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Is China using COVID aid to increase influence in Sri Lanka?

Vials of China's Sinopharm vaccine

Vials of China's Sinopharm vaccine

Over the past few months, China has been boosting its vaccine diplomacy efforts, pledging and shipping increasing numbers of COVID vaccines to a number of countries worldwide, particularly in Asia.

Sri Lanka recently received 600,000 doses of China's Sinopharm vaccine that would be used for the vaccination of around 200,000 Chinese workers believed to be currently living in the island nation.

When the pandemic hit Sri Lanka, Beijing also donated thousands of masks, testing kits and health equipment.

Although Sri Lanka's National Medicine Regulatory Authority (NMRA) has approved the decision to bring in the Chinese vaccine, they have not given the greenlight for its emergency use.

The South Asian nation also received in January a large shipment of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine made in India and plans to acquire shots of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine.

Sri Lanka has so far inoculated over 900,000 people out of its 21 million people, just about 2% of the population. It has recorded more than 90,000 infections since the start of the pandemic, with nearly 1,000 related deaths.

Vaccine diplomacy to support national interests?

By supplying vaccines to countries like Sri Lanka, China is looking to showcase its global health leadership to lower- and middle-income countries.

"Any humanitarian diplomacy that national governments conduct has some motives that directly or indirectly support national interests," Miwa Hirono, professor at the Graduate School of International Relations, Ritsumeikan University, told DW.

China's humanitarian actions in the past have been "multi-faceted and complex," with decisions often made ad-hoc, she added.

Hirono is collecting data on Beijing's humanitarian assistance during the pandemic but sees no correlation between vaccine donations and the scale of Chinese investment in a recipient country.

However, the fact that early vaccine aid was given to countries like Cambodia and Pakistan that support Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) merits further research into this, the international relations expert added.

Vaccine donations to countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan, among others, are done "to help our friends," a Chinese official, who wishes to remain anonymous, told DW. "These countries are friends of China and helped the country at the start of the pandemic," he added.

China's 'softer diplomatic approach'

Despite China's vaccine diplomacy getting off to a strong start, Beijing appears to be encountering stiff competition and tough questions from abroad.

Security analyst Asanga Abeyagoonasekera told DW that there are "serious concerns that China is raising pressure on Sri Lankan authorities to get approval for the Sinopharm vaccine."

"Authorities in Colombo are taking their time. They have asked many questions and awaiting response from China," he pointed out.

The expert stressed that China has switched to a "softer diplomatic approach."

Still, worries grow that where Beijing's vaccines go, its influence will follow.

"Recent developments show an increase in Chinese influence over Sri Lanka, be it through vaccine diplomacy or infrastructure diplomacy. One cannot ignore Beijing's role in the country's affairs."

Abeyagoonasekera said that Sri Lanka's foreign policy appears to be neutral, but it is not. Colombo is "bandwagoning" with Beijing, he stressed. "The decisions taken by the government are tilted more toward China."

China-Sri Lanka ties are "multilayered," but Beijing's growing influence "is a bit worrying," said Abeyagoonasekera, arguing that it endangers Sri Lankan democracy and could push the country toward a different governing model. "This is a long-term worry I have as an analyst."

Rohan Samarajiva, founding chair of the policy think tank LINREAsia in Colombo, said that China's vaccine shipments received greater publicity in the country than India's. There is an extra dose of gratitude toward the Chinese, he told DW.

China's support for Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva also contributes to closer bilateral ties, the expert added. "All the talk and aid of the US or Europe pales in comparison to what China is doing," said Samarajiva.

Growing Chinese clout in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan media, meanwhile, often tend to portray China in a positive light, particularly since receiving COVID-related assistance, Shakthi De Silva, a visiting lecturer at the Department of International Relations, University of Colombo, told DW.

However, there isn't much coverage on the underlying reasons behind the vaccine deliveries, he added.

China's vaccine diplomacy is perhaps a component of Beijing's long-term strategy to maintain good ties with Sri Lanka's government and people, the expert said.

In the past, Sri Lankans took to the streets in protest when they saw that China was acquiring critical infrastructure in the country like the Hambantota port. Sections of the Sri Lankan population viewed Beijing with mistrust, De Silva pointed out. "Hence, the vaccine and mask diplomacy have helped bolster China's soft power and rebuild its tarnished image."

Abeyagoonasekera shared a similar view. "Vaccine diplomacy will definitely add to the infrastructure diplomacy and will further strengthen the bilateral relationship."