The coronavirus disease (Covid-19) vaccines are becoming an important tool in diplomacy, more potent as a weapon than a strategic nuclear ballistic missile.
As countries around the world scramble to acquire them to defeat the pandemic, big powers are using the vaccines to gain political and economic influence.
Four powers, armed with nuclear weapons, control the doses — the United States and its allies in Western Europe, including the United Kingdom; Russia, China and India.
China has been giving away for free hundreds of thousands of doses produced by Sinopharm and Sinovac to African, Asian, Latin American and Middle East countries not only as a sign of goodwill and friendship, but to make these countries indebted to Beijing.
Russia has been doing the same and India has found it to be an effective way of countering China’ influence in South Asia, donating doses to Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and faraway Middle East and Africa.
If China, Russia and India were giving vaccines, the United States and its Western allies as well as Japan in East Asia have pooled their resources together to fund the vaccine-sharing Covax initiative of the World Health Organization.
Washington has initially put up a $2-billion fund for Covax to deliver vaccines to nearly 100 countries around the world, twice the number that Russia, China and India have helped.
The vaccines will eventually shape the foreign policy of smaller states around the world, crucial in voting for a resolution in the United Nations on important issues, like settling disputes and dealing with the environment, military conflicts and humanitarian crises.
The vaccines will eventually have an impact on trade and the economy of countries, including the exploration and exploitation of natural resources, like energy, precious metals and agriculture.
For instance, Rodrigo Duterte profusely thanked China’s Xi Jinping when 600,000 CoronaVac doses from Sinovac were delivered on Feb. 28, the first vaccines for the Philippines.
Duterte was willing to throw away the country’s military alliance with the United States for a token amount of vaccines, which the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned should not be given to the elderly and health workers directly exposed to Covid-19 patients.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, both elderly members of the Cabinet, avoided taking the jab, heeding the FDA’s advice.
A week later, when the Covax facility delivered 525,400 doses in two tranches, the US embassy in Manila posted on its Twitter account that Washington contributed $2 billion to the fund that brought the vaccines to Manila.
Covax has committed to deliver 44 million doses within the year, about 15 percent of the country’s requirement.
These two instances illustrated the competition between the US and China to win the Philippines to their side as the two powers’ rivalry intensifies even after the departure of Donald Trump from the White House.
The first high-level talks between the United States and China in Alaska last week ended in heated exchanges, highlighting the two countries’ stormy relations.
But the vaccines are not only a foreign policy tool, they could also be used domestically to win votes in next year’s general elections as politicians can dangle the jabs in exchange for votes.
The Philippines was the last country among Southeast Asian states to start vaccination but it continued to struggle to get adequate supply to immunize its population and achieve herd immunity by the end of the year.
Like his boss, vaccine czar Carlito Galvez has been making empty promises. He blames the tight global supply for the delayed delivery of the vaccines.
But one reason for the delays could be that the Philippines has not committed the funds to buy the vaccines. Under the 2021 budget approved by Congress, only 2.5 million pesos was allocated for vaccine procurement.
Last year, Duterte repeatedly said the country could only return to normalcy once the vaccines became available, and his pandemic response was centered on the vaccines as a “silver bullet” to end the health crisis.
But he chose not to put a larger amount in the budget to buy vaccines, giving in to politicians’ demand for a bigger budget for infrastructure to fund pet projects ahead of the elections.
He has completely relied on loans from multilateral financial institutions, like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, to finance vaccine procurement.
The loans were recently approved but the Philippines is not sure how fast it could negotiate with vaccine-makers to deliver the doses.
Economists are saying the Philippines could only complete immunization of 70 percent of its population by the first quarter of 2023 to reopen its economy, which shrank 9.3 percent last year, the worst performance since the Second World War.
With slow vaccination and uncertainty in getting the supplies, the private sector has requested the government to allow them to talk directly to vaccine-makers to make sure they reopen their businesses as soon as possible.
Duterte’s government has other plans. It wanted to make industries and the people depend entirely on his administration to provide the vaccines.
When the bulk of the doses are delivered by the end of the year and the government starts mass vaccination, Duterte has every reason to gloat about his pandemic response.
The timing is ripe as campaigning for the May 2022 elections start in January next year.