Japan struggling to show presence as China’s vaccines penetrate developing countries

The Yomiuri Shimbun

This is part of an ongoing series examining behind-the-scenes political moves concerning COVID-19 vaccines.

While democratic countries such as Japan and the United States have been struggling to contain the novel coronavirus, authoritarian states have been forcefully clamping down on infections.

The pandemic has highlighted several other differences between democratic nations and authoritarian states. China’s aggressive diplomacy with its homemade vaccines has been particularly conspicuous.

In early March, the Chinese state-run Xinhua News Agency published an article about Hungary and Chinese vaccines.

Xinhua reported that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is at odds with the European Union over his anti-migrant and anti-refugee stance, had been inoculated with a vaccine manufactured by China’s state-owned pharmaceutical giant Sinopharm.

Hungary became the first European Union member to begin administering Chinese vaccines. China has been increasing its presence in Hungary, investing heavily in projects including a railroad linking Hungary and Serbia as part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative to create a huge economic bloc.

China is said to have used coercive methods such as surveillance to contain the virus in the country.

In addition to Sinopharm, China is providing a vaccine produced by another major pharmaceutical company, Sinovac Biotech Ltd., both free and for a fee, all over the world.

China is said to be supplying vaccines to as many as 80 nations in Asia, South America, Africa, and Europe — mainly to developing countries that are unable to procure high-priced vaccines such as those made by Pfizer Inc. of the United States.

However, some people question the transparency of the data and the effectiveness of the Chinese vaccines, as the Chinese health authority has refused to disclose the information.

Nevertheless, the use of its vaccines is spreading.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte have all been inoculated with Chinese vaccines. Another thing these leaders have in common is that they have all been accused of authoritarian behavior.

About a week after Xinhua’s report about Orban, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto was at the Foreign Ministry building in Kasumigaseki, Tokyo.

Szijjarto, who was visiting Japan for an international conference, reportedly told Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi that Hungary had not received vaccines from the European Union. Hungary was not using Chinese vaccines because it wanted to, but because it had no other option but to use them.

The European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, signs contracts with pharmaceutical companies to ensure that member states can purchase vaccines at a stable price. While the European Union has guidelines that encourage member states to use EU-approved vaccines, it does not mandate their use.

Since Japan is aware of the close relationship between Hungary and China, few on the Japanese side take Szijjarto’s words at face value.

During a meeting of the Japan International Cooperation Agency Parliamentary League chaired by Fukushiro Nukaga, a member of the House of Representatives from the Liberal Democratic Party, held on May 18, some of the participants raised concerns. “I’m worried that China’s influence in the world will grow stronger in the post-coronavirus era,” one of the participants said.

There are measures that Japan, which relies on imports to obtain vaccines, should take to increase its presence.

“It’s no use just criticizing China. What is important for us is to present a new option that is different from China,” Motegi was quoted as telling British and German foreign ministers, Dominic Raab and Heiko Maas, at Admiralty House in London on May 3, before a dinner attended by G7 foreign ministers. Raab and Maas agreed with Motegi.

The statement compiled on the final day of the G7 meeting included a commitment to “promote equitable access to safe, effective and affordable vaccines within countries.”

COVAX, created by the World Health Organization and other bodies, is an international framework for the joint purchase and distribution of vaccines.

The G7 countries are contributing funds to this framework — which China is not involved in — aiming at curbing Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy to a certain extent.

The Japanese government has also focused on support for the transportation and storage of vaccines.

Under the “cold chain” support program, a global network provides cold storage and transport vehicles that allow vaccines to be stored at low temperatures needed to maintain their potency.

Japan has decided to provide a total of about ¥8.7 billion in aid to 56 countries in Asia and Africa so far.

Japan has been able to show its diplomacy amid the pandemic.

Since the end of World War II, Japan has had a tradition of providing foreign aid that contributes to economic growth and human resource training in developing countries to promote self-reliance, aiming to help such countries end their reliance on aid.

“[Japan’s support] does not end with administering the vaccines. Japan’s sustainable and meticulous support will surely flourish in the future,” a senior official of the Foreign Ministry said.