Biden needs a coherent strategy on Asia
Professor Duncan J. McCampbell’s piece ‘Resetting relations’ (Asian Affairs, Dec. edition) conveyed important points regarding what can be expected of the entrant Biden Administration’s China-policy, and of Beijing’s gauging of it.
However, contrary to the author, I dare to contend that the PRC leadership is not necessarily going to look back fondly on the Trump tenure. Much will depend on the Biden team’s ability to offer a coherent strategy for the Indo-Pacific.
The classic Chinese book, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, suggests that the first step to victory is to unsettle the opponent, initially psychologically. It appears that Donald Trump has been doing just that. Trump pushed China off balance and onto the defensive with his temperamental style and antagonistictone. The Trump years have made America seem less predictable.
Biden’s presidency should capitalise on this legacy, rather than rejecting it in the name of anti-Trumpism. Beijing would be relieved if the United States reverts to its predictable and vulnerable role in the world, which we saw under President Obama. I believe that Biden should send an unequivocal message to China that America is not a weak nation. This would also reassure its partners in the Quad security group, including Japan and India.
Balancing the costs
Your pieces on China’s vaccine diplomacy (‘China’s Promise, Asia’s Gamble’ and ‘Winning the Cure’) discussed important concerns around the safety and efficacy of Coronavirus vaccines, and how they might be used as political leverage. But two other questions face Asian countries looking to immunise their populations: cost and logistics.
Although all figures are preliminary, it is already possible to make some comparisons between the different vaccines becoming available. Surprisingly, perhaps, the Chinese vaccine produced by Sinopharm is one of the most expensive while the British vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and manufactured by AstraZeneca is one of the cheapest.
In December, the chairman of Sinopharm, Liu Jingzhen, estimated that his company’s vaccine will cost $144 for the double dose required to reach optimum efficacy – about twice the cost of the Moderna vaccine and nearly four times that of the Pfizer/BioNTech drug. The AstraZeneca vaccine is far cheaper: it is expected to be sold to lower and middle-income countries for $4 for the necessary double dose.
The other question is logistics. With the Pfizer vaccine having to be stored at -80 degrees Celsius and the Moderna drug at -20 degrees, this will considerably increase the cost and difficulty of distribution. Both the Sinopharm and Oxford/AstraZeneca versions are much more portable, requiring storage at between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius.
As your editorial so rightly suggests, it is incumbent on governments to put aside political one-upmanship and make tough decisions, balancing the costs of the various vaccines, the capacity of their medical services to safely deliver them, and the cost of the other options, such as prolonged lockdowns and social distancing measures.
Further to Nicholas Nugent’s article (‘Himalayan Conundrum’, Asian Affairs, Jan. issue), one has to wonder at the denials made by Bhutan over reports that China has built a village inside Bhutanese territory, near the Doklam Plateau, when satellite images – included with Mr Nugent’s write-up – show the presence of said village.
Nugent’s highlighting of the lack of reassurance that comes with these denials, both by Bhutan and China, is spot on, leading to questions over whether Thimphu has changed its border to suit Beijing in some kind of deal, rather than taking a strong stance on the issue. It seems, as Mr Nugent cites from the New York Times, that Beijing is indeed taking its South China Sea strategy to the Himalayas with a slow but sure land grab. It is yet another worrying development for India and the world.