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Don’t believe the hype about China’s ‘vaccine diplomacy’ in Africa

Chinese medical experts have been sharing expertise and assistance throughout Africa for decades.

- March 4, 2021

Sierra Leone television channels broadcast live footage of China’s Sinopharm vaccine doses landing in Freetown’s Lungi Airport on Feb. 26, adding to an expanding list of African countries receiving vaccine doses from China. Just a day earlier, Senegal President Macky Sall took his Sinopharm jab live on television, then tweeted an appeal for all Senegalese to get vaccinated. In Zimbabwe, President Emmerson Mnangagwa hailed China for its donation of 200,000 Sinopharm vaccine doses, describing them as “a light at the end of a dark tunnel.”

These are but a few examples of the media buzz about China’s “vaccine diplomacy” in Africa. Commentary in U.S. and European news media and policy circles have stirred cynical concerns about China using vaccines as a soft-power move to further its political and economic interests in Africa.

Academic research, however, shows that China’s humanitarian assistance to Africa, including medical aid, is nothing new. Beijing has been sending medical support to Africa since 1963, and routinely posts Chinese medical teams in clinics and hospitals around the continent. As of 2018, Chinese medical personnel had treated some 220 million patients in 48 African countries. Recently, in a joint news conference with Zimbabwe’s foreign minister, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that China sent over 21,000 Chinese doctors and nurses to Africa over the years.

The global pandemic has opened new opportunities for China to share its medical expertise and medical knowledge more widely in the continent, beyond its role as a leading supplier of masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE). China is emerging as a major power with the advanced medical expertise to produce vaccine shots — and a country that is willing to transfer pandemic-related medical expertise to developing countries. Here’s what you need to know.

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A long history of cooperation

Most of the early medical assistance dispatches to Africa were bilateral agreements between China and one other country. However, the 2000 launch of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) as a platform for conducting China-Africa relations integrated China’s health and medical assistance to Africa into a multilateral platform. Through FOCAC, Beijing committed to construct health facilities, provide medicines and medical equipment, dispatch medical teams, train medical workers and conduct exchanges with African countries. China has repeatedly expressed a belief that increasing the health care capacity of African countries helps boost economic development and maintain stability.

In this context, China has provided significant aid, particularly related to malaria prevention and control. Gao Qi, an expert in malaria control and eradication, traveled to several African countries to conduct trainings. Donations of the antimalarial drug Pyronaridine were for many years a routine diplomatic practice between China and African countries. Likewise, China provided significant humanitarian aid in 2014 to countries fighting Ebola in West Africa.

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The global pandemic has solidified Beijing’s medical networking

China’s health diplomacy in Africa long before covid-19 made China a significant global health donor in the continent, but it was only one among many countries in the same role. The covid-19 era, however, has been a game-changer, allowing China to stand out from the United States, European Union and the United Kingdom — each of whom focused predominantly on securing vaccine doses for their domestic populations.

Last spring, China mobilized shipments of masks and other PPE to Africa and elsewhere — what many analysts called “mask diplomacy.” But China’s health diplomacy was not limited to PPE. Rather, we saw a proliferation of routine virtual conference calls between Chinese medical experts and their African counterparts, focusing on knowledge transfers and sharing the expertise of Chinese doctors and medical staff, who had gained considerable experience with the coronavirus by then. Besides the frequent conference calls, the Chinese government engaged a familiar tool in its public health diplomacy toolbox: deploying Chinese medical teams to African countries to share Chinese knowledge about covid-19 and train local staff in best practices.

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Vaccine donations, consequently, are but one aspect of China’s multidimensional and comprehensive health diplomacy approach in Africa. Moreover, gaining diplomatic recognition from African presidents or winning hearts and minds of vaccinated Africans is not all that is at stake. As my research shows, increasing knowledge transfers and sharing China’s expertise with Africans have been a central element of China’s approach to building relationships within Africa for decades. That China will work with African countries to build vaccine production plants solidifies the emphasis on network-building and knowledge transfers. Egypt, for instance, plans on working closely with Chinese experts on building a hub for manufacturing and distributing Sinopharm vaccine shots in Africa.

In the midst of the global pandemic, China is filling a global need, but also moving strategically from a partner to a leader, and from a global goods provider to a leading expert in global health and pandemic management. This shift may well make a significant difference in the capacity of African governments to deal with coronavirus, especially if local production of the Chinese vaccine will help rectify the hoarding and inequitable vaccine distribution among high-income countries (mostly in the Global North). And China’s pandemic networking could help establish longer-term health collaboration and knowledge sharing throughout Africa, even after the current urgent need to secure vaccine shots fades away.

Editors’ note: This article is part of a new series exploring Chinese investment in Africa, along with activities related to debt relief, infrastructure and other critical issues across the continent. See below for the contributions from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies China Africa Research Initiative (SAIS-CARI) workshop; new articles will be added as they are published.

Lina Benabdallah is assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University. She is also a nonresident research associate at SAIS-CARI. Follow her on Twitter @LBenabdallah.

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