Vaccine Diplomacy & Great Power Competition

The long-awaited regulatory approval of Covid-19 vaccines has opened a new debate about their distribution. Fraught politics on the national level are fueling a contentious geopolitics of global health – marked by dramatic inequalities as powerful countries balance between domestic and international needs. The decisions of the nations most engaged in ‘vaccine diplomacy’ have closely followed the fault lines of our era of great power competition, with gestures toward how the situation might evolve in the near future.

The new Biden administration has made tackling the domestic health crisis a priority, punching through a series of executive orders and placing a $1.9 trillion recovery bill before Congress. But his eyes are on the world, too – Biden has signaled his ambition to underwrite global recovery through closer partnership with the WHO. Meanwhile, China, which saw great success controlling the virus domestically, has been using its own vaccine candidates as a tool to further extend influence over regional partners in Southeast Asia and especially Africa. The Russians are playing a similar game in Eastern Europe, Mexico, and Latin America. A newly assertive India has also stepped up to check Chinese influence in the region with a distribution plan of its own, one that some experts in the U.S. suggest might be worth getting behind. The great rebalancing of geopolitical power will likely outlast this global health crisis, but the way the latter ends might well set the terms of the former.

Questions and Background

  • In the short run, what strategies should U.S. policymakers consider to balance domestic public health priorities with international needs?
  • In the long run, to what degree should U.S. policymakers consider adopting a symmetrical approach to China’s ‘Health Silk Road’? What might an asymmetric approach look like?
  • How could the U.S. and India partner to distribute vaccines in Southeast Asia? Could this encourage a closer working relationship?

Biden now in White House, vaccine partnership should be India-US priority
Bidisha Biswas and Anish Goel. The Print. January 21, 2021.

Vaccine Diplomacy: China & SinoPharm in Africa
Neil Edwards. Council on Foreign Relations. January, 2021.

The Brazenness of China’s Vaccine Diplomacy
AHS’s Jimmy Quinn. National Review. January 25, 2021.

Will the Biden Administration Support US Leadership in Innovative Medicine?
Thomas Duesterberg. Hudson Institute. January 11, 2021.

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