China is donating thousands of its vaccines to low- and middle-income countries, including in Africa, in what is viewed as a soft-power push to bolster its global influence.

“To help African countries fight the pandemic and bring the economy back on track is a top priority for China-Africa cooperation at the current stage,” said Chinese state councilor and foreign minister Wang Yi earlier this month. “We will support Africa’s efforts to defeat the virus.”

So far, China has sold and donated vaccines to 13 African countries, according to Bridge Consulting, a consultancy firm for the philanthropic and global development sector. But China is not donating its vaccines to African countries only. It is also giving them to countries in Asia, Latin America, and Europe, as most Western countries focus on securing vaccine doses for their own populations.

Eric Olander, co-founder and managing editor of the China Africa Project, a media initiative that explores China’s engagement in the continent, tells Quartz that the Covid-19 vaccine is a key priority for China this year. He describes the vaccine push as being “under the auspices of the Health Silk Road”, a rhetorical extension of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a strategy for global infrastructure development.

China’s vaccine diplomacy follows its mask diplomacy, in which it shipped personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical supplies to countries in Africa and other parts of the world. Despite China being Africa’s largest economic partner, its ambitious infrastructure development projects in the continent are less frequently discussed these days.

The number of vaccine doses that China has donated are relatively low—the most doses given freely to an African country are 300,000 to Egypt. Still, Olander says, with the help of pictures of African leaders receiving the Chinese vaccine, China is owning the narrative of vaccine diplomacy by getting headlines “on the cheap”.

“Those pictures are really powerful,” he says.

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