Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday, 3 March 2021


US and Asia allies plan Covid vaccine strategy to counter China

Joe Biden has identified China as the US foreign policy priority and sees the Quad as central to his efforts to challenge Beijing’s influence in Asia © Bloomberg

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The US is working with Japan, India and Australia to develop a plan to distribute Covid-19 vaccines to countries in Asia as part of a broader strategy to counter China’s influence.

The White House has held discussions with other members of the Quad, a diplomatic and security initiative between the countries, in recent weeks, according to six people familiar with the talks.

The plan to use vaccine distribution to counter Chinese efforts is among a range of measures the countries hope to announce soon, according to two people familiar with the situation.

President Joe Biden has stressed that he would work more closely with allies and his efforts have been met by rising regional concerns over China’s military and economic aggression.

“The Biden administration is making the Quad the core dynamic of its Asia policy,” said a person familiar with the strategy.

Kurt Campbell, the White House Indo-Pacific policy co-ordinator who is spearheading the effort, has held several meetings with ambassadors from the group, which was initially launched in 2004 to respond to the tsunami that devastated Indonesia and parts of south-east Asia.

One person familiar with the discussions said the strategy being developed was more ambitious than vaccines and would have a lasting impact. “The US is in the final stages of preparation for what it hopes to be a major, bold-stroke initiative in the Indo-Pacific,” the person said.

There was “deep recognition” about the need to respond to pan-national problems, the person added, including the pandemic and climate change, as well as regional security issues. The Quad was also discussing how it could boost maritime co-operation and do more in areas such as cyber security.

China has distributed its homegrown vaccines to a number of countries in the region, including the Philippines © Rolex Dela Pena/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

China has criticised the grouping, describing it as an Asian “Nato” that would increase tensions in the region.

The Quad nations have couched their plans as focusing on positive initiatives as opposed to a pure counterweight to China. Privately, however, officials said the impetus for more action was based on escalating Chinese aggression.

Tanvi Madan, an India expert at the Brookings Institution think-tank, said the focus on vaccines would ease concerns among other Asian countries that the Quad was only about containing China.

“If they can show the value to the region, as they did after the tsunami, it is a visible way of conveying that this is not just about the four countries and is a value add for the region,” she said.

Donald Trump, the former US president, revived the Quad after it had lapsed partly for political reasons in Australia, Japan and India. Biden wants to significantly boost the initiative, exploiting greater goodwill towards the US from allies in the region.

“The US is making a major push to build on previous efforts in the Quad and to raise it to a level where it will play a defining role in the region,” the person familiar with the negotiations said.

Biden has made clear that China is the top US foreign policy issue. In a recent speech, he assailed Beijing for its “economic abuses and coercion” and his administration has criticised China’s military hostility.

China has grown more assertive around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea that are administered by Japan but claimed by Beijing, which calls them the Diaoyu. It has also engaged in economic coercion of Australia after Canberra called for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus.

Relations between India and China plummeted last year after a border clash in which 21 Indian soldiers and at least 4 Chinese soldiers died. India has since sought to reduce its economic dependence on China.

The White House did not comment on the plan. A senior Indian official confirmed talks were under way about an initiative that was expected to see wealthier states pay for vaccines made in the country to be dispatched abroad.

India has a big export-oriented pharmaceutical industry and several local companies have partnered with overseas organisations to produce vaccines. The country has exported about 41m vaccine doses to emerging markets as well as to the UN and the Covax programme, a World Health Organization-backed initiative to supply jabs to low- and middle-income countries.

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