Quad’s vaccine initiative can be of benefit to Asean

Published on April 3, 2021

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen and Sanjana Dhar

Bangkok Post – April 3, 2021

The March 12 meeting of the Quad countries – the US, Japan, India, and Australia – was a much-awaited summit by leaders of the four countries. This group focuses its activities on Indo-Pacific region events and engages with each other in close proximity to China and countries in its neighbourhood.

It was a culmination of high-level ministerial meetings held over the past year, which brought about speculation about the nature of the functioning of the Quad. Although previous meetings had not produced a collective statement from the grouping, this time such a statement was possible. The joint statement focused mostly on the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, and broadly on cyber-security, emerging technologies, and adherence to a rules-based order, with no direct mention of China, although it was discussed behind closed doors.

The meeting put special emphasis on the vaccine plan they announced. The vaccine initiative is a mechanism that will be put in place to ensure the production and distribution of one billion doses of vaccines across the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) countries, the Indo-Pacific, and beyond, by the end of 2022. The focus is to “collaborate to strengthen equitable vaccine access for the Indo-Pacific, with close coordination with multilateral organisations, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and COVAX.”

This initiative has been introduced to ensure equitable access to vaccines by poorer countries, which would help in fighting the virus more quickly. The plan is such that the US, through its Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and Japan, mainly through its Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), will provide the financial means to Biological E, an Indian biopharmaceutical company, to increase its production to a billion vaccines, which will then be made accessible through logistical support and ‘last-mile’ delivery in Southeast Asian countries and in the Pacific via Australia.

One thing which is evident from the plan is its intention to counter China’s influence in the region. The Quad countries tip-toed around the topic of China and related geopolitical realities in their statement but the reason behind their decision to provide vaccines in the region appears to be the preferred way to counter Chinese ambitions, while also contributing to eradicate the global health crisis.

The Chinese presence in Southeast Asia has been formidable during the pandemic and now countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines have signed deals with China for vaccines. Specific details about the number of vaccines China plans to provide are tracked by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. As of March 4, China had donated one million doses of Sinovac’s vaccine to the Philippines, while Laos received 300,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine in February. Cambodia was to receive one million doses of the Sinovac vaccine, of which 600,000 were to arrive by Feb 7. The country’s health ministry announced on Jan 19 that China was to deliver 300,000 doses of Sinopharm in early February and was also supposed to donate 400,000 additional doses of Chinese-made vaccines to the country.

However, there was a partial snubbing of Chinese vaccines by Cambodia, when Prime Minister Hun Sen addressed the nation in December last year and stated that the country would only be using vaccines approved by the WHO. On Jan 12, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi pledged to provide 300,000 doses of vaccine to Myanmar. Brunei announced on Feb 10 that the Chinese government had donated an undisclosed number of doses of its Sinopharm vaccine and Indonesia has also ordered 125 million Sinovac doses to support its national vaccination drive.

Although there is a demand for vaccines and China plays a role in meeting those demands, there are still certain limitations associated with Chinese jabs. One major reason is the lack of transparency around the vaccines, which increases speculation and decrease demand.

Moreover, the overall perception of China in the region also holds back certain countries from accepting its vaccines. In such a situation, the Quad initiative can be seen as a much-needed plan.

While the Quad’s plan appears to be promising, there are concerns that vaccine nationalism will have a role to play in the application of the plan. The US has been accused of not exporting important raw materials for vaccine production, which can slow down the timeline set for the completion of the initiative. Such drawbacks need to be carefully assessed and worked out to ensure smooth operation.

However, given this concern, a positive outcome of the Quad initiative is that there will be vaccine transparency due to its association with the Covax scheme. This will also encourage countries in the region that have not signed up for the scheme to become part of the WHO’s vaccine programme. Overall, the Quad initiative reveals an encouraging plan to provide vaccines that will benefit Southeast Asia’s people and diversify their options, and counter China in its immediate neighbourhood, as well as maintain the influence of all stakeholders in the region.

What is important is that the Quad vaccine diplomacy needs to function according to its stipulated timeline to ensure that its objectives are met, leaving little room for complaints from the Southeast Asian countries.

Nehginpao Kipgen, PhD, is Professor and Executive Director at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. Sanjana Dhar is a Research Analyst at CSEAS.

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