Vaccine diplomacy- the next bargaining frontier?

Masters student Kate Hellings looks at what might be behind the decisions countries make when it comes to the purchase and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. Kate recently participated in the Foundation’s NextGen Track II workshop and roundtable discussion leading into the second annual Otago National Security School.
A woman administering a jab into the arm of another woman

 Kate: "As nations like the USA, UK, Russia, the EU and China continue to develop vaccines, the race to acquire and distribute them has become akin to the space race."

As I sit here reflecting on possible topics for my masters thesis focusing on national security, I see news reports of New Zealand vaccinating its first border workers. New Zealand has negotiated its own purchase of vaccines and pledged to share its stocks with its Pacific Island neighbours and protectorates.

The first time I read about vaccine diplomacy I was perusing an article from the Japan Times discussing how Indonesia had approved a Chinese-developed vaccine for its COVID-19 recovery. Is the future of diplomacy rooted in the trade of vaccines? I believe it is.

As nations like the USA, UK, Russia, the EU and China continue to develop vaccines, the race to acquire and distribute them has become akin to the space race.

Alongside competition comes alliance building, wedging (the notion of deliberately creating divide between alliances), selfish behaviour and isolationism. These behaviours have been driven by an international consensus that vaccinations are the key to beating the pandemic, and the countries that do it first and most effectively will both save lives, and generate a better economic recovery.

More than one epidemiologist has suggested New Zealand, like many other nations, was unprepared for a pandemic of this magnitude. A lack of leadership from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other multilateral organisations has only exacerbated the issue. This lack of leadership has given rise to what has been coined as vaccine nationalism.

Posed by Ana Santos Ratschman, vaccine nationalism was previously seen during the H1N1 pandemic. It can present itself as one nation securing the exclusive rights to a particular vaccine prior to its official release; or one nation over-ordering vaccines to ensure they will have enough to inoculate their population. This leaves middle-to-lower income nations at a loss-not only about the cost of acquiring vaccines, but also unsure about the time-frame for when their vaccines might arrive.

Never has the divide between rich and developing nations been so clear; and neither has such an opportunity to use vaccinations for political outcomes - be it to domestic or international audiences. This could explain why some states have agreed to purchase vaccines from states they would not usually partner with; or in some cases have been openly critical about.

Three examples include Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, which have all signed contracts to purchase their vaccines from the People's Republic of China.

Beijing has filled a supply-and-demand gap in the vaccine market and at the same time extended its soft power outreach across the region.

A man taking a liquid out of a syringe with a hypodermic needle

Meanwhile, at home in New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern noted that an area of concern for her was achieving public buy-in.

How does a government convince its population to vaccinate following decades of debate on whether to vaccinate or not? And while there are those detractors who choose not to believe the science, New Zealand is enjoying the benefits of good public health outcomes alongside good economic outcomes through having closely adhered to scientific evidence-based solutions.

Evidence has shown isolationism will not beat the virus. If buy-in from the community is required to beat COVID-19 at a national level, cooperation, this time between nations, will be required if the virus is to be beaten internationally.

One state experiencing a large and uncontrolled outbreak will inevitably affect the national security of others. And where one state is vastly ill-equipped compared to another to address the pandemic, this also requires a collaborative effort to address.

I have faith in the rules-based international order. I believe that through regionalism and through frameworks such as ASEAN or RCEP collaboration and information sharing can lead to positive results.

The key is inclusiveness and cooperation - these are values that New Zealand espouses in its foreign policy, alongside kindness and stewardship of our intergenerational wellbeing.

These values will be tested over the coming months, but I am optimistic. Now more than ever, we need to continue to stand united and vigilant against not only COVID-19, but also the geo-political,economic and social implications that follow in its wake.

Views expressed in this article are personal to the author and are not to be taken as representing those of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

About the author

Kate Hellings is a Freyberg Scholar studying a Masters of Politics at the University of Otago. Kate’s interests lie in national security and New Zealand foreign policy. Kate previously completed a conjoint degree in Law and a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Politics. She recently participated in the Foundation’s NextGen Track II workshop and roundtable discussion leading into the second annual Otago National Security School.