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In a world in which COVID-19 vaccinations hold the key to everything from public health to the economy and diplomacy, countries that produce the vaccines have a huge geoeconomic advantage, allowing them to use that power to push their agenda to other countries.

Interestingly, authoritarian countries, namely Russia and China, have resorted to vaccine diplomacy, prioritizing exporting vaccines over inoculating their own people. Democratic governments, meanwhile, have prioritized vaccination drives at home, and have faced accusations of vaccine nationalism.

Where does Japan stand in this global situation?

Vaccinations are undeniably the key to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, and countries like Israel, where half of the population have already been vaccinated, are seeing a dramatic decline in numbers of new infections, allowing people’s lives to start getting back to normal.

The United States and the United Kingdom, two of the countries hit particularly hard by the pandemic, are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel thanks to their vaccine rollouts.

In such a situation, geoeconomic competition and conflicts are emerging in regards to who can develop and manufacture vaccines, and who can get vaccinated.

It is easy for autocratic governments to decide who can develop vaccines and who can get inoculated based on a geoeconomic strategy.

Russia, which has a history of developing biological weapons during the Cold War, created a COVID-19 vaccine at a surprising speed, naming it Sputnik V in honor of its accomplishment of launching the world’s first satellite during the Cold War.

The nation skipped the all-important late stage of clinical trials, a necessary process in conventional vaccine development, and started vaccinating its people.

The world was surprised to see that late-stage trial results published in the Lancet, an authoritative journal on infectious disease research, showed that the Sputnik V vaccine gives 91.6% efficacy against COVID-19.

According to the website of the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology which manufactures Sputnik V, Russia had supplied the vaccine to more than 20 countries as of February.

Duke University’s Launch and Scale Speedometer, which tracks global vaccine deals, shows that the vaccine is being supplied mainly to Latin American countries, in addition to 100 million doses to India and 50 million doses to Vietnam, according to a list of recipients whose contracts were confirmed.

Moreover, Russia is offering vaccine tours, making a business out of attracting rich people from countries with limited access to vaccines.

China was similarly quick, but the efficacy of a vaccine developed by Sinopharm, for example, is reported to be 79%, less than that of the vaccines developed in Western nations and Russia.

Still, Chinese products are serving well enough as a strategic tool amid high global demand for vaccines.

China is reported to have sold or donated vaccines to 63 countries, including nine members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, countries neighboring India, such as Sri Lanka and Nepal, and a number of European nations such as Hungary and Serbia.

It is worth noting that China donates only tens or hundreds of thousands of doses per country. Such amounts are not enough to achieve herd immunity, and are likely to have been distributed among elites and wealthy people.

Some of the countries that received the vaccine donations later purchased millions of doses from China, suggesting that the first batches of vaccines are being treated like promotional samples.

A shipment of Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine is handled at an airport in Caracas, Venezuela, on March 29. | REUTERS
A shipment of Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine is handled at an airport in Caracas, Venezuela, on March 29. | REUTERS

The important point regarding vaccine diplomacy is that both Russia and China are prioritizing exporting vaccines over inoculating their own people.

Some 5.5 million people in Russia — only 3.8% of the nation’s population — had been given their first vaccine shot as of mid-March.

China is aiming at completely vaccinating 40% of its population by the end of June, but as of mid-April, it had vaccinated only 12.5%.

That the two nations can conduct a vaccine strategy prioritizing exports over vaccination of their own people is possible because they are autocratic regimes.

Vaccine nationalism

On the other hand, vaccines are the only means to get out of the pandemic for Western countries, which reported huge numbers of new infections and coronavirus-linked deaths and experienced difficulty containing the virus even with forcible measures like lockdowns.

These countries, therefore, gave top priority to achieving herd immunity as soon as possible by distributing vaccines they made to their own people.

Both the U.S. and the U.K., which have successfully developed vaccines with unprecedented speed, restricted their export. The European Union also prioritized supplying vaccines within the region by adopting export control measures.

Amid such a rise in vaccine nationalism, democracies pinned their hopes on India, a major manufacturer of generic drugs that also has high-quality vaccine development infrastructure and production capability due to past experiences of tackling infectious diseases.

The leaders of the so-called Quad countries — Japan, the U.S., Australia and India — agreed in a meeting held in March that they would work together to boost vaccine manufacturing capacity in India to counter China’s vaccine diplomacy.

In March, Paraguay, which has official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, said it had been approached by China with offers of Chinese-made vaccines in exchange for switching its diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei.

The incident prompted the U.S. to ask India to provide vaccines to Paraguay, enabling the South American nation to push back against pressure from China and maintain ties with Taiwan.

However, the number of infections in India has surged since April, leading to a sharp rise in domestic demand for vaccines and forcing the country to halt exports.

Meanwhile, with the progress of vaccination drives in the U.S. and U.K., there will be more room for those nations to boost vaccine shipments overseas.

Vaccine diplomacy

Countries that produce vaccines have a geoeconomic advantage that they can convert into political power to pressure other nations to accept their policies or requests.

Countries that lack vaccines are eager to get hold of supplies and if a country receives vaccines from only one supplier, the supplying nation will have an overwhelming influence on the recipient.

Paraguay’s case is a good example of countering an autocratic government’s vaccine diplomacy by interrupting its attempt to monopolize vaccine supplies.

While authoritarian leadership can conduct vaccine diplomacy by exporting vaccines — even if it means a delay in inoculating its own people — democratic governments have to prioritize vaccination drives at home.

In such a situation, speed is the key to democratic nations’ vaccine diplomacy.

By developing vaccines faster and completing inoculations at home, there will be more room for the governments to conduct vaccine diplomacy and maintain geoeconomic superiority.

In order to do so, it is important to develop infrastructure for vaccine development, nurture human resources and prepare production systems in normal times.

A resident receives a China National Biotec Group (CNBG) COVID-19 vaccine in Shenyang, China, on May 23. Beijing has been accused of pursuing vaccine diplomacy ahead of inoculating its own people. | STR / VIA AFP-JIJI
A resident receives a China National Biotec Group (CNBG) COVID-19 vaccine in Shenyang, China, on May 23. Beijing has been accused of pursuing vaccine diplomacy ahead of inoculating its own people. | STR / VIA AFP-JIJI

As the COVID-19 pandemic brought serious damage even to industrialized countries, infectious disease crises are now positioned not only as a public health issue but also as something against which the government must work to protect people’s lives and assets, just as with national security issues.

But in Japan, as a report released in October by the Asia Pacific Initiative on the government’s COVID-19 response said, there is a common understanding that the country’s virus countermeasures were “belated and unprepared but produced good results,” and that the virus can be contained by social intervention, such as asking for social distancing, rather than by vaccinations.

With COVID-19 variants spreading fast and becoming increasingly difficult to contain, Japan is finally starting to worry about its slow vaccine rollout.

There are several reasons why Japan, a country with a booming pharmaceutical industry, doesn’t have homegrown vaccines.

The nation has been focusing more on developing therapeutic drugs rather than vaccines to serve its aging population and its research and development budgets were limited. Pharmaceutical companies and the government have been cautious of the risks of engaging in vaccine development due to past incidents concerning side effects.

It is not easy to solve these issues and it is unlikely that Japan will be able to develop vaccines at the speed required for a democratic country any time soon.

The government should consider vaccine development as a national security issue and provide assistance to fundamental vaccine research to prepare for future pandemics.

Infectious diseases are disasters that can happen at any time, just like earthquakes and tsunamis.

The government must offer support for vaccine development, an area difficult to do business in, to protect against infectious disease outbreaks in the same way as taking precautions against earthquakes.

It is also vital for Japan to build ties with pharmaceutical firms around the world and invest in the network to obtain necessary amounts of vaccines in case they cannot be developed at home.

Although countries that produce vaccines might introduce export control measures, it will still be necessary to maintain good relationships with such firms so that, when possible, it is easier to sign contracts and gain approval for vaccine shipments.

Vaccine strategy

Until now, Japan’s vaccine diplomacy has been focused on fair distribution of vaccines to ensure human security.

Fair distribution of vaccines is essential for the global community’s fight against pandemics.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the focus of public health from international cooperation to national security, making countries aware of the need to come up with geoeconomic strategies.

The government needs to rebuild its strategy on infectious diseases, including vaccine development, testing, inoculation and treatment, as a national security strategy.

Instead of leaving it to the health ministry or the foreign ministry, the government as a whole should urgently rework the strategy from a geoeconomic perspective, under the oversight of the National Security Secretariat’s economic division.

The government can implement a human security strategy only after securing its citizens’ health and safety.

Kazuto Suzuki is a professor at the University of Tokyo and senior consulting fellow at Asia Pacific Initiative, an independent think tank based in Tokyo. API Geoeconomic Briefing, provided by API, is a series that looks into geopolitical and economic trends in the post-COVID-19 world, with a particular focus on technology and innovation, global supply chains, international rule-making and climate change.

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