Coronavirus vaccine: China’s strong ties with Serbia create a stepping stone into European market

Eduardo Baptista
·5-min read

As European nations struggle with shortages of Covid-19 vaccines, China has stepped in with supplies to Serbia and Hungary, reaping the political benefits of its soft diplomacy strategy on the continent.

Serbia’s vaccination programme for a population of 6.95 million people was turbocharged by a shipment of 1 million doses from Chinese maker Sinopharm (China National Pharmaceutical Group Corp) on January 17. Serbia has the second-fastest roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines in Europe, behind Britain, according to Oxford University’s Our World in Data, which tracks global inoculations.

Hungary then became the first European Union member to unilaterally approve the Chinese-made vaccine for emergency use on January 29. It ordered 5 million doses, enough for a quarter of its population.

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China’s success in these countries contrasts with the EU’s stumbles in vaccine distribution among its 27 member states. The bloc’s purchase of 300 million doses faces delays after British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca said production problems would cut deliveries in February and March to 31 million from the planned 80 million.

As of January, less than 4 per cent of the EU’s combined population of 450 million had been vaccinated, according to Our World in Data.

French President Emmanuel Macron told the Atlantic Council on Thursday that Serbia’s situation suggested China’s vaccine diplomacy was working better than the multilateral approach taken by the EU.

“We can be impressed by the Chinese efficiency … This is a little bit humiliating for us as leaders,” said Macron, while at the same time raising questions over a lack of data about the effectiveness of the Chinese-made vaccines.

Based on previous overtures by Beijing to cultivate ties in Europe, the vaccine diplomacy with Serbia and Hungary is not a surprise.

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“Hungary is a politically problematic country with [Prime Minister] Viktor Orban’s push for illiberal democracy, which also ties him politically with China and, generally speaking, more authoritarian countries,” said Grzegorz Stec, a Brussels-based analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies.

When Serbia declared a nationwide state of emergency last March in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic blasted the EU, accusing it of placing restrictions on the export of medical equipment, calling European solidarity a “fairy tale on paper”, adding that only China had extended a helping hand.

Vucic used the same script after the Sinopharm vaccines arrived, complaining to Serbian media late last month that not one vaccine dose had arrived from the Covax Facility, a WHO-backed multilateral system of vaccine distribution.

“The world has hit an iceberg, like the Titanic: the rich and the richest only save themselves and their loved ones,” he said.

“[The EU countries] have prepared expensive lifeboats for them and those of us who aren’t rich, who are small, like the countries of the Western Balkans, we’re drowning together with the Titanic.”

Stefan Vladisavljev, programme coordinator of the Belgrade Security Forum, said that years of Serbia cultivating close ties with China had paid off in this case, while neighbours in the western Balkans – such as Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia – had received little to nothing of the EU’s vaccines.

“Out of all the Western Balkan nations, Serbia has the most developed relationship with China for the past decade,” said the Belgrade-based analyst, adding that the ties had been particularly beneficial for Serbia over the past 12 months.

Serbians arrive to receive the Sinopharm vaccine at Belgrade Fair, which was turned into a vaccination centre. Sports stadiums, cathedrals and theme parks around the world have been repurposed as temporary vaccination centres. Photo: AFP
Serbians arrive to receive the Sinopharm vaccine at Belgrade Fair, which was turned into a vaccination centre. Sports stadiums, cathedrals and theme parks around the world have been repurposed as temporary vaccination centres. Photo: AFP

Vladisavljev added that EU diplomacy in Serbia was burdened by bureaucracy while Chinese ambassador to Serbia Chen Bo was the most active of Belgrade’s diplomatic corps, meeting regularly with Vucic and other ministers, a clear sign that Beijing valued an ally so close to the EU.

“Serbia is the success story of China’s mask diplomacy, and now what we might call vaccine diplomacy,” Vladisavljev said.

However, Stec in Brussels said there remained a wariness in Europe towards Chinese vaccines such as those made by Sinovac Biotech and Sinopharm.

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“I would guess that there is going to be limited confidence in Chinese products because of scandals over the last year that were popping up in Spain and Netherlands over the quality of [Chinese] masks that were being shipped to Europe,” he said.

“Of course, masks are very different from vaccines but I still think this will lead to greater scrutiny of Chinese vaccines, compared to the Western providers.”

Macron took up this issue when speaking to the Atlantic Council on Thursday.

The French president said the efficacy of a jab from a Sinopharm or Sinovac vaccine was unknown because “absolutely no information” had been shared about trials.

“What it means is that in the medium to long run it is almost sure that if this vaccine is not appropriate it will facilitate the emergence of new variants, it will absolutely not fix the situation of these countries,” he said.

His comment came a day after European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen also urged Russia and China to “show all the data” if they wanted their vaccines to be approved in the European Union.

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