Bobo Lo, an expert on China-Russia relations and former deputy head of mission at Australia’s embassy in Moscow, said both Moscow and Beijing saw an opportunity for geopolitical gains in the pandemic, winning favor and influence for their autocratic systems.
“It’s useful to them to point out that the West is being selfish in limiting the distribution of vaccine to developing countries,” he said. “This is a really convenient narrative for both Beijing and Moscow.”
There is also a darker side to Moscow and Beijing’s vaccine cooperation. In recent months, Russian disinformation efforts have tried to undermine confidence in US and UK vaccines, such as those made by Pfizer and AstraZeneca, according to Judyth Twigg, professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Former diplomat Lo said both Russia and China had an interest in discrediting the US-led world order, particularly Beijing, which is keen for a chance to burnish its own reputation and promote itself as the leader of the global south.
“(China is saying), ‘We understand you, we’re not an imperial power like the Western powers … we’re just here to help,'” he said.
In Latin America, traditionally an area of US influence, countries such as Argentina and Chile have been buying up large numbers of Russian and Chinese shots to fill the gaps in their vaccine rollouts.
China’s ability to manufacture vaccines for other countries, including Russia, is partially due to having the Covid-19 outbreak almost completely controlled within its borders and rapid upgrades to the country’s manufacturing capacity.
Meanwhile, Russia has been forced to cut deals with international suppliers to reach its delivery goals for Sputnik — in April, the RDIF announced 20 manufacturers in 10 countries would be making the shots.
An unlikely partnership
Thomas Bollyky, director of the Global Health Program at the Council for Foreign Relations, said many developing nations were “desperate” for vaccines.
But Bollyky said while there might be some concern from the US government over any political influence China and Russia might be gaining from their rollouts, at the end of the day “the world needs more vaccines.”
“My only concern with the China vaccine and Russia’s vaccine is they still haven’t released the underlying clinical trial data too assess their safety and effectiveness,” he said.
“For the time being, the US is so evidently, for both Moscow and Beijing, the clear and present danger,” he said.
“Unlike some major countries that are hoarding the vaccines for their own interests, we want to see more people immunized. Our hope is for the world to beat the pandemic as soon as possible,” Wang said.
“For China and Russia, our choice is not to benefit only ourselves, but rather to help the whole world.”
Virginia Commonwealth University’s Twigg said China and Russia knew they had a very limited window in which to offer their vaccines to the developing world before Western nations caught up.
Questions have already been raised by some world leaders over Russia’s motivations behind its rapid rollout of the Sputnik vaccine to developing countries.
Even if Russia and China can work quickly to vaccinate the developing world, some experts doubt their efforts will have the desired long-term political payoff.
Twigg said the global rollout is still in its infancy and any number of developments, including Biden’s to waive vaccine patent laws, could change the current vaccine landscape. By the end of the pandemic, she said most nations are likely to have inoculated their populations with a variety of vaccines from a number of countries.
“A year or two, or three, from now, the places where Russia or China got there first, I don’t think anyone’s going to remember,” she said.