The medical field is providing leverage for other goals in the political arena

In the absence of global leadership, China seeks to cement its influence in Africa and the developing world by providing 5G infrastructure and promising access to its COVID-19 vaccines.

The President of China, Xi Jingping, announced in August that African countries would receive priority access to their vaccines. The Chinese government has also made similar affirmations to other parts of the developing world such as the Philippines and have pledged financial support in the form of loans amounting to $1 billion to Latin America and the Caribbean to enable them to purchase Chinese COVID-19 vaccines when they become available.

Part of these plans include setting up a regional distribution centre in Egypt.

China has four vaccines in the last stage of testing, whereas the USA only has three. Moreover, China and Russia have started a limited roll out of their COVID-19 vaccines. Sinophram announced that it had given the vaccine to hundreds of thousands of people in China already. In Russia, the government started a limited roll out of its ‘Sputnik V’ vaccine in mid-August, prompting a backlash from the international scientific community who argued it had received insufficient clinical trials.

China may be trying to increase their influence in the developing world, but they are relying heavily on their vaccines being a success and not having any adverse side effects. Ultimately this is a race to get the world’s first safe and secure vaccine and that could still end up being a Western export.

Their ‘charity’ has not always been well received, in Bangladesh an offer of 110,000 free doses and the transfer of some key technologies had a muted reception in the country as it wasn’t seen as being a fair trade for hosting an expensive $4 million clinical trial.

What is the significance of this foreign policy decision? It seems likely that China wants to improve damaged relations resulting from the outbreak of the virus, but also to fill the void left by the United States, who have retreated from the world stage with their ‘America First’ approach.

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Indeed, China played a massive role in the production and distribution of essential medical equipment after the outbreak earlier this year, this has been colloquially termed as ‘mask diplomacy’. This included both exports and donations. Compared to the same two months in 2019, March and April 2020 saw an increase of over 1000% growth in disinfectant and mask exports from China.

CGTN, China’s state-funded broadcaster, regularly publishes stories and quotes from foreign leaders praising the Chinese government for their assistance. African diplomats recently visited a vaccine factory in China and CGTN quoted Sierra Leone Ambassador saying, “Africa has always been with China and China [has] always been with Africa.”

Private Chinese companies have also offered their help to developing countries during this period. For instance, in April the Jack Ma foundation tweeted that it had donated 4.6 million masks to the African Union. Huawei has also offered its artificial intelligence to better understand the spread of COVID in Latin America.

China’s diplomatic moves may not be opportunistic but part of a long-term foreign policy. Last year the head of Huawei, Ren Zhengfei, said that:

“the United States treats Latin America as its backyard… our goal is to help Latin America get out of this trap and maintain the sovereignty of each country.”

China has long been invested in Africa. Between 2014 and 2018 China contributed over $70 billion dollars in Foreign Direct Investment to the continent, over double what the USA provided.

With the introduction of 5G just around the corner for many countries, Huawei is one of the main telecoms companies competing for countries’ wireless infrastructure contracts. Whilst many western countries have banned Huawei from being part of their 5G networks amid concern of cyber security and growing pressure from the United States, countries such as Iran and Kenya are ignoring the world-power’s pleas.

Huawei is already a big player in Africa, with 70% of 4G base stations made by the company, beating South Korea’s Samsung, Finland’s Nokia and Sweden’s Ericsson as the top infrastructure provider in the continent.

In Iran, the country’s 5G infrastructure was going to be built by Ericsson, however the imposition of sanctions on the country by the United States forced the telecoms giant to pull out. Huawei have now been handed the contract, thereby monopolising the Iranian 5G market.