wanting to depend on the US for security and on China for economic incentives, is facing pressure from the US to fall in line.
On March 9, in an op-ed published on a US magazine, a member of South Korea’s presidential policy planning commission said Moon was considering joining the Quad. Nonetheless, as a gesture of commitment not with words but with actions, Washington wants Seoul to enhance trilateral cooperation with Tokyo and be on board with a plan to deploy advanced missiles aimed at China.
Sharing some similarity with South Korea’s ambiguous stance, Singapore may be next on the US’ list as the country hosts US military forces but also has strong economic ties with China. The US has made it clear it only wants to work with like-minded countries.
Who is stronger?
As the saying goes, “There is no lasting friends, no lasting enemies, only lasting interests.” Every country has to make a decision based on self-interest and of course, self-preservation. However, it is never a good bet to bet against a strong and determined US.
In this instance, the US has the upper hand as it is financially, economically, technologically and militarily stronger than China. It is not realistic to be still sitting on the fence. Rather, it is better to make a decision before it is made for you and end up pleasing neither the US or China.
As can be seen, the US under the Biden administration is able to galvanize like-minded countries and allies, and form alliances whereas China is standing all alone against this onslaught. So far, no country has explicitly sided with General Secretary Xi Jinping, under whom the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has become an increasingly authoritarian and repressive regime.
Of course, the caveat being the three other Quad members stay united and not let China intimidates and splits them up. The probable endgame is to negotiate with the CCP from a collective position of overwhelming strength and reestablish the rules-based international order that maintains regional stability.
Other salvos to follow soon
This first shot at vaccine diplomacy will not be the last to rein in China. It is expected that more initiatives including those focused on maritime security and supply chain resilience will be rolled out in the near future.
Asia’s sea routes are an important part of the global maritime trade but China’s provocative militaristic activities in the area, particularly South China Sea where the CCP ignored a legally-binding international ruling and is unilaterally claiming 90 percent of the area, threaten freedom of navigation, unimpeded shipping and the livelihood of the local fishing communities.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also highlighted the dangers of depending solely on Chinese manufacturing for critical supplies like face masks, personal protective equipment, and medical devices such as ventilators.
Therefore, it makes sense for the Quad to leverage on their combined large manufacturing bases, build an alternative global supply chain to bypass China, thereby putting an end to the Chinese dominance.
China’s rhetoric and vaccine diplomacy
However, China is not going to back down and indeed, given the domestic need to maintain the narrative of the Chinese people standing up to foreign aggressors propagated by Xi, China is going to dial up the wolf warrior rhetoric and retaliate with some form of hollow gestures. At the moment, China is either unable or unwilling to impose substantive retaliation to back up its rhetoric.
Since coming into power in 2012, Xi has been taking on an ever more belligerent attitude towards foreign powers, whipping up nationalistic sentiments and upending international rules. China’s continued use of wolf warrior tactics will only increase the global community’s revulsion towards the CCP.
So far, China has sold at low cost or donated vaccines to many countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe as rich western countries are securing and stockpiling vaccines for their own populations.
While doing public good with strings attached on one hand, China is also undermining the global effort at vaccination to reach herd immunity by promoting conspiracy theories about western-made vaccines, not giving safety and efficacy data on its own vaccines, and opening the borders to foreigners only if they get the Chinese vaccines.
Although the first outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic was in Wuhan, China is now trying to rewrite history and propagates that the virus was brought into the country by US military personnel and frozen food products.
And to back up this new narrative, instead of providing peer-reviewed scientific evidence, China has engaged in initially facemask diplomacy and now vaccine diplomacy to win friends to its side.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that Beijing was not fully transparent at the start of the outbreak, mishandled its initial responses and allowed the virus to escape beyond China’s borders to ravage the world.
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