U.S. and China Vaccine Diplomacy in the MENA region


Since the emergence of COVID-19, healthcare cooperation and solidarity in the battle against the pandemic has been critical in minimizing the problem. As a result, collaboration on health concerns has increased overall diplomatic support among states.

Following the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China faced a critical crisis at home as well as international pressure in the form of charges that it bungled the pandemic’s early phases. Some lawmakers in the United States have proposed a conspiracy theory about the virus’s origins. Then-US President Donald Trump constantly blamed China for the virus’s spread, even using the phrase “Chinese Virus” in public speeches, giving the appearance that China was a danger to the globe. This combative stance harmed diplomatic ties between the United States and China. Beijing, on the other hand, wants to utilize vaccine diplomacy to promote its position as a responsible global health player. China has engaged in health and vaccine diplomacy all around the globe, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. In 2020, China will send physicians, nurses, and researchers to Abu Dhabi for medical conferences. In August of that year, China constructed a laboratory in Baghdad, Iraq, with the assistance of Chinese scientists, to assist the nation in confirmed cases during the outbreak of COVID-19. Furthermore, China sent test kits and ventilators to both Palestine and Algeria. Furthermore, China localized vaccine manufacturing with Egypt, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Turkey, while Iran and Palestine depended solely on Chinese vaccinations to combat the epidemic. China’s early vaccination gifts coincided with the Trump administration’s relative disengagement from the international scene. In the early stages of the epidemic, China was the only vaccine provider for several nations. China has previously promised to send 1 billion Covid19 vaccine shots to African nations by 2021. China has also donated 141 million vaccine doses to the Asia-Pacific area, making Africa and the Asia-Pacific the two most important Chinese vaccine recipient regions. The majority of these Chinese vaccine supplies were obtained via bilateral sales or contributions.

China’s Covid19 Vaccine Donations by regions

Most of the nations that got the vaccine in Asia and Africa were already members of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s vaccination diplomacy, therefore, emphasised and reaffirmed the BRI’s value in nations strategically crucial to Beijing. For example, in Egypt, where the Suez Canal serves as a vital strategic crossroads to Europe, China not only donated vaccinations but also constructed a plant to produce Chinese vaccines in Egypt. This will help Egyptian partners to acquire clout and expand their exports to other African countries. However, the efficacy and safety of Chinese vaccinations have remained a major issue across the MENA area. Many nations have a negative impression of Chinese goods, which has influenced public faith in the effectiveness of Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines. In Egypt, the public has been wary about Chinese vaccinations while putting their faith in Western vaccines like as AstraZeneca. This is due, in part, to the seeming openness of scientific research in the West, as opposed to more opaque procedures in China. In 2021, Saudi Arabia established specific requirements for tourists to receive at least one dosage of the Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson vaccinations, or at least two booster doses of Sinovac and Sinopharm, in order to enter the country. Despite the fact that many nations in the area used Chinese vaccines, favourable attitudes toward Chinese vaccines waned as Western alternatives became accessible. Since the middle of 2021, Chinese vaccines have suffered a major drop in worldwide demand, with nations such as Brazil and Indonesia refusing to renew their contracts. This reduction corresponded with the lifting of limitations on Indian vaccinations, as well as the increasing manufacturing of additional vaccines by Moderna and Pfizer in the second half of 2021. Following a delayed start, the United States became the world’s greatest contributor to vaccinations in 2021. It has sent about 114 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to around 80 poor nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. According to UNICEF figures, China is the second-largest provider, with 34 million doses. According to US State Department statistics, the western hemisphere got the most vaccination, with 40 million doses, followed by Sub-Saharan Africa, which received 29 million. The Middle East and North Africa area got just 4 million doses of donated US vaccinations, making it one of the locations with the fewest vaccine recipients.

US Vaccine Donations by Region

Despite the fact that the United States joined the vaccine diplomacy race later, Chinese vaccine diplomacy has encountered significant challenges as a result of the proliferation of the highly transmissible Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5. Even when taken as a booster dose, Chinese vaccinations were less effective against the new subvariant. Following that, Sinopharm and Sinovac shipped a total of 6.78 million doses in April, a decrease of 97% from the high in September 2021. Western vaccinations like Pfizer and Moderna are based on newer mRNA technology that is not yet accessible in China, and both are more effective against the virus in single doses than the Chinese vaccine.

China and US Vaccine Visions of Vaccine Diplomacy

In his statement at the opening ceremony of the 73rd World Health Assembly online conference in September, Chinese President Xi Jinping mentioned “community of health and shared future for humanity.” His vision emphasised the need of bolstering global efforts to combat the epidemic, and he positioned China as a responsible participant in the global health sector. China’s diplomacy during the epidemic, as well as its ambition in defining the global health agenda, benefit the Chinese political system, and Chinese authorities and media sources have defended the Chinese model in dealing with the health crisis as an alternative to Western powers. China, through applying the concept of “shared community,” is prioritising multilateral global efforts.

Analysts suggest, however, that China is using vaccine diplomacy to acquire power in order to change the geopolitical environment to its advantage. In 2020, when many poor nations were in desperate need of vaccines, China was the greatest contributor of vaccine doses. In the long term, China’s vaccine diplomacy is expanding its soft power, notably in the MENA area. Vaccine diplomacy is forming a new kind of Chinese diplomacy in  poor countries, in which health cooperation is exploited to achieve diplomatic aims.

Furthermore, the lack of the United States’ engagement in this sector within the MENA region has allowed China greater legitimacy to present itself as a worldwide supplier of public goods and therefore strengthened its position in the global health system. Beijing won this round of public diplomacy with swift action and specific attention to nations ignored by Washington, giving it more confidence in future endeavors. In contrast, the United States’ inadequate management of the pandemic crisis at home exposed flaws in its domestic system and weakened its image as the world’s leader, fuelling disillusionment with the American model of capitalism and democracy. The United States efforts in vaccine contributions and supply beginning in 2021 demonstrate that the Biden administration is attempting to increase its position and establish its leadership over the pandemic response, which has been challenged by China, particularly during Trump’s tenure. Trump’s unwillingness to take real efforts to control the virus at home, as well as his decision to resign from the World Health Organization, saying that it was biased against China, all weakened the US’ global leadership position.

President Joe Biden’s intentions for the epidemic have been substantially different since taking office. His proposals for vaccine distribution and donation to poorer nations demonstrate a readiness to participate in international collaboration to halt the spread of the epidemic and guarantee the United States’ worldwide involvement in combating the virus. Biden has shown the willingness of the United States to play an effective role in vaccine distribution, stating that “America will be the arsenal of vaccinations in the worldwide battle against the pandemic, just as America was the arsenal of democracy in World War II.” The Biden administration’s commitment to vaccine distribution was a positive step toward securing American leadership in global public health, and it helped to revitalize the country’s influence in the MENA region and internationally. The status of China as a growing power has shifted dramatically in the international order dominated by the United States. Indeed, the COVID-19 issue has exacerbated the rivalry between the two nations. Because the future international order will no longer be defined by a single state, it will be impossible for a single country to lead it. China has emerged as a significant player as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic; vaccine diplomacy has been beneficial in improving China’s ties with many impoverished nations. This circumstance puts China in a good position to seek global leadership, but the extent to which it participates will be important in the long run.

Theoretically, there should be no inherent conflict in the Middle East between the United States and China. Both are concerned with stability and are emotionally engaged in the status quo. The Chinese strategy in the MENA area is more concerned with economic and development integration than with opposing other countries’ interests. In terms of infrastructure and technology, China is a regional powerhouse. The massive expansion of China’s influence in many fields, including as infrastructure, technology, renewable energy, and finance, has contributed to increased foreign direct investment and job creation in developing nations, something the United States and Western powers have failed to do. China has significant ties with the majority of the MENA region’s nations. Of course, China’s stance in the area suits its interests – to maintain a stable domestic environment via economic cooperation – but generally, China’s involvement with the region has been successful owing to the continuous decline of the United States’ influence in the region. While the two states compete for vaccine distribution, Chinese diplomacy will remain focused on prioritising its interests without getting entangled in regional concerns that may lead to a war with the US. Finally, neither the United States nor China have been particularly effective in containing the COVID-19 epidemic. Their domestic and global policies emphasise their disparate ideals and political systems. As a result of the epidemic, their rivalry has become more intense.

Anuj Dhyani
Anuj Dhyani
Anuj Dhyani is currently pursuing a master's in Diplomacy, Law, and Business from OP Jindal Global University. My area of interest lies in South Asia, US Foreign Policy, and Chinese Foreign Policy. Currently my academic interests in focused on the security of the Asia region and China’s influence in the region