Is Vaccine Race Heating Tension Between Global Powers?

Catherine McQueeny, SLU-Madrid

Much of 2020 has been dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, and it will likely continue to direct headlines and perspectives in the year to come. While Covid-19 generated a multifaceted crisis viewed through many lenses, it is difficult to ignore that a vaccine race and a global competition, rather than cooperation, have been created. With an unprecedented sparring between the US and China, the virus has been a specifically pivotal moment in the two nations’ competition.

US Hegemony No More?

Even prior to the pandemic, theories and expectations have been thrown out the window this last decade, as the world, thanks to technology and globalization, no longer ebbs and flows. Instead, confusion can occur within matters of minutes and hours from a mere tweet, and global shifts no longer take decades but years or maybe months. The US and China are two countries that exemplify this sudden change, some even arguing that the US hegemony is nearing its end. The Thucydides Trap theory embodies this idea that the US is soon to lose its status as the world’s reigning superpower to China and will do so in the next one hundred years. This stems from the notion that each great empire or nation has a lifespan of only so many years, and will spend the last period of its life competing with a younger power who will later overtake them.

However, China, unlike the US, is not technically young, and has exerted power across Asia and beyond for thousands of years. Though the Thucydides concept refers to a young nation, a young China would rather refer to an era spanning from Maoism through today. The period has brought explosive growth and prosperity highly controlled by the Chinese government. From 1990 to 2017 alone, GDP and Military expenditure rose roughly 14% and 13% respectively, making it second to only the US. President Xi Jingping has taken an active role as head of state and under his leadership, China has expanded its influence to cover three different continents, with the Belt Road initiative paving the way.

This explosive growth has been a worry for the US, even under the Obama Administration, as a nation who relies heavily on Chinese manufacturing and affordable goods. The Trump campaign vowed in the 2016 elections for tougher rhetoric and policy setting off tensions amongst the two states. The US president argued the Chinese were not playing fairly, accusing them of intellectual property theft and lack of market access. Tensions have remained high, and in early 2020, a preliminary agreement was reached after two years of tough tariffs. China agreed to spend an additional $200 billion on American goods and services within the next two years. Shortly after the agreement was signed, the first signs of the virus developing into a global pandemic became known, furthering tensions, as once again, the US was quick to call out China’s role in the crisis.

Chinese Mask Diplomacy Vs. US Isolationist Policy

Since the dawn of the virus, the Chinese State Apparatus has worked tirelessly to control the narrative surrounding their role in the outbreak, especially after the initial global reaction had been highly critical of the People’s Republic. Recognizing they committed a serious misstep in Wuhan, they redirected attention and media to their mask diplomacy efforts and later other positives, like no – official – current outbreaks in September, when the rest of the world seemed to be grappling with a second spike in cases. Mask diplomacy has been specifically effective, which refers to the efforts of the Chinese to be world leaders in delivering and producing medical supplies necessary to combat the virus.

The US, on the other hand, missed out on this same opportunity when the White House refused to enact The Defense Production Act which would have allowed for masks, ventilators, and other necessities to have been prioritized over regular private production. Though the administration has used the act multiple times throughout its four year span, Trump was quoted in March 2020 saying that he would not allow for the nationalization of private companies and asked that we recall that the US is not Venezuela.  While it seemed the US had started out strong in methods of saving the economy and establishing emergency laws and protections for its citizens, the bipartisan nature of the state has not allowed for further measures to be agreed upon. Since then, the White House and current administration itself has been a source of false information and misleading medical advice. Offering the world, who once looked in the US’s direction in times of crisis, little hope that it would take lead in the global crisis we are faced with today.

Are Tensions Amongst US and China Cold War Like?

Some of this said misinformation has been a further attack on China. Though the World Health Organization (WHO) has not been able to fully pinpoint when and where the Sars-CoV-2 began, it hasn’t stopped world leaders from making accusations against China. Trump, specifically, has taken the liberty of calling the virus “the China Virus” and “Kung Flu”, seeding xenophobia and providing a voice to other populist movements and country leaders to do the same. Rather than supporting the CDC and World Health Organization, the current administration took liberties offering bizarre suggestions for cures like hydroxychloroquine and bleach. Matters were easily made worse when the Administration reopened the country and economy far earlier than its European and Asian counterparts. The bipartisanship of the nation’s congress has not allowed for another economic stimulus package the public desperately needs either. Economic strength and a downplay of the excessive deaths caused by the virus became the biggest talking point for the Trump camp in the 2020 election cycle. Nevertheless, the US’s mishandling of the crisis has been an international embarrassment, with many taking note that Governors and City leaders were required to take control combating the virus that has killed over 229,000 people today and has infected over 9 million in the US alone.

China, on the other hand, is at the forefront of vaccine development and has been accused in recent months of taking some mighty drastic steps to ensure it develops the first successful cure. China was even accused of hacking into the data system housing Spanish vaccine information, in a play to use espionage to guarantee first place. Along with this, the use of mask diplomacy has raised the importance of China from the point of view of European nations.

The behaviors and foreign policies of both nations are reminiscent of similar tactics carried out by the US and USSR during the Cold War. Two things in particular stick out, language that incites hate and fear, and heavy use of espionage and hacking amid growing tensions. The language used by President Trump has been heavily criticized, but has had lasting effects on public rhetoric and abuses towards Asian populations in the US. This sort of hate and scare looks quite similar to McCarthyism of the 1950’s where anyone thought to be supporting the Russians or communism in the government was investigated aggressively. The obsession created a general fear and aptness to detest all things associated with the USSR, including people. Government officials have a duty to ensure the wellbeing of all citizens, which means they cannot go around attacking specific minority groups without believing it could incite violence. The otherness created unfortunately has been dangerous for Asian Americans and has led to fear from Chinese to travel to the US.

Cooperation, the key to victory

On the other hand, the virus could have been an opportunity for global cooperation. The vaccine specifically has been an area of contention between the US and China, as both nations are pushing leading scientists to the limits to ensure they reach the finish line first. This, too, is a reminder of the Cold War. The US and USSR used endless amounts of resources and tactics like espionage and theft to win the Nuclear Arms Race. As tensions heat up, tactics are being used like espionage, hacking of university systems who house information, and the nonrenewal of visas for hundreds of Chinese students studying in America on the grounds of “intelligence information.” Ultimately, the vaccine race feels similar to this or the space race, as the nations push the limits to win. It is also clear that, in the current circumstances, the first nation to develop a successful vaccine is likely to alter global power structures.

The US still functions as the world’s superpower, and the American dollar remains the leading reserve currency, but with a president that has been willing to adopt conspiracies as facts, rampant illness and natural disasters, and a hyperpolarized political body, one begins to wonder how the world must move forward. When president Donald Trump had been hospitalized with Covid-19, the markets dropped, and so did faith in the USs ability to lead. China, in many ways, for good and bad, has picked up the slack of the US and has filled the role of a global leader through the European and American lenses. Neither 2020 nor 2021 should be the year to convert Cold War tactics to fit today’s competition, and cooperation and a global united front against the virus should be the only way we can ensure people’s lives are saved.

Catherine McQueeny is a Master’s student at the department of Political Science and International Relations of Saint Louis University – Madrid Campus.


To quote this article, please use the following reference: Catherine McQueeny (2020), Is Vaccine Race Heating Tension Between Global Powers?

The OCC publishes a wide range of opinions that are meant to help our readers think of International Relations. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and neither the OCC nor Saint Louis University can be held responsible for any use which may be made of the opinion of the author and/or the information contained therein