Chinese “Vaccine Diplomacy” trap: reality or conspiracy?

Fitzgerald Munyoro 

Besides exquisite dress and renaissance poetry, the medieval period is infamously known as a time of uninhibited political ambition.

Royal and ambitious families and tribes were notorious for incessantly plotting and playing never ending political chess games against each other.

However, with time they grew weary. After all, war is a taxing business.

As a means of avoiding full blown warfare with each other when tensions threatened to boil over, a solution was formulated.

The ambitious families would often hatch and arrange blood trades through royal intermarriages. Sadly these unions were often loveless unions of convenience but a greater purpose was served.

These matrimonial exchanges ensured that mutually beneficial trade relations and political alliances could be forged.


This was also the overarching view in 2003 when Zimbabwe embarked on the “Look East” policy, which was at the time, a drastic shift in foreign policy that was exacerbated by decaying relationships between Zimbabwe and the Western world led by Britain and The United States of America.

At the forefront of the Look East policy was the People’s republic of China who were quick to extend an olive leaf to Zimbabwe and rescue the beleaguered nation from political-economic purgatory which had come through economic sanctions imposed by Western powers.

 China as an ambitious member of BRICS (Brazil,India,China and South Africa) cluster was eager to make a global impression and rope in what Cecil John Rhodes termed as the ‘Second Rand’; a land of vast natural minerals and resources.

For the past 21 years, the relationship has unraveled itself through many mining, agricultural, telecommunications and engineering concessions, agreements, tenders and deals of varying proportions and sizes.

The latest iteration of the relationship has seen Zimbabwe become a chief beneficiary of what observers of mainly western politics call China’s “vaccine diplomacy”. To date, Zimbabwe has benefacted from donations of over 3 million vaccines from the people’s republic of China.

Writing for The Diplomat, analysts Ivana Karaskova and Veronica Blabova articulate the vaccine diplomacy strategy as China using its vast technology and head start in COVID 19 exposure and vaccine development to bargain for economic interests with vulnerable states.

“China has been busy offering its products to the world, But it does not necessarily follow that Chinese vaccines would be provided for free. Even less so does China treat its customers equally.”

“Some countries receive vaccines in the form of donations, while others purchased them or were offered a loan to buy them. The logic of vaccine diplomacy however shows that China approaches the issues not only from a business perspective but also taking into account political incentives.’’

“Jabs are used as a tool to reinforce established relations and capitalize on new opportunities.” read part of Karaskova’s and Blabova’s article.

This view point is one that is shared by Farai Maguwu who is an activist in natural resources management and is the founding director and chief researcher of Center for Natural Resource Governance(CRNG).

Farai Maguwu(pictured) does not believe Sino-Zim relations are sincere and genuine

He says that COVID 19 vaccine donations have been used a way of making sure that China is handed a blank cheque to haemorrhage Zimbabwean resources without meeting repercussions or recourse.

“To some extend vaccine donations are being used for public relations purposes and to camouflage domination and exploitation of poor and weak countries by powerful ones as the cases of Russia and China demonstrate.”

“China is becoming more assertive and politically dominant in Zimbabwe, especially after the November 2017 Coup. They are now issuing public statements, defending their citizens accused of violence and immoral behaviour. Never have we heard the Zimbabwe government defending its own citizens suffering abuse at the hands of Chinese nationals.”

Maguwu also describes the Sino-Zim relationship as a relationship that suffered a still birth and goes on to say that the two nations are operating from an uneven playing field with general Zimbabwean populace benefiting next to nothing since economic engagements began.

“Sino-Zim relations have been a socio-economic disaster. The Zimbabwean economy collapsed under the so called Look East policy which primarily involved sending Zimbabwe’s ruling elites on shopping trips to China whilst mortgaging the country’s natural resources for nothing. China has not helped Zimbabwe rebuild its decayed road infrastructure, collapsed health and education systems nor has it assisted in stabilizing the economy which has been on life support for more than 2 decades now.” said Maguwu.

However, Ambassador Guo ShaoGun has publicily addressed questions of goodwill to Review and Mail in the past.  

Ambassador Shaogun has reiterated that Chinese assistance to Zimbabwe was an act of goodwill between allies that share a friendship that spans decades

He has said “last year it was mask diplomacy. Now it is vaccine diplomacy. The conspiracy peddlers just never get tired of saying China has a hidden agenda.”

“People are dying by the minutes; you have something that can save their lives. Isn’t it only human nature to help? If providing vaccines is a diplomatic tactic, what about keeping them all to ourselves? I am pretty sure China will be accused of something else as well.”

“I really sympathize with a few people who can only make a living or show their existence by smearing China.” said Ambassador ShaoGun. 

Evidence gathered by scholar Rangarirai Chikova seems to support the fact that China is sincere in its engagements with Zimbabwe.

In a paper he authored titled “Foreign Investments Trends in Zimbabwe and their impacts on Transparency and debt sustainability on the extractive sector,’’ Chikova says that China is Zimbabwe’s biggest investor and has activated the most business treaties amongst Zimbabwe’s trading partners.

“Of the 33 investment treaties signed, China has ratified the most of them and is Zimbabwe’s first investor. Russia,India and Iran are also important investors.”

He also surmises that China has been one of the few growing nations that is committed to providing aid based on goodwill to developing nations such as Zimbabwe.

“China is providing vaccine aid to 53 developing countries and exporting vaccines to 22 countries. Chinese vaccine producer Sinovac alone has delivered more than 10 million doses to countries in Asia, the Mediterranean, Latin America and Africa.”

The graph above detailing economic activities between China and Zimbabwe shows evidence of bilateral trade

Furthermore, a plethora of high powered Chinese delegates have publicly spoken out against the continued imposition of economic sanctions against Zimbabwe.

In 2020, Wu Peng, the head of African ­affairs at China’s foreign ministry took a swipe at the Western imposed sections and described them as the “unbearable inflictions upon millions of Zimbabweans are devastating”.

“We strongly support the appeals for the unconditional lifting of sanctions against Zimbabwe,” Wu said.

As far back as 2008, China fought for Zimbabwe by vetoing a U.N. Security Council members motion to exacerbate sanctions on the Zimbabwean government which was then led by Robert Mugabe.

Commentators at the time say that the move to block the sanctions not only fractured relations with the West but also put the successful hosting of the Beijing Olympics at risk.

Speaking to the media, the then Chinese Foreign Ministry’s chief spokesman Liu Jianchao said

” Under present conditions, passing a sanctions resolution against Zimbabwe would not help to encourage the various factions there to engage in political dialogue and negotiations and achieve results,.” 

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