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China & Russia: A race for a vaccine
On December 31st of 2019, China reported a cluster of pneumonia cases in the city of Wuhan, leading to the identification of a new coronavirus now knows as COVID-19. As the outbreak had swiftly turned into a global health crisis, superpowers such as United States, United Kingdom, Japan, and Europe have started pouring tens of billions of dollars to make a product that could help to control the pandemic. The race to produce the first vaccine for coronavirus is much of a political one. It matters not just for national pride but would allow the ‘victorious’ country to protect their citizens faster and consequently reopen their economies earlier than others’. The international, high-stakes competition took a turn this month when Russia claimed it had already won, while China spread its wings with three vaccine candidates in the last phase of clinical trials.
On August 11th, Russia announced its approval of the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine. In a nod to its last century’s Cold War space race, they named the vaccine Sputnik V after the world’s first satellite, launched by the Soviet Union. Campaigns of mass vaccinations are expected to kick off by year’s end, but it is stirring a lot of skepticism around the world as it was approved without conducting phase-3 human trials. Vaccines must undergo three phases of clinical trials in humans before they can be licensed for commercial distribution. In the first phase, scientists give the vaccine to some volunteers - often about 10 to 20 people - to test safety and dosage as well as to confirm that it stimulates the immune system. On the second trial, the vaccine is given to hundreds of people split into groups, such as children and the elderly, to see if the vaccine acts differently on them. In phase three, scientists test the vaccine on thousands of people from different countries to see how they react, compared with volunteers who received a placebo, a fake treatment. The last trial can truly show if the vaccine protects against the coronavirus or not. It also helps to assess vaccine safety, as certain rare side effects might not surface in smaller groups. “I think it’s really scary. It’s really risky,” said Daniel Salmon, the director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at Johns Hopkins University, when he was asked about Vladimir Putin’s decision to approve a COVID-19 vaccine without undergoing phase III. Despite the criticism, Moscow claims that at least 20 countries and some of US companies have expressed interest in their vaccine. Kirill Dmitriev, the head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which is funding the vaccine research, said “Along with our foreign partners, we are already prepared to manufacture over 500 million doses of vaccine per year in five countries, and the plan is to ramp up production capacity even higher. So far, countries in Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia have displayed the greatest interest in the vaccine, and we are about to finalize some contracts for the purchase of the vaccine.” Dmitriev also stated that phase 3 trials of the vaccine would start soon in Russia and that they would also take place in other countries. He said, “We have already reached agreements on conducting the relevant trials of the vaccine abroad with partners from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and some other countries.”
Exposing Beijing’s anxiety over the breaking news, only a few days later, China has declared that it has issued its first COVID vaccine patent similarly, without phase-3 trials. Securing a patent is an essential step in bringing a vaccine to the market. It is no surprise that China was pushed to make a quick announcement, since leading in the global response to this crisis might be the only way to repair the country’s image that has been tarnished by their failure to contain the initial outbreak of the virus. “They could have stopped the plague. They could have stopped it. They didn’t stop it!” President Trump said last month. Of the only six global vaccine candidates that have reached phase III trial, three are being developed in China. On the other hand, The World Health Organization does not include Sputnik V on its list of vaccine candidates that have reached the final development phase. The Chinese communist party is promising certain countries, with whom they have strategic partnerships, early access to China’s imminent vaccines. The countries China is working with to produce vaccines and provide early access include Saudi Arabia, Chile, Pakistan, the Philippines, Brazil, and Indonesia. The details of China’s negotiations with these countries remain unknown, but some suspect that it may be related to the recognition of its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Zhong Nanshan, China’s top infectious disease specialist, revealed recently that China and Russia plan on conducting joint clinical trials for a vaccine, a move which he described as a manifestation of the friendship between the two countries. The unexpected cooperation between Moscow and Beijing is understandable, as both governments are vying to be among the first countries to find an efficient vaccine to tackle the ongoing crisis.
Both China and Russia have sought in recent years to increase their economic, political, and military ties. Chinese President Xi Jinping made headlines last year when he called Russian President Vladimir Putin his “best friend” in an uncharacteristic display of warm relations during a state visit to Russia. Xi also told Putin that China was “ready to go hand in hand with you”. The leaders signed statements committing to the development of strategic cooperation and comprehensive partnership between their nations while strengthening strategic stability, which includes international issues of mutual interest, as well as issues of global strategic security. In the same year, bilateral trade between Russia and China reached a record high of $110 billion. The number of joint exercises conducted by the Russian and Chinese militaries has increased visibly as well. In 2019, Russia infamously carried out its first long-range joint air patrol in the Asia-Pacific region with China, a mission that triggered hundreds of warning shots from Seoul and Tokyo. Then just months later, China participated in the Tsentr exercises, providing the most substantial presence of the other participating countries, including India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. While the new, close relationship between the two countries may seem to make sense, given their strained relations with the US, history tells us a different story.
The first-ever treaty between China and Russia was the Treaty of Nerchinsk, signed in 1689 as a result of Russian intrusion into Chinese territory. While the settlement formally set the border between the Russian Far East and northeast China, Russian expansion to the region never truly stopped. While China was preoccupied with the Second Opium War in the 1850s, Russia annexed a large chunk of Manchuria that now makes up present-day Siberia. It then legitimized its sovereignty through the Treaty of Peking signed in 1860. This was just one of the many unequal treaties China was manipulated into signing in the late 19th century. A short while later, in February 1904, Russia brought war to China when the Japanese attacked the Russian naval base of Port Arthur in Manchuria. The conflict emerged from conflicting Russian and Japanese ambitions in the Far East. The Japanese were willing to accept Russian domination of Manchuria in return for a free hand in Korea. Still, Tsar Nicholas II wanted to control both Manchuria and Korea and hence declined the bargain, triggering the Russo-Japanese war. Better generalship and shorter supply lines swiftly won the war for Japan, and a peace treaty was signed in September 1905. Japan was given the control of Port Arthur and parts of southern Manchuria, historically Chinese territory. The Russo-Japanese war, marking the first defeat of Western power by an Asian one since the days of the Mongol empire, catastrophically claimed the lives of over 20,000 Chinese civilians.
During the Soviet Era, Sino-Russian relations were on a rollercoaster ride. During the civil war in China, the Soviet Union eagerly supported Mao’s communist forces, enabling them to defeat Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces and establish the People’s Republic of China. Mao Zedong, grateful for the support, visited Moscow in 1949, living in Joseph Stalin’s dacha and signing a treaty of friendship and mutual assistance. Following their agreement, Soviet technical aid flowed to Beijing during the Korean War and helped support China’s successful Five-Year Plan. However, the ideological tension between the two countries arose after Stalin’s death in 1953. When Nikita Khrushchev came to power in the USSR, Mao considered himself now the head of international communism because he was the most senior communist leader. Khrushchev did not see it that way as he was the ruler of one of the world’s two superpowers. Eventually, when Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s crimes in 1956, both regimes started to take a jab at each other. The USSR offered moral support to the Tibetan people during their 1959 Uprising against the Chinese. The divide hit the international news in 1960 at the Romanian Communist Party Congress meeting, where Mao and Khrushchev openly threw insults at each other in front of the foreign representatives. In 1961, when Mao accused the Soviet leadership of revisionism, the alliance publicly ended, and both countries began to compete for control over foreign communist states.
As a result of the Sino-Soviet Split, international politics completely shifted during the second half of the 20th century. The two communist powers nearly went to war in 1968 over a border dispute in Xinjiang, the Uighur dominated region in western China. The Soviet Union even considered carrying out a preemptive strike against the Lop Nur Basin in Xinjiang, where the Chinese were preparing to test their first nuclear weapons. Oddly enough, it was the US government that persuaded the Soviets not to destroy China’s nuclear test sites for fear of sparking another war. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to prop up their client government there, the Chinese saw this as an aggressive move to surround China with Soviet satellite states. The Chinese allied themselves with the US and Pakistan to support the mujahideen, Afghan guerrilla fighters who opposed the Soviet invasion. When Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet premier in 1985, he sought to ease relations with China. Gorbachev recalled some of the border guards from the Soviet and Chinese border and reopened trade relations. Beijing was critical of Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost, deeming that economic reforms should take place before political changes. Nonetheless, the Chinese government welcomed an official state visit from Gorbachev late in May 1989, followed by reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. With foreign and political ties slowly strengthening, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, China was left as the world’s most powerful communist state.
The Putin-Xi newly found bromance was put into a test this year amid the outbreak. Russia has adopted the most radical anti-coronavirus measures by closing its border with China and banning Chinese nationals from entering the country. Shocked by Russia’s entry ban, the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that Russian measures are understandable and emphasized that Beijing appreciates Moscow’s support to China against the epidemic. In return, Russian officials clarified that the entry ban is a temporary measure and that Moscow will keep issuing business and transit visas to Chinese citizens. The recent news of vaccine cooperation proves that Putin’s extremely restrictive measures did not rock the boat of the Sino-Russian partnership. Given the coronavirus’s negative impacts on the Russian economy, Moscow may move deeper into China’s embrace to boost its economic recovery after the pandemic. In the end, as long as the US, and to a certain extent, the West remains their common enemy; it is safe to assume Russia and China will continue to get closer to one another in the future.
CHINA DELIGHTS | CHINA PRIVATE TOUR
This China private tour is a journey through times and cultures. Explore China’s glorious past, and today’s amazing developments, visit the ancient capital of Chang’An and also the current vibrant capital, Beijing.VIEW TOUR