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In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, international organizations claimed that “We will get through this together“. Despite this claim, international relations have resumed their course, more akin to an arena than a forum. This was blatantly clear when, after the approval of the first vaccines, the world became divided between the haves and the have-nots. In this Manichean scenario, the fragile states of the Western Balkans have had a hard time securing jabs for their populations. Showing their usual largesse, China came to their rescue with its ‘vaccine diplomacy’.
The first part of the article will investigate the origins of China’s vaccine diplomacy in the Balkans, identifying it as the offspring of so-called ‘mask diplomacy’, which constitutes a worrisome evolution. The second part will consider the EU’s response to China’s initiatives in its ‘courtyard’. Finally, the third part will analyze the shortcomings of vaccine diplomacy. The objective is to assess whether it represents a serious threat to the unity of Europe and the current balance of power.
The Precedent: China’s Mask Diplomacy
China’s looming interest in the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe is nothing new. The “Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries” (a.k.a. the 17+1 format) dates back to 2012. Since then, this partnership has resulted in the launch of several projects from intercultural exchanges to infrastructural mega-constructions.
On their part, the economically challenged and politically fragile Eastern European countries wilfully accepted China’s support and investments. As the saying goes, beggars can’t be choosers. Furthermore, China’s economy is characterised by a surplus of unused raw materials and idle capital. As another saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s bargain.
In this context, it’s unsurprising that, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, South-Eastern Europe became the stage for China’s mask diplomacy. This strategy, which involves showering target countries with medical supplies, ostensibly allowed China to depict itself as a generous donor while, at the same time, trying to clear its name from the accusation of having mishandled data in the first phase of the outbreak.
The Mixed Fortunes of the Mask Diplomacy
Mask diplomacy, albeit unsophisticated, was quite effective in Eastern Europe, at least in so far as the idea of China as a legitimate partner or even a savior became a popular notion. On a humorous note, it also brought about some quirky scenes, such as Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić kissing the Chinese flag.
Despite the ballyhoo, by Summer 2020 much of the fuss was over. By June, President Vučić had had a friendly meeting with the President of the European Council Charles Michel, and by August, he was in Brussels, hat in hand, admitting that “Serbia needs the EU“. A Balkan Barometer survey found that 59% of the Balkans’ citizens perceive EU accession as positive.
China’s Vaccine Diplomacy: A Step Up
Arguably, China’s vaccine diplomacy is inherently different from its mask diplomacy and possibly has more long-lasting and worrisome consequences. There are at least three reasons which can be cited as to why this is true.
1. Mask Diplomacy was Effectively Countered
First, Chinese mask diplomacy clashed with substantial efforts by the Western Camp to counter it. In fact, NATO activated the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC). Through its immense logistic capabilities, the Alliance was able to provide medical supplies throughout the entire Euro-Atlantic area. As for the European Union, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen presented “an economic recovery package for the Western Balkans”. Soon thereafter, the European Commission allocated €3.3 billion to the region to confront the short-term backlash of the crisis.
2. By Sending Counterfeit Supplies, China Undermined its Own Efforts
Secondly, China’s PR campaign accompanying their mask diplomacy may have been noisy, but it could not make up for the fact that many masks and other equipment provided were of poor quality and unusable, not to mention, expensive. In a best case scenario, this was a sign of negligence. In the worst case, it was an admission of dishonesty. At any rate, China fell on its own sword and many 17+1 countries also complained that some of China’s past promises went unfulfilled.
3. Masks and Vaccines are Inherently Different
Third, on a symbolic level, masks are very different from vaccines. Clearly, masks are an essential tool to confront the pandemic, but vaccines are the only hope of getting out of it. In this way, China is confronting the EU on a particularly delicate battlefield. As a matter of fact, as the vaccine rollout in Europe has been slower than expected, the EU is likely to focus its efforts on herd immunization internally. In turn, this leaves the field open for China’s ambitions in Eastern Europe.
Serbia: The Core of the Chinese Strategy
When mask diplomacy turned into vaccine diplomacy, Serbia remained the epicenter of China’s strategy. In fact, the Serbian case is quite peculiar, as it replicates the Chinese vaccine diplomacy model on a regional scale. In March, President Vučić announced that Serbia will become the first European country to produce the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine.
The first million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine arrived in Belgrade in January 2021. The airplane carrying them was welcomed by President Vučić despite the fact that the vaccine was still pending approval by Serbia’s medical regulator. Furthermore, notwithstanding the lack of data regarding the efficacy of the vaccine, Serbia took the chance to play the lion’s share and gift doses to other countries in the region. In fact, up until that point, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and North Macedonia had not yet received supplies of any vaccine.
As a side note, that says it all with regards to the quality of democratic institutions in the country. Only authoritarian governments would (and could) exploit the body of citizens for political gains. The results are mixed; while Serbia has vaccinated 29% of its population, a surge in coronavirus cases could trigger a new lockdown.
Explaining the Success of China’s Vaccine Diplomacy in the Balkans
In early March, Montenegro received 30,000 doses of Sinopharm’s vaccine. In February, Serbia announced it would donate an additional 4,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine to them, as well. Contextually, Montenegro’s Foreign Minister Djordje Radulovic said the government had not received a single dose of EU-approved COVID-19 vaccines. In North Macedonia, the situation is even more dire. Two recent articles by the journal “La Verità” accused government officials of recurring to irregular channels for vaccine procurement from China.
Did the Western Balkans ‘Betray’ Europe?
It would be hasty to define these countries as definitely pro-China. When discussing the impact of Covid-19 on the Balkans, it’s important to remember their economic fragility. They physiologically lack the resilience of fully developed Western countries, lockdowns and restrictions are particularly dreaded, and the digitalization of the economy is a mirage. The prospect of a long-term economic crisis looms over the Balkan peninsula.
In this light, it may seem justifiable that governments are scrambling to get vaccines from any source. They know that they have to go to any lengths to acquire the precious jabs, lest the pandemic cause heavy suffering, even considering that infection rates will eventually decrease. Further, the poorest countries are the ones that are more susceptible to be left behind in the ‘vaccine race’.
President Vučić was not entirely wrong when he said that “the world is like the Titanic“, meaning that the rich would save themselves, and leave the others to their destiny if need be. The harsh truth is that, for countries like Montenegro or North Macedonia, there is no Next Generation EU. They may benefit from the occasional spur of generosity (or strategic awareness) in Brussels, but there is no grand plan for their reprise.
In their defense, Western Balkan countries did show willingness to join the WHO-sponsored Covax system; Serbia even paid upfront for inclusion in the program, but by the time the Chinese jabs arrived in Serbia, they had received no doses through Covax. Thus, it would probably be hypocritical to single out these countries’ behaviour as a form of betrayal.
The EU Response: Restoring the Balkans’ Strategic Dimension
That said, it would also be hazardous to suggest that the European Union is detached from (or disinterested in) the Western Balkans. In fact, the EU is all but sitting by idly and has elaborated both short-term and strategic measures to confront China’s vaccine diplomacy. The most notable short-term measure is the launch of a regional project, worth over €7 million, to support vaccinations. This project – in partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO) – comes on top of the Commission for Neighborhood and Enlargement’s €70 million package to support access to vaccines.
The “Group of 9” and President Biden’s Support
On the strategic level – and perhaps more consequentially – within the EU a “Group of 9” is pushing to bring the Western Balkans back on the agenda. On 5th March, the group – formed by the Foreign Ministers of Austria, Croatia, Czechia, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia – wrote a letter to the EU’s chief diplomat, Joseph Borrell. The purpose of the letter was to give new momentum to the enlargement process towards the Western Balkans. The objective, of course, is to shield the region from the economic and political influence of external powers.
The process stalled when Bulgaria vetoed North Macedonia’s accession talks in autumn 2020. In this regard, the Group seems determined to give back to the Balkans their strategic dimension. Of course, the road ahead will be bumpy. Not only Bulgaria but also France has become warier and warier of further enlargement. The bloc’s demand for democratic reforms has not changed.
But reinforcements might appear on the horizon. In fact, the initiative is likely to find a favorably disposed interlocutor in U.S. President Joe Biden. The newly sworn-in POTUS has significant expertise when it comes to the Western Balkans. During the Clinton administration, he contributed to the development of an agenda for Yugoslavia. Therefore, he is very much aware of the strategic importance of the region to contrast China (and Russia) and is committed to replacing his predecessor’s “competitive unilateralism” with Europeanism.
The Problems with the EU Response
1. The Vaccination Program is Hitting Bumps in the Road
There are important elements hindering the Western strategy towards the Balkans. The first problem is that the EU is having trouble implementing its herd-immunization program. The rollout of vaccinations has hit several bumps in the road. The latest is the suspension of the use of AstraZeneca vaccines in major European countries. As of March 17th, 9.8% of the EU’s population has received at least one shot of the vaccine, and only 4.2% is fully vaccinated. This difficulty has two consequences which are advantages to China.
- Firstly, the slow vaccine rollout gives way to a misinformation offensive from China. Europeans are already victims of their own conspiracy theories, but China’s “vax trolling” is making things worse. Nationalist Chinese media are pushing the idea that Pfizer and Moderna’s shots are potentially deadly while the head of China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention seems convinced that mRNA vaccines are unsafe.
- Secondly, the disarray allowed China’s vaccine diplomacy to spill over, from the Western Balkans to the EU itself. In February, Hungary became the first country in the Union to approve the Sinopharm vaccine. The Czech Republic might follow suit despite the fact that the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has not yet approved it. In early March, Polish President Andrzej Duda considered buying China’s vaccine although the deal fell through due to the lack of data.
2. Europe’s Declaratory Strategy: All Bark, No Bite
The second problem has to do with the overall EU posture towards China. The core issue is that the European Union is, at times, very vocal in condemning China, but then leaves its hand free in regional scenarios. We’ve seen this play out with the ‘re-education’ camps for Uyghurs. Public reactions were strong and made use of harsh language, but concrete follow-up was unsubstantial.
Arguably, the opposite strategy would serve the EU much better. That is, treating China as the great power it is in its declaratory strategy, but then continue to pursue its interests at the regional and local levels. In the context of the Western Balkans, this would translate into more coherent efforts for development, democratization, and, eventually, enlargement.
The Shortcomings of China’s Vaccine Diplomacy
Vaccine diplomacy is not without its flaws. The first issue is the lack of transparent data. In late December 2020, Chinese vaccine developer Sinopharm said its coronavirus vaccines showed a 79% efficacy rate. At any rate, this makes them less effective than Pfizer’s and Moderna’s shots, but the real source of concern is the discrepancies in the test results which were conducted in 10 countries worldwide.
The second issue is the lack of enough vaccines to immunize the Chinese population. By February 28th, China had administered around 50 million doses to its citizens. In relative terms, that is only between the 3 and 4% of the population. Interestingly, China was the first country globally to start mass immunizations in November 2020. The slow roll-out raises the question of whether it will manage to come up with enough doses to inject its population of 1.4 billion while maintaining the capability to supply other countries.
Lesson Learned: Authoritarian States Struggle to Provide Care
In this regard, Professor Chen, Associate Professor at the Yale School of Medicine, affirmed that even sporadic clusters of Covid-19 infections in China could create an “urgency to vaccinate the Chinese population, adding some uncertainties to its global market supply”. Therefore, in the future, China might have to decide whether it wants to maintain this strategy, to the detriment of its own citizens.
Both issues ostensibly descend from China’s governance model itself. For an authoritarian state, it is inconceivable to subject sensitive data to public scrutiny, hence the lack of international confidence in its vaccines’ test results. The fact that China is pursuing vaccine diplomacy abroad while neglecting the health of its own people is a stark reminder that human security is not even an objective, let alone a priority.
Is Vaccine Diplomacy a Prelude to the Chinese Century?
After having presented the EU response to China’s vaccine diplomacy in the Balkans, and the intrinsic shortcomings of this Chinese strategy, it should be possible to answer the question of whether the latter will be the harbinger of a significant power shift both regionally and globally.
The Regional Level: Keeping Chinese Ambitions at Bay
On the regional level, it appears that Chinese efforts are not resulting in any seismic shifts in the political alignment of the Balkans. The reactions underlined the dangerous tendency of South-Eastern Europe’s leaders to work both sides of the street, but this is hardly surprising considering the perilous situation these countries would face if the pandemic is not over soon. Further, the EU renewed commitment, together with Biden’s interest in the region, should be able to keep Chinese ambitions at bay.
The Global Level: Countering China’s Narrative
On a global level, the vaccine diplomacy issue points out that the narrative about China not being able to build on its soft power is a bit trite, or simplistic at the very least. In fact, while nor the mask diplomacy nor the vaccine diplomacy marked a significant political realignment they did achieve some success in depicting China as a legitimate partner for developing countries.
This is particularly relevant as it shows that China’s strategy is not specifically aimed at the West. Its target is not any single country, nor the European Union, nor the West at large. Its aim is to reach the status of a global superpower, by getting on board its project struggling countries. This is the strategy that China used, for example, in Africa. There, China exploited a narrative aimed at appearing as a peer from the ‘global South’ and thus intrinsically anti-imperialist and preferable to the ‘greedy’ Western investors. Arguably, the same is happening now to the Western Balkans.
The main point is, that China’s narrative is essentially different from the West’s. Whereas the U.S. capitalized on their ability to depict themselves as the ‘city upon the hill’ China tries to build its international persona by differentiating itself from the West. In other words, China does not build its strategic narrative (exclusively) by pointing out its own successes. Its strategy relies more on pointing out the West’s shortcomings and failures and then offering an alternative.
The Way Forward: Re-Thinking the EU’s Declaratory Strategy
How can the EU counter China’s powerful narrative? As mentioned above, it is necessary to rework its declaratory strategy. Specifically, China must be reassured that the EU sees it as a global power, but at the same time, the Union has to pursue its strategic interests at the regional level. In the context of the Balkans, this should translate into a coherent comprehensive development and inclusion project.
As for the future of the global balance of power, political scientist Bruno Macaes affirmed that “the pandemic is not the beginning of the Chinese century“. It is the beginning of an era of rapid change, technological race, and power shifts, for sure, but the direction of this change is still unknown and Europe, together with its ally on the other side of the Atlantic, most surely still has a say in it.