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Vaccine Diplomacy Clouds Over Southeast Asia

Vaccine Diplomacy Clouds Over Southeast Asia

On January 20th, Thailand’s government filed criminal charges against Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a 42-year old politician, for alleged violations of a draconian lèse-majesté law which protects the monarchy from insult or defamation. The offense carries harsh penalties of up to 15 years in prison.

What, then, did Mr. Thanathorn do to prompt such heavy-handed punishment?

Two days earlier, during a Facebook livestream, he expressed concerns over what he felt was an opaque procurement and distribution vaccination scheme laid forth by the Thai government. Additionally, he questioned why the British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca had granted exclusive local production rights of their proprietary COVID-19 vaccine to Siam BioScience, a biopharmaceutical lab wholly owned and managed by the Crown Property Bureau. The bureau itself is a quasi-governmental agency dedicated to managing the assets and property of King Maha Vajiralongkorn. Like all affairs of the Thai Royal family, the bureau and its subsidiaries remains bereft of public scrutiny.        

For his indiscretion, the former political opposition leader now finds himself staring down a lengthy prison-sentence, which may be compounded further if he’s found guilty of multiple counts of lèse-majesté or of the notoriously vague Computer Crime Act.

Yet Thanathorn’s case is merely the tip of the iceberg in a region-wide struggle which pits public safety against political interests.

In what can only be described as vaccine diplomacy, governments around Southeast Asia appear to be favoring unmonitored bilateral relations for political support and economic gain over effective and affordable treatment for their citizens.

Beyond the gaffe between AstraZeneca and Thailand, Southeast Asian nations have struck a string of questionable trade deals on vaccine imports and production. That the vaccines have been commodified for negotiations does little to alleviate the woes of international supply shortages and a near-complete lack of local production capabilities in a time of dire need. Of all the major vaccines available on the market, the biggest player on the Southeast Asian negotiation table is China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd.

Foreign interests and domestic oversights

The public concerns over inadequate transparency surrounding the vaccine rollouts in Thailand are not unique to the nation, but rather endemic of a larger trend of foreign appeasement present among all member states of the chief regional intergovernmental organisation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Over the past decade, growing Chinese influence in the region combined with low levels of domestic accountability has created a precarious political climate.

Prior to the pandemic, China accounted for the largest single group of international visitors to Southeast Asia. This large presence provides a substantial source of tourism revenue, which certain areas are completely reliant upon. Moreover, China has poured in foreign direct investment into Chinese tourism hotspots such as Sihanoukville in southern Cambodia and Hat Yai in southern Thailand, and a myriad of large-scale joint infrastructure developments has been initiated as part of their Belt and Road Initiative, as well as multiple massive hydropower dam constructions on the Mekong River in Laos.

This asymmetric economic dependence is reflected both in political culture and foreign policy. The negative agricultural impact and environmental degradation stemming from the Mekong River projects have been tacitly accepted. China’s expansionist ambitions in the South China Sea are mostly quietly brushed aside. And when China comes knocking for a show of public support, the ASEAN members are usually happy to oblige them.

Nam Gnouang Dam in Laos
Nam Gnouang Dam on a tributary of the Nam Theun River in Laos.

So before many prominent vaccine manufacturers had even published reliable data from their late-stage clinical trials, many Southeast Asian nations had already decided to go with Sinovac as their premier choice.

Indonesia is one such example. After vocalizing early support, authorities signed an agreement with Sinovac as far back as August 25th, 2020—just two weeks after the launch of an Indonesian clinical trial—to import three million doses from China by January 2021 and to later initiate the localized production of at least 40 million additional doses via an Indonesian biopharmaceutical company.

First in line to receive the shot was Indonesian President Joko Widodo on January 13th. In a public display of cosy Indonesia-China relations, a broadly televised event showed President Widodo receiving the initial dose live, along with close-up shots of the Sinovac boxes.

The date is of note, too; two days earlier, on January 11th, Indonesia’s Food and Drug Authority reported their interim findings of the aforementioned clinical trial and claimed the vaccine was 65.3% effective, and was granted emergency use authorization. The next day, Brazil’s local production partner of Sinovac, Butantan, determined the general efficacy of the vaccine at just 50.4% in their late-stage clinical trial.

So while still technically fulfilling the vaccine guidelines set out by the World Health Organization of minimum 50% efficacy, one might expect such low figures to cast the televised publicity stunt into question, or cause some trepidation in the subsequent mass rollout. However, the Indonesian government proceeded with their plan unaltered, and health authorities defended the move citing an urgent need to protect its health workers.

Indonesia is not alone in this regard. Negotiations for the import of hundreds of millions of Sinovac vaccines in aggregate across Southeast Asia have already concluded. The Philippines committed themselves to 25 millions doses due for import in February, at allegedly dubious price mark-ups. Vietnam is primarily looking at importing the AstraZeneca vaccine, but is still in discussions regarding possible Sinovac additions. Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand each had millions of Sinovac doses slated for delivery, but all deals are currently on halt pending more clinical trial data from China after Brazil’s disappointing findings.

Laos and Myanmar, two of the region’s poorest nations, are both notable cases of vaccine diplomacy. Labelled “priority” recipients by China’s foreign minister Wang Yi, the two nations’ low bargaining power and weak international clout render them especially susceptible to foreign interests.

Laos is one of the few nations set to receive the Russian-made vaccine Sputnik V, but is concurrently in talks to supplement national rollout with Sinovac.

Local publication Myanmar Times reports that a multitude of behind-closed-doors bilateral talks between Myanmar’s Ambassador in Beijing and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs resulted in an agreement to ship the Chinese vaccine to Myanmar by early 2021. In order to secure the deal, Wang Yi sought the support of Myanmar’s ruling military junta for the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor—a localized subsection of the larger Belt and Road Initiative.

The afflictions of politics

While negotiations for the right product at the right price occurs all over the world, Southeast Asia’s propensity for non-transparency in foreign affairs create distinctive issues. There are many economically impaired areas in the region without access to adequate healthcare and which lack a strong international voice to bring attention to any shortcomings of governance. Putting the lives and safety of these peoples and front-line workers at risk, to employ under-the-table dealings to cement diplomatic allegiances is unethical at best and possibly devastating at worst.

As mentioned at the start, not only does this secrecy create civil and legal issues for people who dare to ask the tough questions—as for Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit—but create far reaching public safety issues as well.

After being alerted of the legal charges the Thai government levied against Mr. Thanathorn, AstraZeneca may be showing signs of reconsidering their partnership with Siam BioScience, as a planned news conference on the authorization of the vaccine was abruptly cancelled on January 22nd. The fear of getting dragged into political hot waters may be an understandable disposition for AstraZeneca, but it also means that 50,000 doses that were scheduled to be administered in February might now be in jeopardy.

With the Sinovac rollout now also being temporarily suspended, uncertainty looms large over Thailand’s vaccination scheme. With a population of nearly 70 million, and with no available vaccines at the ready, more victims and economic hardships are sure to follow in the wake of callous vaccine diplomacy.

Related articles:

Unheard South Solidarity: The Asian-African Conference

One Belt, One Road – China’s Path to the West


Photo credits:

“Wat Pho. Bangkok.”, by Adaptor- Plug on flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

“Nam Gnouang Dam (60MW), on a tributary of the Nam Theun River in Laos”, by Eric Baran, via WorldFish on flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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