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Can India Offset Chinese Influence Through Its Vaccine Diplomacy?

Peaceful international partnerships in crucial sectors, like healthcare, continue to inspire India’s global vision.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
Image of Indian flag, airplane and COVID vaccine illustration used for representational purposes.
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As India ships out the COVID vaccine to various countries, it is only natural that the first recipients will be India’s neighbouring countries. This, not only underlines India’s firm commitment to her ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, but also harks back to India’s foreign policy goals that firmly anchored itself in development cooperation with newly independent countries in Asia and Africa, during the formative period of crafting Indian foreign policy, in the early years after independence.

Peaceful international partnerships in crucial sectors of development, like healthcare, continue to inspire India’s global vision.

India is today regarded as the ‘pharmacy of the world’, in recognition of its established capacity as a producer of medicines. India produces over 60 percent of the global vaccine requirement.

India’s Humanitarian Outreach & Development Of Indian Technical & Economic Cooperation Programme

India remained a net recipient of international aid till late 1990s. Subsequently, India’s economic growth, powered by the economic reforms in 1990s, has since made it a net donor. Notwithstanding the Chinese-origin COVID-driven viral pandemic and the consequent economic downturn, India has reached out with assistance in the healthcare sector to over 150 countries and has announced that she will provide vaccines across the world, when sufficient quantities become available for use. At the UN General Assembly, PM Narendra Modi has declared that India would use its “vaccine production and delivery capacity to help all humanity in fighting the coronavirus crisis.”

India’s freedom struggle was a beacon of hope for many Asian and African countries, struggling to break free from colonial bondage. Independent India had resolved to assist, not only in the freedom struggle of many countries, but also formulated a policy of assisting them, despite her parlous economic condition.

For instance, the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation programme [ITEC], which was founded in 1964, to provide technical assistance to newly independent developing countries, was predicated on the belief that “it was necessary to establish relations of mutual concern and inter-dependence based, not only on commonly held ideals and aspirations, but also on solid economic foundations. Technical and economic cooperation was considered to be one of the essential functions of an integrated and imaginative foreign policy.”

Over subsequent decades, ITEC, fully funded by the Indian government, has evolved into an integral part of India’s foreign policy, functioning as an important plank of India’s ‘soft power’ diplomacy, a phrase that entered the international diplomatic vocabulary years in the 1980s.

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India’s Vaccine Potential: Demand For Vaccines From India Are Piling Up; India May Also Make Others Like Sputnik After Approval

The global war against COVID is now well underway. India has already shipped initial dosages of the two vaccines, COVAXIN and COVISHIELD [AstraZeneca], all over India, to fuel the world’s biggest vaccination campaign. India has begun airlifting vaccines to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Seychelles, followed by shipments to Afghanistan, Mauritius and Sri Lanka. India’s medical diplomacy had begun earlier in 2020, after the pandemic struck South Asian countries. India had supplied Hydroxychloroquine, Remdesivir, Paracetamol, masks, gloves, PPE suits, diagnostic kits and other medical supplies to neighbouring countries. India also organised several training programmes for medical workers to enhance their clinical skills.

Pakistan has not approached India, so far, for the supply of any vaccine. Nor has Iran. Both countries may depend on China, since both countries are increasingly beholden to China for all kinds of aid.

India’s acknowledged ability to produce quality, affordable and easily transportable vaccines has led to demand piling up from countries across the world. India’s readiness to provide the vaccine globally is a linear progression of the ethos that underpinned the ITEC programme.

Other vaccines like Russia’s SPUTNIK will also be produced in India after ongoing trials and the Pfizer vaccine is awaiting clearance of India’s drug authorities. Upon availability of these vaccines will augment the capacity to fight the pandemic more effectively.

India’s vaccines will have an advantage over the others because of cost and portability.

Other vaccines require ultra-low storage facility and cold chain delivery system which are logistical hurdles for most developing countries. Apart from the Indian government’s free supply of vaccine dosages, recipient countries are also tying up for commercial supplies from the Serum Institute of India and Bharat BioTech, the two manufactures of the vaccines.

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Why China Is Scrambling To Recover Lost Ground Through Vaccine Diplomacy

As anticipated, China is competing in vaccine diplomacy and its vaccine SINOVAC has been delivered to several countries. China has a strong motivation to engage in vaccine diplomacy to overcome the global perception that it was responsible for the spread of the pandemic, to the rest of the world because it was opaque and tried to hide its culpability.

Suspicion about China’s role has been heightened by its prevarication in cooperating with the WHO in investigating the origin of the outbreak in Wuhan. China’s dilatory and non-transparent behaviour has sown doubts about its diversionary tactics and has cast a shadow on its approach, as have its attempts to divert attention from itself, by publishing motivated medical research which has attempted to point fingers at sources of the virus to other countries.

China’s ham-handed attempt to obfuscate its culpability and its ‘Mask and PPE’ diplomacy left many countries unhappy about China’s mercantile profiteering by sacrificing quality. It is now scrambling to recover lost ground via vaccine diplomacy.

Brazil and Indonesia are among major countries that have received the SINOVAC vaccine. Thailand has bought 2 million doses of SINOVAC. China has promised to donate a total of 800,000 doses to the Philippines and Myanmar. Pakistan is expecting 5 lakh doses from China as well.

Cambodia, an ally of China, had received a donation of the Chinese vaccine, and has now reached out to India for more vaccines.

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Vaccine Diplomacy Fallout: Increasing Divide Between Developed & Developing World

Vaccine diplomacy has also brought the divide between developed and developing countries into the public domain. WHO has not covered itself with glory, in the fight against the COVID pandemic and is now carping about developed countries, having not cooperated in a fair distribution of the vaccine to the rest of the world.

WHO has alleged that drug manufacturers have given priority to profit, by getting regulatory approvals in rich countries rather than cooperate with the WHO-backed COVAX initiative which seeks to supply vaccines to developing countries that cannot afford the high prices being charged by drug manufacturers. COVAX has planned to distribute 2 billion doses by end of 2021 in all participating countries.

India’s vaccine diplomacy has raised the predictable opposition by bringing up the question of India’s requirement to be met first.

Clearly, the government has kept the domestic demand that is likely to grow since the rollout of the vaccination programme on 16 January.

The opportunity to leverage vaccine diplomacy, to remind India’s neighbours that as the first port of call in a disaster situation, India will remain the first responder. India’s vaccine diplomacy is also designed to create more space for India as China pushes to expand its influence in South Asia.

(The author is a former Ambassador and Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs; currently he is a Visiting Fellow at ORF, Delhi. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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