China is multiplying its vaccine deliveries to Africa, doubling those to France and Europe. Faced with a UN system that is lagging behind, the Middle Kingdom wants to establish its world power. Deciphering.
« Mr. Ambassador, please be my interpreter to my friend Xi Jinping to convey my sincere thanks to him. « From the tarmac of the Blaise Diagne airport, Senegalese President Macky Sall spoke on Wednesday evening during a speech broadcast live on television. Behind him, we are busy unloading the plane that has just landed. On board? The first 200,000 doses of the country’s first covid vaccine, direct from China.
This delivery to Senegal is not an epiphenomenon. Deliveries of vaccines from China to African countries have increased in recent weeks. Egypt, Morocco, Equatorial Guinea and the Seychelles have received the precious Chinese vaccine. On Monday, Zimbabwe received 200,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine, donated by China, before committing to purchase almost 2 million doses. At the same time, the European Union, which is struggling to get enough doses for itself, has asked the UN to distribute the reserved doses through the Covax system, which is still awaiting deliveries.
It was to be expected, » Thierry Vircoulon, an associate researcher at the IFRI’s Sub-Saharan Africa centre in Paris, explains. It’s part of the Chinese soft power strategy with the objective of seducing and showing that it is a global player. « China wants to prove that a developing country is capable of finding a vaccine, producing it and distributing it on a large scale, » says Thierry Pairault, a specialist in China-Africa relations. At the same time, France, Pasteur’s country, is not capable of coming up with anything: for China, that means a lot. »
Africa, a political support
China in Africa is nothing new. « We can say that the Chinese have been developing their presence there for about twenty years, » explains Thierry Vircoulon. « It all goes back to 1989, during Tiananmen, when China realised that if it could find economic support in Western countries, it would not find political support there, explains Thierry Pairault. From then on, China looked to Africa to find it. »
Since then, Chinese investments on the African continent have accelerated. According to figures from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, they have risen from less than $1 billion in 2004, for the continent as a whole, to more than $44 billion in 2019. « China imports raw materials from Africa and exports manufactured goods to the continent, » notes Thierry Vircoulon. Africa, which is in full development and where a demographic explosion is expected in the coming years, is proving to be an interesting economic market for China, all the more so in a context where it is arousing mistrust elsewhere.
« There is a total asymmetry: Africa needs China for economic reasons, China needs Africa for political reasons, » explains Thierry Pairault. By « helping » Africa, even more so with the delivery of masks at the beginning of the crisis, and now of vaccines, China is seeking Africa’s support. An essential support: « Africa is 54 countries, more than a quarter of the votes at the United Nations General Assembly, » Thierry Pairault said. So many votes that today allow the Middle Kingdom to be at the head of four UN agencies.
Towards other Chinese targets?
The subject is worrying. On Wednesday, Emmanuel Macron spoke with several African leaders on the subject of vaccines. « The slowness of the vaccination campaign in poor countries, especially in Africa, is inexplicable and intolerable, » he lamented. Questioned on Thursday on France Inter, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian dismissed China’s policy: « It is not because you put doses of vaccine on a tarmac that you have a vaccination policy, » recalling that Chinese vaccines have not been approved by either the World Health Organization or the European Medicines Agency.
China accompanies its deliveries with a narrative », notes Thierry Pairault. Everything is filmed, retransmitted, messages of thanks are sent… And there is no narrative in the face of this: France is mute, Europe is mute… France is no longer in a position to have any kind of posture. In Africa, there is a total invisibility of Westerners. But when a Chinese raises a little finger, everyone knows about it. »
China could deploy its strategy far beyond Africa. « Deliveries to South American countries are to be expected », predicts Thierry Vircoulon. In the European Union, China has also scored points: Hungary has decided to authorise and purchase doses of the Sinopharm vaccine without the approval of the European Commission. And Hungarian President Viktor Orban justified this change of course by the slowness of the European Union: « Every day that we would spend waiting for Brussels, we would lose one hundred Hungarian lives. »