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Vaccines Are Japan’s New Tool to Counter China

Despite its worsening pandemic, Tokyo’s vaccine diplomacy has gained traction.

By , a tutor of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford.
A medical worker administers a COVID-19 vaccine.
A medical worker picks a syringe to administer the COVID-19 vaccine at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government office in Tokyo on June 18. YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Earlier this month, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared a COVID-19 state of emergency for Tokyo that will run through the entirety of the Summer Olympics. The decree, which lasts until Aug. 22, will bar all spectators from participating in the games. Suga’s announcement was triggered by the delta variant’s proliferation in Tokyo, exacerbated by persistently low vaccination rates. Only around 23 percent of Japan’s population has been fully vaccinated—the lowest figure in the G-7.

Despite the worsening pandemic at home, Japan’s vaccine diplomacy has gained traction thanks to the country’s desire to burnish its image as a humanitarian aid donor and capitalize on China’s faltering vaccine diplomacy. On June 16, Japan supplied 1 million locally produced AstraZeneca vaccine doses to Vietnam. A week later, the country pledged 2 million additional AstraZeneca doses to Taiwan and Vietnam, and 1 million doses each to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Japan has also provided $14.8 million in medical equipment to India and donated another $9.3 million in cold storage facilities for India’s vaccines. Beyond the Indo-Pacific region, Japan has provided $39 million in grants to the United Nations Children’s Fund, which expands Africa and Latin America’s access to vaccines, and recently unveiled the COVID-19 Crisis Response Emergency Support Loan for developing countries.

Although Japan’s vaccine diplomacy has gained much less attention than Russia or China’s efforts, Tokyo’s vaccine and medical aid provisions could have profound geopolitical consequences. Japan’s public health assistance has amplified its challenge against China in Southeast Asia, further consolidated its partnerships with India and sub-Saharan Africa, and could increase the appeal of its signature governance model, which prizes individual responsibility and limited government interference. These trends will likely persist beyond the pandemic and pave the way for more intense competition between China and Japan over the next decade.

Earlier this month, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared a COVID-19 state of emergency for Tokyo that will run through the entirety of the Summer Olympics. The decree, which lasts until Aug. 22, will bar all spectators from participating in the games. Suga’s announcement was triggered by the delta variant’s proliferation in Tokyo, exacerbated by persistently low vaccination rates. Only around 23 percent of Japan’s population has been fully vaccinated—the lowest figure in the G-7.

Despite the worsening pandemic at home, Japan’s vaccine diplomacy has gained traction thanks to the country’s desire to burnish its image as a humanitarian aid donor and capitalize on China’s faltering vaccine diplomacy. On June 16, Japan supplied 1 million locally produced AstraZeneca vaccine doses to Vietnam. A week later, the country pledged 2 million additional AstraZeneca doses to Taiwan and Vietnam, and 1 million doses each to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Japan has also provided $14.8 million in medical equipment to India and donated another $9.3 million in cold storage facilities for India’s vaccines. Beyond the Indo-Pacific region, Japan has provided $39 million in grants to the United Nations Children’s Fund, which expands Africa and Latin America’s access to vaccines, and recently unveiled the COVID-19 Crisis Response Emergency Support Loan for developing countries.

Although Japan’s vaccine diplomacy has gained much less attention than Russia or China’s efforts, Tokyo’s vaccine and medical aid provisions could have profound geopolitical consequences. Japan’s public health assistance has amplified its challenge against China in Southeast Asia, further consolidated its partnerships with India and sub-Saharan Africa, and could increase the appeal of its signature governance model, which prizes individual responsibility and limited government interference. These trends will likely persist beyond the pandemic and pave the way for more intense competition between China and Japan over the next decade.


Japan’s vaccine delivery announcement to Southeast Asia followed major setbacks for China’s vaccine diplomacy in the region. China’s Sinovac vaccine provides only 50 percent protection in contrast to its U.S.-made counterparts. Meanwhile, Beijing’s “Health Silk Road” vision, which included Indonesia as a major hub for vaccine clinical trials, faltered during the first half of this year. Sinovac’s vaccine production reached only half of its expected level, resulting in smaller-than-expected shipments to Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and the Philippines. The rapid upsurge of COVID-19 cases in Indonesia, which included the deaths of at least 10 doctors who were fully vaccinated by Sinovac, shook public trust in Chinese-made vaccines throughout Southeast Asia. Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, who was an early champion of Chinese-made vaccines, apologized for taking the unapproved Sinopharm vaccine and asked the Chinese ambassador in Manila to send back 1,000 doses of the jab.

As confidence in Chinese vaccines waned, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or the “Quad”)—comprised of Japan, India, the United States, and Australia—devised plans to export vaccines across the Indo-Pacific. During the March 12 Quad meeting, the four countries agreed to ship 1 billion vaccine doses to the Indo-Pacific region by the end of 2022. India was the Quad’s leading vaccine distributor in early 2021, but its spiraling infection rates in the spring gave Japan the chance to assume this mantle.

Japan has used its influence in the Quad to encourage the equitable and apolitical distribution of vaccines, distinguishing it from China.

Japan has used its influence in the Quad to encourage the equitable and apolitical distribution of vaccines, distinguishing it from China, which has pressured vaccine recipients over their relations with Taiwan. Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu has insisted vaccine deliveries be decoupled from diplomatic goals. The country has also championed the “fair distribution” of vaccines regardless of whether the recipient countries are allies or partners. Japan’s policy prescriptions were broadly accepted by Quad countries, although the Biden administration’s initial prioritization of vaccine deliveries to U.S. allies blurred this consensus.

Since China and Japan’s vaccine diplomacy campaigns often target the same countries, they sharpen preexisting competition between the two nations for infrastructure projects and access to local manufacturing sectors. Japan has used its networks with Southeast Asia’s major economic powers, such as Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines, to thwart their entry into a Chinese-led economic order. Meanwhile, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “quality infrastructure” vision abroad has allowed Japan to preserve its investment advantage over China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Southeast Asia. Doubts about the quality and production efficiency of Chinese manufacturing, which were exposed by China’s botched vaccine deliveries in Southeast Asia, could spill over to construction and infrastructure as well as bolster the advantage of Japanese companies.

Vaccine deliveries have strengthened Japan’s image as a reliable partner for Southeast Asian countries and led to more comprehensive security cooperation. A 2017 Ipsos Indonesia poll revealed 89 percent of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) residents view Japan as a friendly country and 91 percent of ASEAN residents regard Japan as a reliable friend. For instance, Duterte’s praise of the “deep friendship” between Japan and the Philippines, which followed Japan’s donation of 1 million AstraZeneca vaccines earlier this month, aids Tokyo’s efforts to frame itself as a crisis-proof partner for Southeast Asian countries. Duterte’s friendship rhetoric was followed by the first air-to-air training exercises between Japan and the Philippines.

Although Japan’s vaccine distributions are concentrated in Southeast Asia, its medical aid provisions could strengthen its partnership with India and boost its image relative to China in Africa.

Japan’s COVID-19 medical assistance to India has further ensconced its image in New Delhi as an aid donor and partner in times of crisis. Development assistance has played an instrumental role in strengthening cooperation between the two countries. In 1958, India became the first country in the world to receive Japanese official development assistance, and in 2004, India became its largest recipient. After Japan supplied emergency aid to India this April, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked Suga to visit New Delhi once the situation stabilized and claimed the India-Japan partnership will strengthen international stability in the post-pandemic world order. This contrasts with tensions between China and India, which have persisted in spite of their de-escalation agreement on the Ladakh border.

Vaccine deliveries have strengthened Japan’s image as a reliable partner for Southeast Asian countries and led to more comprehensive security cooperation.

The goodwill created by Japan’s solidarity with India could spill over to the economic and security spheres. As Western countries seek to reduce their dependence on Chinese pharmaceuticals, Japan and India are likely to work together on creating an integrated alternative supply chain. And as Japan-India cooperation on public health occurs within the Quad, it will strengthen the bloc’s cohesion. It has also facilitated the expansion of Tokyo-New Delhi cooperation on Indian Ocean security. The India-Japan maritime bilateral exercise in the northern Arabian Sea last September and the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” drill this June underscore Japan and India’s use of bilateral security cooperation to complement Quad exercises.

Meanwhile, due to Western countries’ delayed response to Africa’s COVID-19 outbreak, China’s vaccine diplomacy has gained traction throughout the continent. But it hasn’t always boosted China’s image. The upsurge of COVID-19 cases in Seychelles, for instance, which relied extensively on Chinese-made vaccines, mirrors trends observed in Southeast Asia.

Japan is stepping in. It bucked the trend of G-7 disengagement from COVID-19 in Africa by donating $1 million to fight the pandemic under the auspices of the African Union’s Joint Continental Strategy and making strides toward its goal of training 120,000 African health care workers. The Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research in Accra, Ghana, which combatted Ebola, also expanded its role in combatting infectious disease in West Africa. This builds on Japan’s longstanding track record of providing development assistance in Africa, which began with the establishment of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development in 1993.

Japanese public health investments also strengthen the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor—an economic partnership agreement among India, Japan, and multiple African countries—which seeks to reduce the dependence of African countries on Chinese development assistance. As African countries, such as Kenya and Zambia, struggle to pay off their mounting debt burdens to China, Japan’s focus on building strategic partnerships in Africa and no-strings-attached humanitarian assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic could expound on the breakthroughs it has made on the continent.


Japan’s medical diplomacy complements the growing appeal of its governance model in the Global South. As Japan had the lowest COVID-19 infection and mortality rate of any G-7 country, it has actively promoted its success on the international stage. In May 2020, Abe hailed the “Japan model,” which slowed COVID-19’s spread in six weeks. The Japan model emphasized individual responsibility by relying on personal compliance with mask-wearing recommendations and contact-tracing guidelines, and it eschewed sweeping government interventions, such as lockdowns. Hitoshi Oshitani, a prominent Japanese virologist, became the Japan model’s global ambassador and extolled its Three Cs—avoiding close spaces, crowds, and close-contact situations—through regular speeches and interviews. This model appeals to entrenched views in countries throughout the Global South—such as Sri Lanka and Malaysia, which tend to view lockdowns as unnecessarily disruptive to economic development—and is unlikely to be discredited by Japan’s recent uptick in COVID-19 cases.

The contrast between Japan’s pandemic mitigation model and China’s use of stringent lockdowns sharpens the rivalry between both countries on international governance. Japan’s governance model hinges on the premise that safety and freedom can coexist, which differs markedly from China’s sacrifice of liberty for security. Although the efficacy of China’s pandemic mitigation measures received widespread praise in the Middle East and Africa during the early stages of the pandemic, the opacity of China’s COVID-19 response and uncertainties about the virus’s origins have tarnished its success. A 14-country Pew Research Center survey last October revealed negative perceptions of China were their highest on record. In addition to bolstering its time-tested reputation as an international aid donor, which crystallized during the 1980s, Japan’s synthesis of effective pandemic management at home and medical aid allows it to capitalize on negative impressions of China’s COVID-19 response.

Notwithstanding Japan’s low vaccination rates and upsurge of cases ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, Japanese medical diplomacy during the pandemic has been a resounding success. As China’s vaccine diplomacy falters and soft power erodes, Japan’s vaccine and medical assistance provisions could deepen its partnerships in the Global South and enhance the prestige of its flagship governance model.

Samuel Ramani is a tutor of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford, where he received a doctorate in 2021. He is the author of a forthcoming book on Russia’s foreign policy toward Africa. Twitter: @samramani2

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