China has been working with Brazil since June, and in July agreed to a public request from Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte for priority access to a vaccine – and a loan to pay for them.
This prompted some speculation about what China wanted in return. Prominent South China Sea analyst Greg Poling tweeted that while China wasn’t going to ask the Philippines to recognise its South China Sea claims in exchange for vaccines, “it might ask for silence”.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi last week signed a deal for vaccine purchase and supply when she met with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in the city of Baoting in China’s Hainan Province.
The deal between China’s privately-owned Sinovac Biotech and Indonesia’s state-owned Bio Farma gives Indonesia the right to purchase an initial 50 million doses of the Coronavac vaccine, increasing to 250 million annually.
Sinovac is one of four Chinese companies involved in Phase 3 trials. Only eight vaccines have made it to this point worldwide.
In a statement, China’s Foreign Ministry confirmed Indonesia’s status as “one of China’s closest regional partners in vaccine co-operation”.
The privately-owned Sinovac Biotech is testing its Coronavac vaccine on thousands of people in Brazil and Indonesia. Another Chinese pharmaceutical company, Fosun, is working with Germany’s BioNTech and the New York-based Pfizer on a vaccine that Pfizer says will seek regulatory approval by October.
A third Chinese company, the state-owned Sinopharm, has two vaccines in Phase 3 trials, the first developed by the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products, the second in Beijing. These trials, which need to be conducted in countries where the coronavirus is still active, are underway in the United Arab Emirates, Peru and Morocco.
The US government has already placed a $US1.9 billion ($2.6 billion) contract for 100 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine by December, and Japan has ordered 120 million doses.
China’s vaccine diplomacy with “friendly” countries was no surprise, according to retired diplomat Imron Cotan, who was Indonesia’s ambassador to Beijing between 2010 and 2013.
Mr Imron said Indonesia was not waiting for China to make good on its promise to supply any vaccine as a public good. “A pledge is just a pledge. It remains to be seen whether China will go through with that, ” Mr Imron said.
The Philippines, Indonesia and Brazil have all been hit hard by the coronavirus. Brazil has 2.6 million cases, second only to the United States. Indonesia and the Philippines have a lot fewer reported cases, at 160,165 and 202,361, respectively. However, there has been no pause in new infections and both governments are under pressure to do more to stem the human and economic losses from the pandemic.
Dr Sjakon G Tahija from the philanthropic Tahija Foundation said the government of Indonesian President Joko Widodo was betting on unproven innoculation with the Sinovac vaccine, but believes there are few other choices.
“I’m a physician so I am cautious,” he said.
“It is not clear any of these vaccines are going to work. But what else can the government do?
“If it shuts down Indonesia, people will starve and then you will have riots and bloodshed. We have had riots and bloodshed before in this country. We don’t want any more.
“It looks like the government is not doing enough, but as an Indonesian who has lived through everything, from the Sukarno and the Soeharto eras until now, I don’t want to see people being murdered in the streets again.
“There is real fear in Indonesia because of what happened in the past,” Dr Sjakon said.