(Bloomberg) -- Chinese donations of physical aid jumped to almost $1.3 billion last year as the government, companies and individuals gave vaccines, food and other goods to foreign nations. 

The value of donated goods was almost 40% higher than in 2020, according to a new database created by academics at the University of Göttingen and the Kiel Institute for the World Economy in Germany, and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Pharmaceutical and medical exports were the top donation categories, reflecting the impact of the pandemic. 

“China has grown to become one of the world’s largest donors of development aid,” said Andreas Fuchs, a professor at Göttingen University. “Our database now makes China’s aid deliveries more transparent,” he said, noting that overseas researchers have not previously used the data as a basis for research.

The database is based on official Chinese customs data, which classifies aid exports differently from other traded goods. Exports of donated goods are still “an important part of China’s development activities in the global south,” according to Fuchs.

The export of donated goods account for about 25% of China’s total “official development assistance,” to other countries, according to the researchers. The rest consists mainly of financial assistance for projects such as infrastructure construction.

The donations accelerated during the initial phases of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, mainly due to exports of masks and other medical goods. Private donors such as wealthy individuals and companies were responsible for close to 45% of medical donations in early 2020, the researchers found. That changed in 2021, with vaccines accounting for nearly 60% of exported donated good, the researchers found. Those exports mainly came from the government. 

“The mask diplomacy appeared to be much less centralized, but the vaccine diplomacy more went through Beijing,” Fuchs said.

Donations are connected with Chinese foreign policy, the researchers found, with most going to countries with friendly relations with China. The top recipients between 2017 and September this year were China’s neighbors Cambodia, Pakistan, and Tajikistan, as well as Ethiopia, according to the researchers. “Recognition of Taiwan as a sovereign state almost completely disqualifies a country from receiving Chinese aid,” they wrote.

Food Aid

Elevated grain prices this year has led to calls for wealthier countries to donate more food overseas. China donated $8.5 million worth of cereals from the start of the war through September, according to the database. Those shipments mostly went to African countries and the level was similar to pre-pandemic exports.

“China reduced food aid exports during the pandemic, and now its resuming them. Our data show its resuming but its not a huge rebound,” Fuchs said. “It doesn’t seem that a ‘food diplomacy’ is really following a ‘vaccine diplomacy’”

(Corrects value of cereals in penultimate paragraph.)

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