China’s Vaccine Diplomacy in Brunei: Boon or Bane?

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken over the world at an unparalleled pace since the beginning of 2020. Countries both rich and poor are in the midst of a hard battle with the pandemic, which has put a strain on healthcare sectors around the world. In the midst of this global challenge, various large countries have engaged in “vaccine diplomacy” for a range of purposes, from improving their diplomatic relationships to exerting soft influence over other countries.

In general, vaccine diplomacy is known as the use of vaccines to improve bilateral cooperation between two nations and to enhance influence. The reliance on this new method of diplomacy emerged from the limitations of vaccine nationalism, in which the threat of the pandemic forced countries to make the difficult decision to prioritize and inoculate their own population before making vaccines available for other nations. However, it soon became clear to many that “no country is safe from COVID-19 until all countries are safe from COVID-19.” A collaborative effort at tackling the pandemic can only be made possible through vaccine diplomacy, which has drastically altered relations between provider and recipient states. One good example is the case of China and Brunei.

A Soft Power Strategy

In today’s pandemic-afflicted strategic landscape, countries across the world have undertaken soft power charm offensives, including vaccine diplomacy, in the pursuit of their national interests. China is no exception, and has enforced its regional leadership role and expanded its geopolitical influence through broad vaccine diplomacy engagements, which Chinese leaders have described as a reflection of their country’s commitment to produce vaccines as a “global public good.”

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However, vaccine diplomacy is also an opportunity for a nation to reward old friends and acquire new ones by highlighting the virtues of their political systems, markets, and ideologies. Manufacturing and distributing vaccines demonstrates nations’ scientific prowess and helps project their values onto the international stage. In China’s case, lower income countries that are struggling to access vaccines have been likely to accept its assistance during the pandemic. For example, Beijing has granted 53 countries free shipments of vaccines, including the Philippines, Pakistan, and various countries in Africa. The current COVID-19 situation within these countries far outweighs the capacity of the health infrastructure. Therefore, China’s immediate response is vital to these countries in curbing the spread.

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While the distribution of vaccines to other countries may be motivated by economic and political interests, China’s vaccine diplomacy is currently winning the diplomacy race just by being able to promptly and efficiently provide vaccines to countries in need. This has generated favorable opinions of China in many nations, for whom China’s vaccine distribution is considered a goodwill gesture.

However, one can also argue that China has gained diplomatic leverage through its vaccine diplomacy. As a vaccine-manufacturing and provider state, China early on anticipated the demand for COVID-19 vaccines and managed to court smaller developing nations with vaccines that are much more suitable for the host countries’ conditions.

Quid Pro Quo

One example of a nation where China has successfully exercised vaccine diplomacy is Brunei Darussalam. In February of last year, China donated 52,000 doses of Sinopharm vaccine to help support vaccine uptake in Brunei and to strengthen the diplomatic ties between the two nations. After the second local transmission of the virus was first detected in August, Brunei announced that its goal was to fully vaccinate 80 percent of its population before the end of 2021. As only 14.5 percent of the population was fully vaccinated when the second wave hit, the government declared that it faced a critical vaccine shortage and announced an initiative to quicken the vaccine roll-out.

On August 19, when Brunei was first hit with reports of the infection, China had assisted Brunei by setting up an emergency testing laboratory and enterprises to improve case tracking and quarantine management. As the country braced itself for the second wave of COVID-19, China further extended its vaccine diplomacy, by donating 100,000 doses of Sinopharm vaccine. It could be argued that this show of support was a way of returning the favor, as Brunei had reportedly provided financial assistance to China in March 2020, during its own early struggles with COVID-19.

Vaccine Diplomacy Needs Strong Foundations

This quid pro quo vaccine diplomacy built on the strong pre-COVID-19 diplomatic relations between Brunei and China, especially in the areas of trade and investment, energy, agriculture and fisheries, tourism, infrastructure, and people-to-people exchanges. Past joint cooperation includes the encouragement of both countries’ business communities to get together, as well as Beijing’s assistance to Brunei in expanding its markets in the digital economy and e-commerce. Furthermore, Brunei has promoted and demonstrated support for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global infrastructure scheme designed to promote regional and economic integration. This is also to Brunei’s benefit as BRI aligns very closely with Brunei’s economic development plans under the Wawasan 2035 framework, which aims to achieve economic diversification, high and sustainable economic growth, macroeconomic stability, and low unemployment rates.

Through the welcome integration of both plans, China has emerged as Brunei’s largest foreign direct investor in industries such as petrochemicals and aquaculture. For example, Hengyi Industries operates an oil refinery and petrochemical plant on Pulau Muara Besar (PMB) that supplies crude oil from Brunei and other countries for local consumption and exports, a joint-venture with China. Despite the pandemic, Hengyi industries recorded $3.5 billion in revenue in 2020, accounting for 4.48 percent of Brunei’s gross domestic product and 50.57 percent of the country’s total trade volume from January to September 2020. In the first eight months of 2021 alone, two-way trade hit $2.5 billion, at an increase of 4.3 percent yearly.

The year 2021 marked the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Brunei and China, and in recent years the partnership between the two nations has skyrocketed, which further facilitated the practice of vaccine diplomacy which, in the case of Brunei, has proved indispensable in its efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. In return, vaccine diplomacy has further expanded China’s influence and enabled it to strengthen its diplomatic ties with Brunei. Brunei continues to rely heavily on China’s assistance to curb the spread of COVID-19 by working together in case tracking and quarantine management, vaccine roll-out and processing COVID-19 tests.

Given the uncertain future, Brunei’s economy could further require China’s support in achieving the Wawasan 2035. In fact, one of the visions is to achieve a dynamic and sustainable economy where China’s investment in Hengyi plays a large role in Brunei’s positive GDP growth. The preexisting bilateral relationship between the two nations demonstrates that Brunei, as a recipient of vaccine diplomacy, views it as beneficial for advancing its economic development and bolstering its public health efforts.

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Going forward, vaccine diplomacy will be imperative for strengthening collective efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. In the case of China and Brunei, there is a good deal of symbiosis between a provider and recipient state. Brunei looks to China to benefit from its advanced and extensive public health related facilities to and help it meet its national goals. China, on the other hand, sees the opportunity of lending its help to Brunei as a pathway to stronger diplomatic ties with its existing partners. Existing two-way diplomatic ties like this are useful in the long run as both nations are willing and able to offer help in tackling future pandemics. When all is said and done, vaccine diplomacy is, at least in the case of China and Brunei, more of a boon than a bane.