Indo-Pacific nations are under pressure to give Chinese firms favourable access to infrastructure and economic opportunities in return for the supply of Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines.
China’s push to deliver vaccines into developing nations comes with “strings attached”, according to sources involved in the immunisation programs, at a time tensions between Beijing and Western nations over influence in the region are rising.
As the COVAX Facility and Quad nations — Australia, the US, India and Japan — lead the vaccination rollout in the Indo-Pacific, concerns have been raised that countries that accept China’s support will be forced into concessions and face efficacy and delivery challenges.
With the US stockpiling vaccinations, China has targeted pandemic-affected nations in Latin America and the South Pacific attempting to increase its strategic leverage. Despite issues around the effectiveness of its vaccines, China has secured agreements with countries including The Philippines, Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates and Brazil.
Brazil, ravaged by COVID-19 and in desperate need of Chinese vaccinations, has eased its opposition to Huawei involvement in auctions for its 5G wireless network. While China’s discussions with Pacific nations including the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Vanuatu remain preliminary, Australia and its partners have successfully advanced vaccinations in the region offering “end-to-end” support.
Perth US-Asia Centre director Jeffrey Wilson said China had a long history of using “conditionalised economic punishments or inducements” to get its way.
“China’s vaccine diplomacy is really just a form of economic diplomacy,” Dr Wilson said.
“We’ve seen sanctions against Australia, we’ve seen the Belt and Road Initiative, and now we’ve got vaccine diplomacy.
“They are all fundamentally the same thing, using economic sticks and carrots,” he said.
“It’s a common path of the Chinese aid program which has never been transparent.”
The Australian understands pressure is building for the Morrison government to significantly expand its health security funding commitments in the May 11 budget to strengthen Australia’s influence in the South Pacific.
The first batch of 8000 AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines, pledged by Scott Morrison last week to enable the vaccination of PNG’s essential health workforce, arrived on Tuesday. The Solomon Islands received its first doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine through COVAX last week.
Dr Wilson said deals involving Huawei were often a condition of Chinese support. “It’s not always Huawei, but they have been very, very active in support of Huawei as China’s national tech champion,” he said.
China’s attempts to get PNG to accept its vaccines has been rebuffed by the Marape government, which last week approved the AstraZeneca jabs for use.
Yet the Australian-backed vaccination program in PNG and elsewhere in the Pacific — which aims to get at least 20 per cent population immunised — faces significant challenges because of high levels of public mistrust, fuelled by some local MPs.
Port Moresby General Hospital chief executive Paki Molumi said many of his staff were afraid to receive the vaccination.
“They see small one-in-a-million side effects, and with the social media, this information has become escalated, putting fear on our staff,” Dr Molumi said.
“But this is an infection that is growing, and the staff is more at risk than anyone.
“So they have to be strong to give them confidence that they are protected, and they continue to provide service to the public.
Will Genia message of support for PNG vaccine rollout
“How we handle this first lot of vaccines in Port Moresby will play a very important role in getting the message to the rest of the country. That is a big worry for us,” Dr Molumi said.
UNICEF, which is working with the Australian and PNG governments to support vaccine delivery, will use influencers to help tackle vaccine hesitancy.
Former Wallabies rugby star and UNICEF Australia ambassador Will Genia, who was born in Port Moresby, has filmed a video speaking about the vaccine rollout. Promoting equal vaccine access for developing nations, Genia said it was important to spread “the right, correct information on vaccines”.
Peter Yama, the governor of Madang Province, is one of those spreading anti-vaccination messages on WhatsApp, including claims that Bill Gates’s backing of the program is aimed at slashing world population numbers.
Prime Minister James Marape has pledged to be one of the first to get the vaccine. “I am willing to be the first person to be vaccinated and you could see me to be a guinea pig,” he said. “If I die in the process, then you all don’t take the vaccine; but if I am still alive … you can follow me.”