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.
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.
And while a cold chain vaccine air bridge from Shenzhen, in southern China, to Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia, has been established, and manufacturing capabilities are being set up to make Chinese shots in Cairo, Wang’s trip made it no clearer when Africans can expect to receive a Chinese vaccine — or on what terms.
That tradition signals Africa’s diplomatic importance to China, with stops in places like the Seychelles, a sparsely populated archipelago, proving no nation is insignificant to Beijing, and serves to embarrass Western countries which typically neglect the continent but often view it as within their natural orbit of influence.
Wang’s visit also came on the back of the sharpest racial tensions between Africa and China in decades, after alleged coronavirus-related discrimination against African nationals in the city of Guangzhou sparked widespread anger across the continent last April.
If countries are expecting the vaccines to be delivered for free, either directly from China or through the World Health Organization’s COVAX scheme to provide vaccines to those in the greatest need, which Beijing is a signatory to, they will have “no leverage” in bargaining over the delivery timetable, he said.
That has made African countries increasingly important diplomatic allies who can be expected to vote in China’s favor at international forums, and help Chinese candidates get elected at United Nations bodies.
This year, however, African heads of state are scheduled to meet with Beijing’s top brass in Senegal at the triennial Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), usually attended by the Chinese President.
The country has received a donation of 50,000 doses of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine — but not from China.
While it is natural that China would want to vaccinate its most vulnerable before supplying other nations with resources, African leaders must be wondering what Xi means when he says African inoculations are a “priority. “