MANILA - China is easing border restrictions to allow travellers from the Philippines, Indonesia and elsewhere outside South-east Asia in again - provided they have taken Chinese-made Covid-19 vaccines.
"This has nothing to do with recognition of Chinese vaccines," Mr Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters on Tuesday (March 16).
He said the new rules for foreigners who had been inoculated with any of the four China-produced vaccines "is based on the full consideration of these vaccines' medical safety and effectiveness".
Chinese embassies in the Philippines, Indonesia, the United States, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Italy have issued notices saying China will open visa applications for those who have had the China-made jabs at least 14 days before applying for a visa.
This will apply from this week to those visiting the Chinese mainland for work resumption, business or for "humanitarian needs", such as reuniting with their kin.
Those arriving in China still face a quarantine of up to three weeks.
Mr Richard Heydarian, a Manila-based political analyst and author, said: "China is really upping its game and trying to make sure more and more countries will be dependent on its vaccines, even though their effectiveness, prices and overall pedigree are far more questionable than for the other available vaccines.
"This is the next phase of its vaccine diplomacy, which has so far been a big flop in places like the Philippines," said Mr Heydarian.
He added that China's latest move seemed to be a response to an announcement by the US, India, Australia and Japan to pool financing, manufacturing and distribution capacity to send 1 billion doses of coronavirus vaccines across Asia by the end of 2022.
China has struggled to gain international trust for its vaccines, hindered by a lack of transparency on test results. Still, this easing of travel access to China has been well-received in nations that have to rely on China's vaccines to shore up their inoculation drives.
"This is good news," said Mr Carlito Galvez, the Philippines' "vaccine czar". But the Philippines could not yet reciprocate and lift travel restrictions for those coming from China, even if they had already been vaccinated, he added.
Mr Tjoe Sugiharto, secretary-general of the China committee at the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, described China's new travel rule as a "positive development".
He said trade between China and Indonesia had shrunk because of travel restrictions. "Hopefully, the trade can rebound and return to normal," he said.
Both the Philippines and Indonesia are relying on large shipments of vaccines made by China's Sinovac and Sinopharm to keep their vaccination programmes rolling.
The Philippines received some 600,000 doses from Sinovac last month. It expects to get more than 20 million doses by the end of the year. It is also set to grant emergency-use authorisation to Sinopharm's vaccine.
Indonesia kicked off its massive vaccination drive in January, with a target of inoculating 181.5 million people within 15 months. Sinovac is supplying the bulk of the doses. Indonesia is also securing jabs from Sinopharm.
Malaysia is not as dependent on China's vaccines. It has ordered Sinovac doses for just 18 per cent of its population. Yet, China's "vaccine diplomacy" seems to be having some positive effect there.
Housewife Chung Su Lian, 55, said: "I don't have any plans to travel to China in the near future, but I was hoping to get the Sinovac vaccine because it uses a proven technique of deriving vaccines."
But she added: "Malaysians can't choose which vaccine we get, and we can't buy them either."