America Shouldn’t Play Favorites With Vaccines

Leave trading favors for shots to China and Russia.

By Joshua Tallis, a maritime and polar analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, and David Knoll, a senior research scientist at CNA’s Countering Threats and Challenges Program.
A health care worker vaccinates a man.
A health care worker vaccinates a man with the COVID-19 vaccine in Pasadena, Texas, on April 30. Cecile Clocheret/AFP via Getty Images

The United States is at an inflection point in its COVID-19 vaccine policy. Less than five months from that momentous first shot into the arm of a health worker in Queens, New York, supply is soon set to exceed demand in the United States itself. Vaccine production, however, plows full steam ahead at a rate of 14.5 million doses per week.

There is growing recognition these medicines should be directed internationally. Among national security professionals, there is pressure to use the vaccine for dual purposes: to end the pandemic and to compete with rival powers. Policymakers should avoid this temptation. The best way to achieve public health and national security goals is to eschew going toe-to-toe with China and Russia, focusing instead on the cornerstones of U.S. leadership: ethical, transparent distribution that reinforces the liberal institutions that U.S. influence rests on.

Up to this point, the United States has focused on the domestic distribution of vaccines with a handful of exceptions. In March, it agreed to loan 4 million doses of AstraZeneca to Canada and Mexico. More recently, the members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal security grouping consisting of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia, announced they would finance, produce, and distribute vaccines to Southeast Asia. Most recently, U.S. President Joe Biden announced his administration would donate its entire stock of AstraZeneca vaccine doses once it passes federal quality control measures, which will amount to 60 million doses in the next few months.

China and Russia, meanwhile, clearly view their vaccines through the lens of competition and have been more internationally focused in their distribution plans. China started sending its experimental vaccines to partner states as part of its drug trials. Now armed with five Chinese-produced vaccines, none of which approach the efficacy of any of the U.S.-made vaccines, China is giving away vaccines in exchange for concessions. For example, Egypt and Kyrgyzstan both affirmed their support for various Chinese policies before receiving vaccine donations while Beijing has tried to strongarm other countries into derecognizing Taiwan in exchange for shots. At each stop along a four-country trip in mid-January, China’s foreign minister “coupled promises of Chinese vaccine access with other foreign policy priorities.”

Russia has also been providing vaccines to its preferred partners, albeit with more prosaic financial ends in mind—giving a limited number of “free samples” to countries in hopes they purchase the Sputnik V vaccine.

Inevitably, vaccine diplomacy in the United States has also become bound up in the topic of great-power competition. As a result, it is tempting to argue the United States should see vaccine distribution as part of a competitive security strategy and prioritize doses for partners and allies accordingly. In determining allocation, the argument goes, the United States should reward existing friendships, target some wavering allies (like the Philippines), and perhaps pursue some partners recently targeted by Chinese efforts (like Argentina). Yet, pursuing a competitive vaccine distribution plan need not, and should not, be structured around such bald calculations of power politics or tit-for-tat contests with Chinese or Russian initiatives.

China and Russia benefit from efforts to revise rules, norms, and institutions to better favor their sought statuses as major powers. Their vaccine diplomacy policies reflect those interests. For China, that often means a focus on bilateral engagements to cultivate goodwill in developing nations eager for capital, and for Russia, that often means a focus on mercantilism and status. The United States as the institutional power does not share an interest in approaches that narrowly focus on extracting concessions or bolstering propagandistic values. The competitive approach to U.S. vaccine diplomacy must aim at the United States’ core interest: bolstering the value and effectiveness of the international order it leads.

A U.S. vaccination policy that competes effectively with rival powers should seek to uphold norms and institutions by distributing the vaccine based on a transparent, needs-based criteria working through recognized international forums, nongovernmental organizations, and multilateral mechanisms. Such a focus has several advantages over the alternatives. First, it is the moral course of action. Second, it assures the swiftest end to the global pandemic, which is in the interest of U.S. security and economics. Third, it demonstrates the superior value of the liberal institutions that developed the world’s most efficacious vaccines as well as the inherent reliability and utility of the liberal institutions set to disseminate doses. Such an approach therefore underscores the United States’ moral high ground, bolsters the international system’s twin pillars of security and economy, and reinforces the norms and institutions that undergird the United States’ safety and prosperity.

For vaccine distribution, the way to win the competition is not to compete in the normal sense at all but to reinforce the rules-based international order by distributing vaccines based on need through international institutions and multilateral mechanisms. Providing vaccines to preferred partners plays into China’s own strategy of trying to win friends and allies through seeming largesse while simultaneously extracting mounting concessions—a vaccine version of the Belt and Road Initiative. Vaccine technology and logistics is an area where the United States have significant advantage over China, so there is a temptation to beat China at its own game. Yet doing so would be to preference a tactical victory at the expense of a strategic win.

Joshua Tallis is a maritime and polar analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, where he is a research scientist in the strategy and policy program. In 2018 he deployed with USS Harry S. Truman as the civilian analyst on the U.S. Navy’s first Arctic carrier deployment since the end of the Cold War. The views in this article do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.

David Knoll is a senior research scientist at CNA’s Countering Threats and Challenges Program. His research focuses on competition and irregular warfare.