China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi concludes a five-day tour of Africa this weekend without making a single concrete vaccine commitment to a continent hoping a benevolent Beijing will help inoculate its population out of the global coronavirus pandemic.Last year, as Covid-19 tore across the globe and wealthy countries began to pre-order stockpiles of vaccines for their citizens, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged that African vaccinations were a “priority” for Beijing. His commitment followed mass donations of masks, testing kits and medical equipment to the continent by Beijing and private individuals, such as billionaire entrepreneur Jack Ma.
Now, with negative sentiment towards China hardening in Western democracies due to trade wars and human rights issues, African allies — which have crucial voting rights at major international bodies — have arguably become an even more vital bloc for China to keep on side with its so-called vaccine diplomacy.China has the resources to honor Xi’s pledge. Its Sinopharm vaccine has been approved for domestic use, and four other Chinese candidates are in Phase 3 clinical trials — the last step of testing before regulatory approval is sought. Unlike some other vaccines, it doesn’t require storage at an ultra-low temperature, making shipment easier in developing countries.Millions of Chinese citizens have already been vaccinated at home and employees of state-owned enterprises in Africa were offered shots in trial phases as early as last June, enabling Chinese citizens to work safely on the continent. None of China’s Phase 3 trials were conducted in sub-Saharan Africa, which would have given some countries advance access to a vaccine, despite such tests taking place in the Middle East and South America.