Beijing Hasn’t Won the Soft-Power Stakes, but It Has an Early Lead.
Vaccines have had a place in diplomacy since the Cold War era. The country that can manufacture and distribute lifesaving injections to others less fortunate sees a return on its investment in the form of soft power: prestige, goodwill, perhaps a degree of indebtedness, even awe. Today the country moving fastest toward consolidating these gains may be China, under President Xi Jinping, who proclaimed last May that Chinese-made vaccines against COVID-19 would become a “global public good.” Since that time, top officials have promised many developing countries priority access to Chinese vaccines, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry has announced that the country is providing free vaccines to 69 countries and commercially exporting them to 28 more.
China’s competitors worry that where Beijing’s inoculations go, its influence will follow. But the field of COVID-19 vaccination is still a largely uncharted one and scattered with barriers, whether logistical, scientific, psychological, or geopolitical. China’s path through this labyrinth is neither obvious nor assured. The country faces stiffening competition from Russia and India. Now the United States, too, has entered the global stakes for equitable distribution of safe and effective vaccines. China has yet to prove that it can fulfill the role it has taken on or win the trust of those it has offered to aid.
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