For many major players on the global stage, access to COVID-19 vaccines has come to represent more than just the ability to protect their citizens; it is also a tool to further geopolitical agendas. With a resurgent Russia, a rising China, and the threat of a new Cold War looming on the horizon, the major powers have taken to using vaccines to secure the allegiance of smaller nations and to deny each other soft power in select regions of the world. 

There are currently five countries that produce vaccines approved for usage: the United States, through the pharmaceutical companies Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson; the United Kingdom, through Astra-Zeneca; China, through Sinovac, Cansino, and state-owned Sinopharm; Russia, through the state-controlled Gamaleya and Vector research institutes; and India, through Bharat Biotech. All five of these nations also happen to be major players in world politics.

What is vaccine geopolitics?

To put it simply, the term geopolitics refers to the effects of politics on geography. In the case of vaccination against COVID-19, the effects of politics can be observed when vaccine-producing nations send doses to other countries around the globe based on political motivations rather than simple medical needs. 

For major powers with operational vaccine production capacity, the geopolitical rationale is straightforward; by striking bilateral agreements with smaller countries that lack the domestic production capacity, vaccines become a tool of soft power which can be used to secure diplomatic allegiance. In international relations, soft power is the ability of a nation to influence others through attraction and persuasion rather than brute force and coercion.

Dubbed “vaccine geopolitics” or “vaccine diplomacy” by commentators, this practice has hindered the global response against COVID-19 by forcing smaller countries to choose sides over lives in the race to vaccinate their populations against the virus.

Why do countries engage in it?

For major powers, the ability to extend their influence across select regions of the globe is a key factor in the conduct of international relations, especially as the world regresses into an age where global politics is dominated by only a few actors. Having international influence correlates with an enhanced sense of security, better economic ties, greater cooperation and an improved capacity for diplomatic leverage over other countries. While the pandemic is an international public health crisis that will only be fully resolved once a satisfactory percentage of the entire world’s population is vaccinated, major players in world politics have politicized the crisis, turning it into another political battlefield where they can further their own agendas.

For Russia, vaccine development, production, and distribution is a matter of national pride. It was the first country to explicitly depict the issue as a race, as exemplified by the fact that the Sputnik vaccine is named after the satellite that beat its American counterpart in the space race. Quickly developing a vaccine was an opportunity to project power abroad in areas underserved by the West, and to showcase its scientific prowess and independence from Western innovation. Scoring an early win, the Kremlin has used its state-produced vaccines to taunt the European Union (EU) over its failure to distribute doses to its member states, exploiting a growing rift between the EU and Eastern European countries like Hungary and Poland. Russia has also used the vaccine to pressure Ukraine, with whom it has technically been at war since 2014. Faced with an export ban from the United States, Moscow’s offer to supply Kiev with Sputnik doses has given political ammunition to pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine.

For China, vaccine geopolitics is about rehabilitating its image as a “sanitary saviour” after being identified as the geographical origin of the virus, filling the void left in global governance by the West, and solidifying its influence in key regions of the world, such as the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Similar to Russia, China has been very successful at distributing doses to achieve political objectives while struggling to meet vaccination targets at home. A notable example is the attempt by Beijing to sway countries like Paraguay, which are considered to be under American influence, to change their stance on Taiwan’s status as an independent country in exchange for vaccines. China has also donated doses to countries that are part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in order to strengthen ties with nations that are key to its geopolitical ambitions. All of these concerns about the politicization of vaccination have been strongly dismissed by Beijing, and Chinese state-sponsored media has instead redirected criticism at Western nations for failing to share their vaccines with the rest of the world.

For India, vaccine diplomacy has turned into a tool to counter its Chinese rival’s influence in Asia through the “Vaccine Maitri” (Vaccine Friendship) initiative. Even as it faces its worst COVID-19 outbreak so far, India has donated vaccine supplies to countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar through the initiative, all of which are neighboring nations that either had poor bilateral ties with India, harbour BRI infrastructure, or have strong ties with China. New Delhi even donated doses to Paraguay at the request of Taipei as a show of solidarity with the island.

As for the United States and Europe, they are still reeling from the divisiveness caused by Brexit and the Trump administration’s isolationist policies and chose to concentrate on domestic matters as a result. Western democracies have been accused of engaging in vaccine nationalism, leaving developing countries without any immediate options other than the Chinese and Russian vaccines. The United States has been racing to vaccinate its citizens by blocking the export of vaccines, trying to make up for their disastrous early handling of the pandemic. So far, the United States has considered donating vaccines to neighboring Canada and Mexico, with whom it shares major economic ties, but not to Brazil, where the pandemic is out of control. Meanwhile, the European Union has been fighting to defend its failed “common procurement strategy” as a show of continental solidarity, and has been sparring with the United Kingdom over vaccine export controls. Rather than countering Chinese and Russian vaccine diplomacy with their own, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the EU have merely voiced concerns about the political motivations wrapped up in Beijing and Moscow’s generosity and urged countries like Paraguay to reject their proposals.

Why is it important?

Vaccine diplomacy, while allowing major powers to cement their influence abroad, has hindered efforts to fight the pandemic on a global scale. National health agencies are being pressured into not approving vaccines produced by their international rivals. For example, Beijing requires that foreign travellers be vaccinated with a COVID-19 vaccine developed in China in order to enter the country. Most Western countries still refuse to wave intellectual property rights on vaccines, which would hurt corporate profits and affect their ability to control distribution through bilateral agreements. Overall, this politicization of vaccination is slowing down efforts to inoculate populations by limiting access to vaccines and decreasing the supply of available doses.

The World Health Organization’s COVAX program has provided an alternative to vaccine diplomacy for smaller nations. The program aims to accelerate the development and manufacture of vaccines in order to guarantee fair and equitable access for every nation, but it has yet to deliver enough doses to make it viable. If the international community is aiming for a swift global economic recovery, the geopolitics of vaccination must be put on hold to ensure that most countries can quickly vaccinate their populations without worrying about the political consequences. 

A recent study by the International Chamber of Commerce Research Foundation shows that an equitable and non-politicized distribution of vaccines is in the economic interests of every country. According to this study, politicizing the issue and denying developing countries access to vaccines could cost the global economy up to USD $9.2 trillion. Sadly, in this era of renewed great power politics, major powers are striving to be remembered as heroes and have been strategically maximizing their own gains at the expense of the rest of the world.

Edited by Chelsea Bean

Benoit Dupras

Benoit is from the small northern town of Amos in Quebec, and is currently completing a B.A. in International Relations and Economics at UBC. His main research interests include geopolitics, international...