The Jab Geopolitics: EU Left Behind in Southeast Asia as China and US Push ‘Vaccine Diplomacy’

Written by | Tuesday, July 27th, 2021

When it comes to the European Union’s global vaccine drive, the bloc’s members “have their geo-strategic calculations in mind, and will likely favor countries that are friendly or important to European interests,” according to one ASEAN expert. With Covid cases surging in many Southeast Asian countries amid a slow mass vaccination drive, the EU’s international vaccine drive runs the risk of falling behind other major international powers especially in this region, where the United States is ramping up their vaccine-donation programs to compete with China’s contributions.
US President Joe Biden pledged in May to donate 80 million vaccines worldwide from the country’s domestic supply, 75% of which will go through the global COVAX program and the rest donated directly by the US and “targeted to help deal with surges around the world.” And while the White House stressed that the “United States will not use its vaccines to secure favors from other countries,” the 30 countries listed for direct donations are mostly US-friendly nations, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia. The EU, meanwhile, has provided around €3 billion for the COVAX effort, according to Jutta Urpilainen, the European Commissioner for International Partnerships. On top of that, EU member states have reportedly already pledged 11 million doses for donation internationally, of which around 9 million will be sent through COVAX. “We believe that assistance should not be politicized and vaccines should not be used as a bargaining chip for political gains,” said Peter Stano, the European Commission’s lead spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
Member states can decide to donate vaccines to lower and middle-income countries directly or to redirect it to other European countries, as outlined by the EU Vaccines Strategy. But EU assistance in Southeast Asia’s vaccination programs has by and large fallen under the radar because it has been chiefly pursued through the COVAX facility. Vaccines that arrive through the COVAX scheme bear the logos of the UN and other facility partners, instead of the countries that donated the money. According to a Malaysian government official, the entire process is confusing because ASEAN member states do not know if they should “ask EU officials or diplomats from EU member states for vaccines” and if they should “thank the EU for COVAX-donated vaccines or European countries?”
By late June, China had donated or sold around 120 million vaccines to Southeast Asian states, an estimated 4.8 times as many as was donated to the region by the COVAX facility. For example, according to a source from the Cambodian government, there is almost no talk within government circles of future European vaccine donations, while vaccine donations made through the COVAX facility have attracted almost no public recognition. The EU “may prioritize Africa over Asia in its vaccine diplomacy,” said Le Hong Hiep, a senior fellow at the Vietnam Studies Program at the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak institute in Singapore, which is owing to “historical ties” and “the fact that Africa is lagging behind other areas in vaccine access” are the main driving factors. “EU members will also have their geo-strategic calculations in mind, and it will likely favor countries that are friendly or important to European interests. Vietnam will therefore have a good chance of getting some vaccines donated by the EU,” Hiep added.

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