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From Asia to Africa, China Promotes Its Vaccines to Win Friends

The Philippines will have quick access to a Chinese coronavirus vaccine. Latin American and Caribbean nations will receive $1 billion in loans to buy the medicine. Bangladesh will get over 100,000 free doses from a Chinese company.

Never mind that China is still most likely months away from mass producing a vaccine that is safe for public use. The country is using the prospect of the drug’s discovery in a charm offensive aimed at repairing damaged ties and bringing friends closer in regions China deems vital to its interests.

Take, for example, Indonesia, which has long been wary of Beijing. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, assured the nation’s president, Joko Widodo, in a call last week: “China takes seriously Indonesia’s concerns and needs in vaccine cooperation.”

Mr. Xi hailed the two countries’ cooperation on developing a vaccine as “a new bright spot” in relations, according to a statement from China’s Foreign Ministry. “Together, China and Indonesia will continue to stand in solidarity against Covid-19,” he promised.

China’s vaccine pledges, on top of earlier shipments of masks and ventilators around the world, help it project itself as a responsible player as the United States retreats from global leadership. Beijing’s moves could also help it push back against accusations that the ruling Communist Party should be held responsible for its initial missteps when the coronavirus first emerged in China in December.

The ability to develop and deliver vaccines to poorer countries would also be a powerful signal of China’s rise as a scientific leader in a new post-pandemic global order.

“People are very willing to take a Chinese vaccine,” said Ghazala Parveen, a senior official at the National Institute of Health in Pakistan, where two Chinese vaccine makers are conducting trials. “In fact, we are being asked by people to have the vaccine ready as soon as possible.”

By some measures, China is leading the global race for a Covid-19 vaccine. It has four candidates in the last phase of clinical trials, more than any other country.

The United States has three vaccine candidates in late-stage trials, with Pfizer saying it could apply for emergency approval as early as October and Moderna saying it hopes to have a vaccine by the end of the year. AstraZeneca, a British-Swedish company that received U.S. government funding to develop its vaccine, paused its late-stage global trials this week because of a serious suspected adverse reaction in a participant.

China has approved at least two experimental vaccines under an emergency use program that started in July with soldiers and employees of state-owned companies and has quietly expanded to include health care and aviation workers. Its vaccine makers have built factories that can produce hundreds of thousands of doses.

Mr. Xi has declared that China would make domestically developed vaccines a global public good, though his government has provided few details.

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Credit…Ding Haitao/Xinhua, via Associated Press

China has long viewed contributing to global health as an opportunity to build its soft power.

“The government definitely would like to see that China is successful in producing a good vaccine and that many countries want it,” said Jennifer Huang Bouey, an epidemiologist and China expert at the RAND Corporation. “It’s beneficial for its diplomacy and changing the narrative on Covid.”

But Chinese vaccine companies that have gone abroad to conduct clinical trials have generated controversy amid fears that local residents are being treated like guinea pigs. And with so much still unknown about the coronavirus, the vaccines could make it to the last stage of trials only to stumble.

Despite the uncertainty, Beijing has pushed its prospective vaccines with confidence and has used them to help smooth over frictions.

Last month, Premier Li Keqiang met with officials from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam to damp criticism that China had contributed to a devastating drought in the Southeast Asian nations. He also offered Chinese vaccines — a proposal that was well received.

In a speech during the same summit, Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, a staunch supporter of China, singled out Beijing for praise, saying he “would like to give a high appreciation of efforts of our friend China in producing a vaccine.”

In the Philippines, where China is competing with the United States for influence, President Rodrigo Duterte told lawmakers in July that he had “made a plea” to Mr. Xi for help with vaccines. He also said he would not confront China over its claims to the South China Sea.

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Credit…Iqbal Kusumadireza/EPA, via Shutterstock

A day later, Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said China was willing to give the Philippines priority access to a vaccine.

Chinese leaders have made similar offers to countries in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and South Asia — regions where Beijing has sought to expand its influence.

“We pledge that once the development and deployment of the Covid-19 vaccine is completed in China, African countries will be among the first to benefit,” Mr. Xi told a meeting of African leaders in June. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, promised in July that China would extend $1 billion in loans for vaccines to Latin American and Caribbean countries, according to the government of Mexico.

For all its talk of providing vaccines as a public good, China seems determined to do so only on its own terms. It has been reticent on whether it plans to join Covax, a World Health Organization-backed mechanism that aims to help countries distribute a coronavirus vaccine equitably. (The Trump administration has flat-out rejected the initiative.)

“In fact, we have already cooperated with some countries,” Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry, told reporters last week. “China always keeps its word.”

If China wins the race for a vaccine, it will owe its success to some of these countries, which have played an indispensable role by providing Chinese vaccine makers with human test subjects.

Chinese drugmakers have taken their research abroad because the outbreak at home has been under control for months.

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Credit…Nicolas Asfouri/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In Bangladesh, Sinovac Biotech, a vaccine maker based in Beijing, is testing its vaccine on 4,200 health care workers in Dhaka, the capital. The Chinese company has agreed to provide over 110,000 free vaccine doses to the country, according to Dr. John D. Clemens, executive director of Bangladesh’s International Center for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, which is helping conduct the trials.

That is a tiny fraction of the 170 million residents of Bangladesh, one of Asia’s poorest countries. And despite their participation in the Chinese clinical trials, Bangladeshis fear that the vaccines that result may be priced out of the reach of most of the country’s citizens.

“If any person in the world gets deprived of their right to a Covid-19 vaccine because of patent rights and profitability, this would be the biggest injustice in this century,” said Md. Sayedur Rahman, a professor of pharmacology at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University in Dhaka.

The Foreign Ministry in Beijing has emphasized that China will not seek to establish a monopoly on vaccine supply. State news media reports have also rejected accusations that China is using vaccines as a diplomatic tool, while government-backed academics assert that the provision of vaccines is altruistic.

“There will certainly be no strings attached,” said Ruan Zongze, executive vice president of the China Institute of International Studies. “Since it is going to be a global public good, adding any conditions would arouse suspicion from the other party.”

But China is already drawing concern in countries on the receiving end of its overtures, as well as from regional powers that view Beijing as encroaching on their spheres of influence.

In Nepal, where China would like to conduct clinical trials on 500 workers in a cement company, politicians have raised questions about the safety of the vaccines and the lack of transparency.

“Shouldn’t we be assured about its side effects?” Prakash Sharan Mahat, a former foreign minister of Nepal and a leader of the country’s main opposition party, Nepali Congress, said in an interview.

India, which is wary of Beijing’s intentions in South Asia, has responded to China’s offers of vaccines for Bangladesh and Nepal with its own pledges to provide its allies with vaccines.

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Credit…Roman Pilipey/EPA, via Shutterstock

Some countries may have few alternatives to China.

Indonesia has started a last-stage clinical trial for Sinovac on 1,620 volunteers and has signed an agreement with the Chinese company for 50 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine concentrate that would allow an Indonesian state-owned vaccine maker, PT Bio Farma, to produce doses locally.

Some political experts in Indonesia worry about the leverage that China would wield over the country, but they acknowledge that Indonesia has little choice.

“Should we be suspicious, or should we be grateful?” asked Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat, an academic at Universitas Islam Indonesia, who researches China’s foreign policy in Indonesia.

“I think both.”

Reporting was contributed by Julfikar Ali Manik, Muktita Suhartono, Bhadra Sharma and Salman Masood. Amber Wang and Claire Fu contributed research.

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Once a Source of U.S.-China Tension, Trade Emerges as an Area of Calm

WASHINGTON — For the better part of three years, President Trump’s trade war with China strained relations between the world’s largest economies. Now, the trade pact the two countries signed in January appears to be the most durable part of the U.S.-China relationship.

Tensions between the United States and China are flaring over the coronavirus, which the Trump administration accuses China of failing to control, as well as accusations of espionage, intellectual property theft and human rights violations. American officials on Tuesday ordered the closure of China’s consulate in Houston, saying that diplomats there had aided in economic espionage, prompting China to order the closure of the American consulate in Chengdu.

Earlier in the week, the Trump administration added another 11 Chinese companies to a government list barring them from buying American technology and other products, citing human rights abuses against predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region in China’s far west. The two countries are also clashing over China’s security crackdown in Hong Kong, its global 5G ambitions and its territorial claims in the South China Sea.

But unlike previous moments of heightened tensions between the United States and China, Mr. Trump has not threatened to impose additional tariffs on Chinese goods or take other steps to punish companies that export their products to America. And neither side is threatening to rip up the initial trade deal they signed in January, which took years of painful negotiations to complete.

Trade, long the most contentious part of the U.S.-China relationship, has suddenly become an area of surprising stability.

The reasons have more to do with politics than diplomacy. Both the Trump administration and Chinese leaders invested time and political capital in reaching their initial trade deal, which removed barriers for foreign firms doing business in China and strengthened the country’s intellectual property protections. The deal also required China to purchase an additional $200 billion of American goods by the end of next year, including some agricultural goods like soybeans, pork and corn from farm states that are crucial to Mr. Trump’s re-election chances.

As tensions between the two countries rise again, both sides appear to think they have more to lose from rupturing the agreement than they would gain.

“Ironically, trade has become an area of cooperation or stability,” said Michael Pillsbury, a China expert at the Hudson Institute who advises the Trump administration.

In some ways, the signing of the sought-after trade deal in January has paved the way for the Trump administration to press China on other fronts. In pursuit of a trade deal, the Trump administration had long shelved various actions to address other concerns about China, including its human rights abuses in Xinjiang, its crackdown in Hong Kong and security threats and sanctions violations by Chinese technology and telecommunications companies like Huawei and ZTE.

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Credit…Leon Neal/Getty Images

As painful as the trade war was for companies on both sides of the Pacific, it provided a strange source of stability for the U.S.-China relationship by focusing the conflict between the countries on purely economic matters. With trade no longer the source of friction, tensions are spilling over into diplomacy, security and technology, issues that are more contentious and trickier to solve.

The technological divide between the United States and China, which censors its internet with the help of its so-called Great Firewall, is growing larger. China is considering whether to extend new internet controls to Hong Kong, while the Trump administration is weighing potential action against Chinese-owned social media services, like TikTok and Tencent’s WeChat.

The United States has been pressuring other countries to ban equipment from Huawei, which it views as a surveillance and national security threat, from wireless networks around the globe, including in Britain, which recently barred the Chinese telecom giant. On Thursday, cybersecurity researchers revealed that a popular Chinese-made drone was collecting large amounts of personal information that could be exploited by Beijing.

Geopolitical tensions are rising, too. Clashes between Chinese and Indian troops over their disputed border in the Himalayas have resulted in fatalities. American officials have increased their criticisms of China’s actions in the South China Sea, calling Beijing’s claims to the disputed waters “completely unlawful.” In April, the United States sent two warships into disputed waters near Malaysia as a show of force after a Chinese government vessel tailed a Malaysian state oil company ship for days.

American officials say that China’s behavior has become increasingly provocative in recent months, prompting tougher action not just from the United States but also Australia, Britain, India and other nations. Some public figures in China have blamed increasing tensions on Democrats and Republicans in the United States competing to appear tougher on China ahead of the general election in November.

Jia Qingguo, a professor of Peking University’s the School of International Studies, said in an online panel hosted by the National Press Foundation on Thursday that the United States and China were not yet in a new Cold War, but they were heading in that direction with “accelerating speed, thanks to the Trump administration.”

“If the current momentum continues, I think the two countries are likely to end up in a Cold War and maybe even in a hot one,” Mr. Jia said.

The Chinese government is trying to keep trade matters separate from other frictions in the bilateral relationship, though that has proved more difficult as the two countries begin closing each other’s consulates.

“Comparatively speaking, trade I think is more stable and more quiet,” said He Weiwen, a former Chinese commerce ministry official and now a senior fellow at the Center for China and Globalization, a nonprofit research group in Beijing. But he said there are reasons to be worried going forward.

“I’m quite concerned about the trade relationship ahead, because we need a calm, stable political environment,” said Mr. He, who is also an executive council member of the China Association of International Trade.

Chinese officials and experts argue that recent difficulties in bilateral relations between Washington and Beijing are caused by the Trump administration and not by the Chinese government, which has tried to address different challenges in the relationship individually, rather than linking them together for leverage.

“China has made all efforts to smooth the relationship with the U.S.,” said Tu Xinquan, the dean of the China Institute for World Trade Organization Studies at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing.

“Though it is admitted that there are problems between the two countries, China has never planned an all-out whole-government strategy against the U.S.,” he said.

While the trade truce is holding for now, that could prove fleeting if Mr. Trump decides Beijing is not living up to its side of the deal. The agreement left tariffs in place on more than $360 billion of Chinese goods and ushered in a détente that forestalled further tariff increases by either side.

But the president views tariffs as one of his most effective and reliable tools, a powerful cudgel to wield against foreign countries that doesn’t require the approval of Congress. And China appears to be lagging far behind on the purchases of America products it pledged to make as part of the trade deal, partly as a result of the pandemic.

Analysts have long viewed those targets as unrealistic. But Mr. Trump sees those purchases as crucial to narrowing the U.S. trade deficit and boosting the fortunes of farmers and businesses, and thus his re-election prospects.

“The president has repeatedly said if they don’t make the purchases, I will terminate the deal,” Mr. Pillsbury said.

As China shakes off the coronavirus, its purchases of American products appear to be ticking up. Data from China’s General Administration of Customs shows that the country’s imports from the United States were up 15.1 percent in June from the same month last year, when calculated in China’s currency, the renminbi, compared to a 5.2 percent increase in China’s exports to the United States.

Agricultural imports from the United States have been especially strong this summer, with two of the three largest Chinese purchases ever of American grain occurring this month.

On Thursday, Mr. Trump pointed to record-setting purchases of corn made by China. But, he added that “the trade deal means less to me now than it did when I made it.”

“Can you understand that? It just means much less to me,” the president said.

For now, Mr. Trump and his trade advisers are mostly defending China’s efforts to live up to the trade deal, saying China has been taking crucial steps to open its agricultural markets and financial system.

“I don’t think it’s going away,” Jamieson L. Greer, a former chief of staff to the United States Trade Representative, who is now a partner at the law firm King & Spalding, said of the initial trade deal. “The Chinese really needed it, and the administration has every incentive to keep it, too.”

Ana Swanson reported from Washington, and Keith Bradsher from Beijing. Paul Mozur contributed reporting.

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TikTok’s Parent Said to Weigh Selling a Majority Stake in the Video App

ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, is weighing its ownership options for the popular video app after the Trump administration threatened to ban the app from the United States this month, according to people briefed on the discussions.

One path that ByteDance, a privately held company in China, is discussing with its biggest backers is a potential deal that would essentially carve out the app, said the people, who were not authorized to speak publicly. Under that plan, TikTok would receive new investments from existing ByteDance investors — including the investment firms Sequoia and General Atlantic — with the Chinese company retaining a minority holding, these people said.

ByteDance has raised billions in funding and is valued at $100 billion, according to the research firm PitchBook. Its other investors include Tiger Global Management, KKR, NEA, SoftBank’s Vision Fund, GGV Capital and Hony Capital.

The talks, which were reported earlier by The Information, are at a preliminary stage, these people cautioned, and no option has been decided.

A spokesman for TikTok declined to comment on the details of any deal discussions. In recent weeks, “there have been numerous suggestions made by external people not involved in the company’s internal discussions,” the spokesman said.

It is unclear whether the Trump administration would consider such a plan enough to defuse what it views as the national security risks of ByteDance’s ownership.

For now, ByteDance faces pressure on multiple fronts in the United States, caught in an intensifying cold war as Mr. Trump blames Beijing for the spread of the coronavirus, for fights over control of the South China Sea and for reciprocal bans of journalists in each country.

ByteDance now stands alongside Huawei, the telecommunications giant, as a major target of the Trump administration’s campaign against Chinese tech companies on national security grounds.

Last year, the federal panel that reviews transactions for national security began examining ByteDance’s 2017 acquisition of Musical.ly, the American app that became TikTok. Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, and other lawmakers had expressed concerns over potential censorship within the app, as well as any sharing of TikTok user data with the Chinese government.

The panel could ultimately order ByteDance to divest Musical.ly’s American assets, or at least change how it transfers and stores data around the world.

In February, Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, criticized what he called a “pattern of secrecy” around ties between China and TikTok and Apple. This month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the administration was considering banning Chinese social media apps on national security grounds.

In response, TikTok announced that it would evaluate changes to its corporate structure.

Criticism of TikTok’s Chinese ownership is a bipartisan issue: A defense spending bill approved by the Democratic-controlled House this week includes a provision that would ban use of the video app on government devices.

This month, Amazon told its employees to delete TikTok from their phones, citing security concerns, but backtracked hours later. Other companies, including Wells Fargo, went through with the bans. Branches of the U.S. military have barred personnel from using the app.

The United States is not the only country to express reservations about TikTok. India banned the app and dozens of other Chinese services last month over national security concerns.

ByteDance has rejected claims that it is a national security risk, saying TikTok is run separately from its Chinese operations and pointing out that the app is unavailable in China. In recent weeks, the app has enlisted a bevy of lobbyists to press its case in the halls of Congress, though its executives have declined to testify before lawmakers.

ByteDance also hired Kevin Mayer, a respected American senior executive at the Walt Disney Company, as TikTok’s chief executive this year. Peter Navarro, a senior White House trade official, has since called Mr. Mayer an “American puppet” for ByteDance.

Despite the concerns, TikTok has only grown, fueled by young people and the boredom of those quarantined at home during the coronavirus pandemic. The app has been downloaded 1.9 billion times — 172 million times in the United States — according to SensorTower.