17+1: Between Recovery and Vaccines

Vaccines will be made a global public good, asserted Xi Jinping. Is this just a step to advance China's widely debated “Vaccine Diplomacy” and how should the EU react to this?



Vaccines will be made a global public good, asserted Xi Jinping. Is this just a step to advance China’s widely debated “Vaccine Diplomacy” and how should the EU react to this?

On the morning of 9th February 2021, just hours before the 17+1 summit between China and the representatives of Central and Eastern European Countries (CEECs) was held, Chinese analysts and state media enthusiastically described the upcoming virtual conference as a landmark signalling the full recovery of cooperation between China and the CEECs. High expectations and the importance assigned to the summit – which was initiated as a platform to promote cross-regional dialogue, cooperation and development – had thereby been fuelled by Xi Jinping’s decision to personally take over Premier Li Keqiang’s role as chair of the meeting. 

Full Recovery?

Despite the high-level representation as embodied by President Xi himself, China seemed to be struggling to generate meaningful interest in the online forum among CEE leaders. Until two days before the meeting, only Hungary, represented by Prime Minister Victor Orban, and Serbia, represented by President Aleksandar Vucic, gave assurances to be participating with their respective heads of government or state. Meanwhile, the remaining partners either considered not following Xi’s call at all (Romania, Lithuania), or seemed to be somewhat reluctant to reciprocate Beijing´s high-profile line up in the summit. The low response rate led to requests to too low”represented nations to provide pre-recorded statements of their leaders to be broadcasted during the meeting. Eventually, the decision by six countries to delegate lower ministerial levels resulted in the highest absence of country leaders and representation at the highest level of state since the format’s inception in 2012. Furthermore, for the first time, no joint guidelines were adopted and the date for the next meeting is yet to be set. Considering the historic underrepresentation and the lack of consensus during the summit, it is questionable whether a “full recovery of cooperation” was achieved that day, despite initial intents. 

From Cooperation to Vaccines

Despite the underrepresentation and mixed results, President Xi used the occasion to advocate a stronger Sino-European partnership. He therefore opened his keynote speech by emphasising the need for decision-making through multilateral consultation, mutual benefit, openness and inclusiveness, as well as progress through innovation. After reminding the participants of the four principles that constitute the foundation of the 17+1 format, Xi turned to one of the underlying reasons behind Beijing’s convening of the summit, China’s homemade Covid-19 vaccines. 

While President Xi declared the fight against the pandemic to be the most pressing task and subsequently reassured that China will continue to provide vaccines to countries in need to the best of its capability, and do what it can to make vaccines a global public good, observers are busy trying to adequately interpret the developments related to Chinese vaccine distribution. Are Beijing´s offerings simply the logical continuation of its mask diplomacy in order to embarrass the EU and the West whilst gaining geopolitical ground, as suggested by Dimitar Bechev from the Institute for Human Science in Vienna? Is the Chinese vaccine rollout driven by commercial interests in order to secure substantial market share for its domestic vaccine producers? Or, as paraphrased by Serbia’s President Vucic, is China’s contribution the badly-needed additional lifeboat for those nations that currently have no seats in sight?  Should the EU act upon this, and, if yes, how? 

Chinese Vaccine Diplomacy in the CEECs

As of 11th March 2021, three out of the 17 CEE nations received vaccines developed by China. On January 16th 2021, Serbia was the first European country to welcome the delivery of one million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine. A second load of 500.000 doses followed on the 11th of February, allowing Serbia to administer 25.73 shots per 100 people by the 9th of March (while the EU average as of 9th March was set to 9.82/100). With Serbia still negotiating its potential EU membership, it was Hungary that, after unilaterally approving the vaccine, became the first EU member state to receive its first batch containing 550.000 doses of the Chinese vaccine on February 16th. In total, Hungary ordered five million doses, enough to inoculate more than 25% of its total population. China’s latest donation containing 30.000 doses of Sinopharm’s vaccine was accepted by Montenegro on March 3rd. Overall, Montenegro signed contracts for the supply of 50.000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik and 150.000 doses of Sinopharm’s vaccine.

The fight against the Coronavirus has turned into a great power competition on who manages to domestically contain the pandemic most effectively. Despite the rather troublesome start to the inoculation drive, the EU nevertheless succeeded in securing enough doses to vaccinate more than 260% of its population. However, amid substantial delivery shortfalls and controversial side deals by single EU Member States such as Germany, also CEE nations, although covered by the EU distribution scheme, are now seeking alternative supply channels, thus following Hungary’s example. The Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, for instance, after consulting twice with Serbian and Hungarian leaders about their vaccine strategies and experiences in dealing with China on the matter, has approached both Putin and Xi to request delivery of their respective vaccines. Likewise, also Poland’s President Andrzej Duda has engaged in talks with Xi about the possibility of acquiring Chinese Covid-19 shots.

At the same time, the vaccine nationalism of wealthy countries prioritising their own vaccination plans and supply shortages are preventing an efficient roll-out of the COVAX scheme, a global effort initiated by Gavi, CEPI and the WHO and joined by more than 190 member states to guarantee fair and equitable access to vaccines for every country in the world. With COVAX struggling to get off the ground, CEE nations that are not members of the EU, and therefore not included in the joint procurement strategy, are now at risk of significantly falling behind in the process of mass vaccination. Eventually, this may encourage them to turn to China for help. 

Nations such as Albania, North Macedonia and Montenegro, which until recently trusted in COVAX as a multilateral solution to the shortage, have started to experience domestic pressure to make use of the available Chinese or Russian vaccines. With Montenegro being the first country to yield to the demands, others may be following soon. North Macedonia, for instance, is currently seeking to acquire 200.000 doses of Beijing’s vaccine. After all, people and governments alike seem to disregard geopolitical games when their own health is at stake. 

China’s Advantage and Risk

When it comes to helping the CEECs in reducing domestic pressure and facilitating vaccination campaigns, China holds two decisive advantages over its European and American counterparts. 

First, due to a low infection rate, China currently faces little urgency in achieving herd immunity at home. This enables China to shift its available resources to regions where short-term demand exceeds long-term supply prospects, in this case to Central and Eastern Europe. According to the recent numbers compiled by SCMP, China exported more doses of its vaccine than it has used to inoculate its own population, thus indicating the Chinese prioritisation of its vaccine diplomacy over domestic needs.

Second, whilst the EU needs to leverage coercive measures, such as export bans, against vaccine manufacturers in order to counter delivery shortfalls, China’s state-owned enterprise Sinopharm appears to be acting in line with governmental orders so far. Whether the deals with Serbia or Hungary have been economically profitable for the company itself can be questioned, but they nonetheless gave Sinopharm a substantial head-start in the global fight for vaccine market access and share.

The Chinese strategy, however, does not come without risk. Due to extensive overseas distribution, China failed to reach its vaccination quota before the Lunar New Year. Furthermore, the critical vaccination rate for national immunity will be reached much later than for instance in the EU or the US. This could lead to China still having to close its borders while others are already opening up in order to prevent another outbreak at home, which would then most likely lead to criticism on its earlier shift in priorities. 

Towards a Multilateral Approach

Depending on the domestic epidemiological situation, and assuming that Chinese vaccine producers will neither face major set-backs in terms of quality or trust, nor start acting against state directives, Chinese vaccine diplomacy can be expected to continue – irrespective of the actual motives underlying Beijing’s efforts. The inaction of other major powers will inevitably lead to the CEECs being caught in the dilemma of balancing geopolitical interests with domestic health-care considerations. Accepting Chinese vaccines relieves domestic pressure and saves lives, but comes along with fierce criticism from both the EU and the WHO. 

German health minister Jens Spahn therefore urged the EU to consider leveraging the distribution of vaccines as a tool to safeguard its foreign policy interests. However, countermeasures in the shape of bilateral deals, whilst covering the urgent need of recipient countries, mainly have a negative effect on a global scale. With every bilateral deal sealed, the total quantity of available doses to be distributed through multilateral vehicles such as COVAX inevitably decreases, while at the same time driving up prices of the remaining stock. Ultimately, this could encourage even more countries that previously relied on COVAX to actively seek supply via China or Russia and skip the queue. The solution, however, might already be at hand. With COVAX, a multilateral vehicle that has the ability to empower weaker states through quasi-institutional settings was created. 

The announcement by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that the United States would join the initiative, which Donald Trump declined to take part in, further strengthens its international standing and acceptance. With the US aboard, most of the world’s largest vaccine manufacturers, including India, the EU and China, are assembled under the same scheme. It should therefore be avoided to portray COVAX as a competitor to China, as recently done by President Macron

For an efficient and timely supply for developing countries, COVAX needs Beijing’s support, especially in the form of vaccines. Even though China recently pledged to provide the initiative with up to 10 million doses, its three vaccine candidates have yet to be approved by COVAX. To ensure a smooth and reliable approval process, China, COVAX and the WHO – which is responsible to review the applications – should meet each other on the basis of mutual respect, trust and transparency. Only if multilateral cooperation is to replace geopolitical competition, the Covid-19 pandemic can be overcome and lives saved

The “Macron Model”: Is it Wise to be Leaving China Out of the Loop?

Taking a step back and analysing President Macrons proposed strategy of using COVAX as an antagonist to China’s vaccine diplomacy, several potential scenarios that deserve further consideration arise. 

From a western perspective, the recently held Munich Security Conference and the subsequent G7 summit suggest that there indeed exists some backing for such an approach. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for instance, emphasised the importance of the scheme, particularly in light of Russian and Chinese vaccine distribution. In a joint statement, the G7 members also announced an increase in their financial contributions towards COVAX to a total of USD 7.5 billion. The United States alone pledged to provide USD 4 billion, with half of it rewarded in 2021. 

Delivering on Promises?

With fresh funds being available, actual doses of inoculable vaccines remain the strategy’s biggest obstacle. Accordingly, President Macron called on leaders in Europe and the US to rapidly free up 4-5% of their vaccine supplies in order to be distributed among developing nations. Apart from the alleged support by Chancellor Merkel, other allies remain reserved concerning Macron’s request. Due to the critical domestic epidemiological situation and the public pressure arising from it, many nations are hesitant to share doses secured for domestic use before mass vaccination has even taken  off. The UK, for instance, pledged to donate part of its 400 million doses, but only as soon as the domestic need, including potential “booster shoots” in autumn, is covered

It is therefore rather likely that without China, COVAX will remain an alliance with considerable financial resources but not enough vaccines for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, the dilemma of developing countries will continue to exist, accompanied by rising infections, deaths and public pressure. At some point, the attention of these nations will once again turn to China.

China’s Move and the EU’s Role

Now that China is even more in the spotlight, it may use the time until COVAX’s supply shortages ease to portray themselves in any way it sees fit. China could continue bilateral distribution with developing countries in Central and Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America, thus bolstering its narrative of being the first nation to make “vaccines a global public good”. It thereby would not even have to withdraw its pledge of 10 million doses from COVAX. By maintaining its offer, China can ultimately present itself as the only country that consistently pushed for multilateral solutions to the pandemic, which only failed due to the vanity and anti-China sentiment of Western nations.

Overall, Macron’s approach bears the risk of contributing to an intensified great power competition that eventually could lead to a scenario President Biden strongly warned against at the Munich Security Conference – the re-establishment of Cold War power blocs.

In order to prevent such a development, the EU should actively advocate a real multilateral approach to the COVAX scheme. Closer cooperation with China is not only the fastest way to get the initiative off the ground, it may also be an opportunity to address the concerns of those EU member states, in particular some of the CEECs, that are not satisfied with the current progress of the bloc’s vaccination strategy and are therefore eyeing beyond the EU’s borders for supply. After all, China currently has the necessary vaccines to supply the needy ones, the EU does not.


Author: Manuel Widmann, Junior Researcher, EIAS

Photo credits: “Official visit of the President of China”, Copyright UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré, CC License 2.o, Flickr