Locked in a border standoff, the two Asian rivals — India and China – are now competing with each other in what is being seen as vaccine diplomacy. New Delhi has expedited this move in accordance with the Modi government’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy.
To begin with, India will reportedly start sending Covid-19 vaccines to Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, the Maldives, and Afghanistan in the next few weeks.
While the first shipments would be delivered for free, out of India’s goodwill gesture, the subsequent doses will have to be purchased from the vaccine developers – Pune-based Serum Institute of India and Hyderabad-headquartered Bharat Biotech, according to The Times of India.
China-India Tug-Of-War Over Bangladesh
China kicked off its pandemic diplomacy as early as June-July 2020, a few months after the world was gripped by the first wave of Coronavirus infection. In South Asia, it reached out to Bangladesh for vaccine trials much before India started talks with its all-weather ally.
However, Beijing’s efforts failed after Dhaka rejected the clinical trials of a vaccine developed by Sinovac Biotech in October last year. According to the local media in Bangladesh, the country’s health ministry had turned down the co-financing proposal of the Chinese pharmaceutical company.
New Delhi wasted no time to woo back Dhaka by promising all help to tackle the pandemic. “In line with India’s Neighbourhood First Policy-2021, the neighboring countries will receive India’s vaccines on priority basis…among the neighbors, Bangladesh will certainly get first priority to this end,” an Indian government official was quoted as saying by Daily Star, a Dhaka-based publication.
An emotional moment for the team at @SerumInstIndia as the first shipments of #Covishield finally leave for multiple locations across India. pic.twitter.com/AmrZLesmj5
— Adar Poonawalla (@adarpoonawalla) January 12, 2021
During a virtual meeting with his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Bangladesh a “key pillar” of India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. Hasina, in turn, described India as a “true friend”.
“It has been a challenging year due to the epidemic. But it is a matter of satisfaction that India and Bangladesh had good cooperation in this difficult time. We are also having good cooperation in the field of vaccines. We will also take special care of your needs,” Modi assured Hasina.
India’s vaccine diplomacy seems to have provided the much-needed booster dose to the Dhaka-New Delhi ties as it has been initiated amid reports of Bangladesh seeking a $1-billion loan from China to develop the Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project.
With India promising to deliver the Covid-19 vaccines to Bangladesh on a priority basis and removing non-tariff barriers, the relations between the two neighbors have grown even further.
Nepal And Myanmar
Last week, Nepal foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali was on a three-day visit to New Delhi, during which he reportedly sought Indian vaccines to tackle the pandemic in the Himalayan nation.
“The close cooperation between the two sides in combating Covid-19 pandemic in the region was noted. Nepal congratulated India on the remarkable success in production of Covishield and Covaxin vaccines in India and requested for early provision of vaccines to Nepal,” a statement by India’s Ministry of External Affairs read.
Gyawali’s visit assumed significance as it came amid the political crisis in Nepal. While China tried to fix the internal rift in the ruling Nepal Communist Party, thereby retaining its influence over Kathmandu, New Delhi is believed to have poured cold water on Beijing’s efforts.
Nevertheless, the stage was already set ahead of Gyawali’s India tour as Nepal had apparently turned down China’s offer for vaccines, and instead preferred Indian products. According to Hindustan Times, Nepal’s ambassador to India Nilamber Acharya had held several rounds of meetings with Indian vaccine manufacturers and government officials ahead of Gyawali’s visit.
Similarly, Myanmar has ordered 30 million vaccines from the Serum Institute of India that are expected to be delivered by February-end. New Delhi has gifted 3,000 vials of Remdesivir to State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi as a “symbol” of India‘s commitment to helping Naypyitaw mitigate the impact of the pandemic.
In contrast, China promised only 300,000 vaccines to Myanmar during foreign minister Wang Yi’s recent visit to the Southeast Asian nation. This is quite surprising given that China is Myanmar’s biggest investor and has announced as many as 38 projects under the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, part of Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt Road Initiative.
Myanmar is, however, treading cautiously to avoid being trapped in Chinese debt, something India can use to its advantage. In fact, Myanmar is key to the success of the Modi government’s Act East policy, aimed at bringing India closer to Southeast Asia and countering the growing Chinese influence in the region.
A moment of pride and accomplishment as the first consignment of COVAXIN™ is dispatched from Bharat Biotech today at 1:00 AM, IST. The indigenous vaccine is all set to vaccinate the nation against the dreadful #SARS_CoV_2 #BharatBiotech #COVAXIN #MakeInIndia #IndiaFightsCorona pic.twitter.com/yqFSSXTl0A
— BharatBiotech (@BharatBiotech) January 13, 2021
In recent months, India and Myanmar have strengthened their defense ties. Both countries have also fast-tracked other key projects. Built by India, the strategic Sittwe port in Rakhine state will be operationalized in the next few months.
The deepwater port is a key part of the Kaladan multi-modal transit transport project. Once operational, this will connect India’s landlocked Northeast with Kolkata via land and sea routes.
Chinese Versus Indian Vaccines
Of late, the demand for Indian vaccines has grown significantly, a fact that even China also reluctantly accepts. The Chinese state-owned Global Times, said in a report, “Experts suggested that India’s vaccines are no less competitive than Chinese Covid-19 vaccines in both research and production capacity, considering that India has the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer and lower costs in labor and facilities.”
According to the report, Jiang Chunlai from Jilin University’s School of Life Sciences, who had visited Bharat Biotech, said: “Despite India’s reputation for generic drugs, the country is not behind China in vaccine R&D.”
A BBC report said India makes about 60 percent of vaccines globally and the countries are making a beeline to procure the same. No wonder, India earned the reputation of being the ‘pharmacy of the world’ – for the life-saving role it had played in poorer nations like Africa – much before the Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a global healthcare emergency.