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Interview: Blinken denounces China’s ‘strings attached’ vaccine diplomacy

ERI SUGIURA, Nikkei staff writer


TOKYO — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken denounced China’s so-called vaccine diplomacy, saying it was “deeply unfortunate” that countries’ play politics with people’s health.


“Various countries including China have been engaged in so called vaccine diplomacy,” Blinken told Nikkei Asia and other Japanese media on Wednesday in an online roundtable. “We shouldn’t tie the distribution or access to vaccines to politics or to geopolitics.”


This policy comes with “strings attached… And that certain requests are made, and maybe stronger requests are made of countries in order to receive the vaccines,” he said. “[The vaccine rollout] needs to be done by anyone who’s doing it because it’s in the overall interest of humanity. I hope that is the driving principle that different countries bring, as they’re thinking about creating a greater access to vaccines and distributing more vaccines.”


The Chinese Foreign Ministry announced in February that it had provided or planned to provide vaccine assistance to 53 countries and export to 27 countries.


As a measure to counter China’s vaccine diplomacy, the “Quad” nations — the U.S., Japan, India and Australia — agreed last week to deliver one billion Johnson & Johnson shots made in India for use in Southeast Asia, where countries including Indonesia and the Philippines are using China-made Sinovac jabs. The U.S. and Japan will provide financing, while Australia will deploy its logistics capability to transport the vaccines.


When asked if the Quad plans to make involvement of the U.K. and the European Union, Blinken reiterated the Quad’s vaccine distribution framework is only being put into place.


“It’s going to take some time to fully get off the ground… I hope that we’ll also see is that COVAX, the initial initiative also expands its own horizons in terms of the number of people that it hopes to provide access to vaccines.”


The group interview came a day after Blinken and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met Japanese counterparts Toshimitsu Motegi and Nobuo Kishi in “two-plus-two” talks in Tokyo, where four ministers said that China’s behavior, “where inconsistent with the existing international order, presents political, economic, military and technological challenges.”


Blinken on Wednesday also denounced China’s maritime expansion near the Senkaku Islands — known in Chinese as Diaoyu — and Taiwan, saying that China is “acting, both more repressively, at home, and more aggressively abroad.”


“It’s important for us to make clear together that China cannot expect to act with impunity,” he said. “It really matters that countries don’t take steps to make the possibility of conflict, greater, not less. That’s a shared concern with regards to the Senkaku [Islands] where we’re joined with Japan, and we have a security treaty.”


Blinken said he discussed the Taiwan situation with Japanese counterparts.


“Japan has real interest in what happens with regard to Taiwan and the Taiwan Straits and we spent some time comparing notes on that,” he said. “I hope that vision will reconsider some of the actions that have been taking that are just increasing tensions, instead of decreasing them.”


He added that he would discuss “some of the concerns that we have about the actions [China is] taking” with Chinese counterparts in a meeting in Alaska later this week.


U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to reporters during an online group interview in Tokyo on Wednesday. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Embassy) 

Blinken stressed the importance of democracy and the U.S.-Japan alliance as China increasingly flexes its political and diplomatic muscle across the Indo-Pacific region.


“The United States and Japan, two of the world’s leading democracies, actually stand up together for democratic values and show the world that democracy is in fact the best path forward.” Blinken told Nikkei Asia and other Japanese media on Wednesday in an online roundtable.


“Democracy is under challenge and under threat in ways that it hasn’t been before, certainly not in recent years, particularly from autocratic countries on the rise,” Blinken said. “I think we have a real premium on demonstrating to people that democracy can deliver for them and make a real difference in their lives.”


The visit by the two U.S. secretaries, their first joint foreign trip since President Joe Biden’s administration took office in January, shows the U.S. is keen to demonstrate its commitment to the Indo-Pacific region. The pair will visit Seoul later Wednesday for talks with South Korean counterparts.


In a statement released after Tuesday’s meeting, the four ministers said that China’s behavior, “where inconsistent with the existing international order, presents political, economic, military and technological challenges.”


They discussed the U.S.’s “unwavering commitment” to the defense of Japan under Article V of the allies’ security treaty, “which includes the Senkaku Islands.” The statement referred to the treaty article that stipulates the U.S. is obliged to defend Japan should its territories come under attack.


Signaling the repeated incursions by Chinese government vessels near the Senkaku Islands, known in Chinese as Diaoyu, the allies announced their opposition to Beijing’s new law that recognizes the Chinese coast guard as a quasi-military organization and allows it to fire at foreign ships.


Beijing’s upgrade of its coast guard was described in the statement as one of the “recent disruptive developments in the region.”


Blinken also laid out Washington’s plans for a policy of “nuclear posturing” — sustaining deterrents and defense while also reducing reliance on atomic weapons.


“Under nuclear weapons treaties, countries that do have nuclear weapons are bound to reduce them,” he said. “We will do our part and be a strong leader in that effort, but it starts in nuclear posturing and that will begin in the weeks ahead.”

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