China ‘More Cautious’ Shifts Africa’s Debt Approach to Vaccine Diplomacy | China

As debt problems increase and a new variant of the coronavirus emerges, China appears to be adjusting its approach towards Africa: reducing funding pledges while doubling up on vaccine diplomacy.

Last Monday, Chinese leader Xi Jinping opened a China-Africa forum with a pledge to deliver 1 billion doses of vaccine to Africa, amid global concern over the emergence of the Omicron variant of Covid -19. He also pledged $ 40 billion to the continent, ranging from lines of credit to investments – a significant reduction from the $ 60 billion pledged at the previous two summits.

Analysts say the change in approach means Beijing is rethinking its overall strategy on the continent at a time of a Covid health emergency and great competition for powers.

“In a way, Xi’s reduced financial commitment is not surprising as we’ve already seen signs over the past two years,” says Lina Benabdallah of Wake Forest University in North Carolina. “China has entered a phase of greater caution with regard to Africa. After two decades of heavy public funding, it is starting to slow down. “

The caution, as Carlos Lopes of the University of Cape Town notes, stems in part from the West’s long-standing narrative of China’s alleged debt trap and of taking advantage of Africans to exploit natural resources and export their resources. inexpensive products.

“[Beijing is] sensitive to criticism and [is] respond to it by applying tools they know will like and will mask firm negative opinions resulting from past exposure, ”said Lopes. “… [W]e are witnessing an evolution towards a more technocratic approach; obviously more cautious, using soft conditionality and creating new instruments to control flows more closely. “

High morale

The billion doses pledged include 600 million donations and 400 million locally produced doses, in addition to the 200 million doses already delivered to African countries under previous pledges. Xi said China will also send 1,500 health experts to Africa to help.

Xi’s remarks came at a time when China’s vaccine diplomacy is under intense scrutiny. Yet Carlos Oya, an expert on China-Africa relations at Soas, University of London, says that if scaling up immunization in Africa genuinely contributes to a gradual end of the pandemic globally, it could be a significant achievement.

“[It’s] potentially giving impetus to a narrative that China has helped end this pandemic beyond its borders. “

Chris Alden, director of think tank LSE Ideas, says that with the announcement, China hopes to be able to occupy moral ground by facing an acute crisis experienced by another developing region and simultaneously demonstrating its capacity. to produce and deliver vaccines across Africa.

“This global public good will simultaneously open up more market opportunities for Chinese pharmaceuticals in the spirit of the oft-quoted adage of ‘doing good while doing well’,” he said.

Critics, however, argue that Xi’s focus on vaccines in Africa is nothing new. At the end of February, China pledged to provide vaccines to 19 African countries. To date, 46 African countries have received vaccines from China. Of the 155 million doses promised to Africa so far, China has delivered 107 million, including only 16 million in donations, according to Bridge Beijing, a vaccine tracker.

“An emergency that cannot wait”

The Omicron outbreak, which was first detected by South African scientists who then alerted the world, has highlighted the wide gaps in vaccination rates. About 11% of people on the African continent have received at least one dose, while only 7% are fully immunized. In contrast, almost 32% of the UK population aged 12 and over have already had their third jab.

“There were a lot of good words from various leaders, but the actual delivery of the vaccines fell short of the promises made … by Covax, the US, by Australia,” said Professor Joel Negin, director from the University of Sydney School of Public Health.

Covax got pledges of around 5.59 billion doses from various governments, but only delivered 585 million. Australia has promised around 60 million doses to other countries, says Negin, but delivered around 9 million.

“We now see that there is an emergency that cannot wait.”

Health agencies and experts have long warned that leaving developing countries under-immunized increases the risk of new variants emerging that threaten the whole world. But the uneven distribution of vaccines has seen entire regions like Africa mostly unvaccinated as rich countries begin to roll out booster shots. A recent analysis suggested that two-thirds of people in high-income countries were fully immunized, compared to just 2.5% of people in low-income countries.

There are several reasons for this deficit, says Negin, including the lack of production capacity outside of a few countries.

“We’ve had two years, we should have put systems in place and invested in production capacity in Southeast Asia, in southern Africa, for the production of mRNA vaccines,” he said. “It can’t be done overnight, but we have to start building these capacities. “

The delay was in large part due to continued refusals by governments to issue intellectual property waivers on vaccines, he adds – something backed by US President Joe Biden and which Xi also called for in his speech.

Xi said, “We must put people and their lives first, be guided by science, support the waiver of intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines, and truly ensure accessibility and affordability of vaccines by Africa to close the immunization gap. “

While China has delivered fewer vaccines to Africa than elsewhere, it has committed more than most bilateral donors and the Covax initiative, said Leah Lynch, deputy director of Development Reimagined, a development consultancy firm. international led by Africans.

She said the key element of Xi’s speech was not the 600 million donations but the 400 million from joint productions. “This… is a demand-driven initiative that came from Africa. They want to be able to produce vaccines themselves. “

Egypt has already made a deal to produce Sinovac, while Senegal will produce Sinopharm, and 14 Chinese pharmaceutical companies were also involved in production or investment in Africa, Lynch said.

“At the end of the day, it’s about self-sufficiency. “

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