Vaccine diplomacy reshaping ASEAN geopolitics

Even as several countries in Southeast Asia grapple with high Covid19 infection rates and some brace for second waves of the virus, research and development around the vaccine has become important. And with the race to find the vaccine hotting up around the world; vaccine diplomacy too is set to gain ground.

Not surprisingly, the trade war between China and the US is playing out in the vaccine arena too and China, a frontrunner in the race to develop a Covid19 vaccine, is reaching out to likely allies. Chinese President Xi Jinping recently reached out to his Indonesian counterpart Joko Widodo urging him to collaborate on the project. While there were many volunteers in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta to take part in a phase three trial of the Chinese-developed CoronaVac;  Chinese pharma company Sinovac Biotech and the Indonesian government have also launched a late-stage human clinical trial for a COVID-19 vaccine in Bandung, West Java. This is in the wake of rising Covid19 cases in Indonesia and another ASEAN biggie Philippines even though other south-east Asian nations such as Vietnam and Thailand have tackled community transmission well. In the larger context of the US-China trade war, which has impacted several countries in the region, access to the vaccine is set to become an important issue. Several foreign policy experts feel that Beijing’s offer of Covid-19 vaccines to Southeast Asian neighbours has strings attached.

The other country jostling for diplomatic advantage through the vaccine is Russia. Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam are among nations that have asked Russia for stocks of Sputnik V, its COVID-19 vaccine. The Philippines plans to run trials of the Russian vaccine in October with President Rodrigo Duterte keen to participate. Moscow claims that Indonesia is one of the 20 nations to have expressed interest in the vaccine. And giving access to the vaccine free enables Russia to build stronger relationships in the ASEAN region.

Meanwhile in Singapore, human clinical trials are underway for its vaccine project called Lunar-Cov19 being jointly developed by Duke-NUS Medical School and United States pharmaceutical company Arcturus Therapeutics. The Malaysian government has announced that local pharmaceutical companies  Duopharma Biotech Bhd & Pharmaniaga Bhd are among the few selected to package the Covid-19 vaccine once it is developed.



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