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Vaccine diplomacy gives China a foothold in the Maghreb

NDCF - Maghreb November 2020
As tensions between the Forces Armée Royales (FAR) and the Polisario Front over the border crossing in Guerguerat caught the headlines in the Maghreb last month, a meeting of the Moroccan royal cabinet on 9 November went partially unnoticed.
The statement said that King Mohammed VI had given final instructions for a mass vaccination campaign against COVID-19. The announcement came against the backdrop of a second wave of coronavirus cases that, compared to the first in March, hit Morocco particularly hard. Up to 1st December 2020, 359.844 total cases and 5.915 total deaths had been recorded, while in mid-November more than 5.000 new daily cases were putting unsustainable pressure on the country’s healthcare system. As expected, the pandemic also pushed Morocco into recession: theInternational Monetary Fund (IMF) expects an economic slump of 6-7% in 2020, with inevitable consequences on the unemployment rate.
Considering the encouraging results of a clinical trial on Moroccan volunteers, Rabat is moving forward on mass vaccination in order to tackle the health and economic emergencies. The trial, that was in its third and final phase in November, is the result of a partnership agreement signed with the China National Pharmaceutical Group (also known as Sinopharm), that provides for the delivery of 10 million vaccine doses by the end of the year. Moroccan authorities also signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to buy doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the R-Pharm, a Russian pharmaceutical group, and are holding negotiations with Pfizer-Biontech, Johnson & Johnson and CanSino.
Despite the diversification strategy is clearly driven by the necessity to have enough supplies for the population, the Sinopharm agreement clearly stands out, highlighting the extent of China’s soft power outreach. Beijing had already given support to Maghrebi countries during the first wave, sending medical equipment, as well as exchanging information and expertise.
However, during the second wave the mask diplomacy left room for a vaccine diplomacy that has wide regional implications. Alongside Morocco, also Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE took part in the agreement with Sinopharm, which, together with CanSino and SinoVac, represents the main tool of a medical diplomacy that highlights Beijing’s renewed global ambitions.
After suffering from the reputational damage of being the origin of the coronavirus outbreak early this year, China has indeed bee moving past with an aggressive diplomatic push in developing world, in a context marked by a rapidly changing global scenario.
In contrast to the Trump administration’s vaccine nationalism, Beijing has indeed offered considerable rewards to partners intended to join its ‘Health Silk Road’, including an option for local manufacturing of the vaccine, which made the partnership particularly appealing for Egypt and Morocco, who share the ambitions of becoming regional hubs. Joining the COVAX Facility (an international mechanism for rapid, fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines) represented the culmination of an elaborated strategy that aims at restoring China’s image along with its Belt and Road. This soft power strategy poses a significant challenge to NATO and its southern neighbours, considering the recent publication of the NATO 2030 Reflection Group report ‘United for a New Era’, that only twice defines China ‘a full-spectrum systemic rival’.

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