India and China may have disengaged frontline troops from their borders, putting an end to tensions in the region, but now they have shifted their rivalries to a different field – seeking political influence through vaccine diplomacy.
According to Rajaram Panda, a former senior fellow at India’s premier think-tank Institute of Defense Studies and Analysis (IDSA), the COVID-19 vaccine has emerged as an important form of diplomatic currency globally for the nations to showcase their soft power gains.
Since India produces 60% of global vaccines, it is trying to match China to use it as a diplomatic tool to expand influence in the neighborhood and beyond.
Seeking to steal a march over rival Asian giant China, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been distributing millions of doses of the locally produced AstraZeneca PLC vaccine to various countries. However, its domestic immunization program is at the bottom of the global table.
India has so far sent 36 million doses of vaccines to countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan, the Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Bahrain, Oman, Afghanistan, Barbados, and the Dominican Republic.
According to External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Anurag Srivastava, 6 million doses of vaccines have been supplied as aid, 29.4 million have been dispatched on a commercial basis.
“The supply of vaccines to countries will continue in the coming weeks and months in a phased manner, but it will be ensured that domestic requirements for the national vaccination program are kept in mind,” said Srivastava.
One of India’s largest donations was to neighboring Nepal, with whom its diplomatic relationship had been at a historic low.
India has also offered vaccines to all members of the diplomatic corps and their families based in the country.
“It has been offered not only to the diplomats of countries but also to those of UN agencies and intergovernmental organizations working in India. This drive will cover all the locations where they are based,” said Srivastava.
– China shipping vaccines
On the other hand, over the past month, Beijing has been shipping more than 1 million doses a week across Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. It has provided 10 million vaccine doses to developing nations through the WHO’s global COVAX initiative.
India has also pledged 200 million doses for this global initiative, aiming to ensure vaccines for the 92 low- and middle-income countries.
In a written statement issued by its Foreign Ministry, China is working to provide vaccines to more than 60 countries and that more than 20 are already using them. In Africa, China has provided shots to Equatorial Guinea, Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone and has plans to provide for an additional 16 countries on the continent.
Both these Asian countries have stepped in and found a chance to bolster their global image when the richer nations like the US have withdrawn.
Participating in an online discussion organized by the Stimson Center, Yanzhong Huang, professor and director of the Center for Global Health Studies at the US-based Seton Hall University, said China had sent 62% of its global vaccine supply to the Southeast Asian region so far, which also highlights its priority region.
Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, Cambodia, and Bruni have received over 2 million doses as donations.
Others like Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore have purchased vaccines from Beijing. Besides receiving the donation, the Philippines has also signed a commercial pact to purchase shots from China.
“They want to project themselves as soft power and want to show that they are ready to fill the void left by the US in terms of global leadership,” he said, adding that it has also come to an opportunity for Beijing to showcase its technological powers.
Even as the efficacy of the Chinese vaccine may remain questioned, its manufacturers are already making profits. Huang said Indonesia is purchasing a single dose at $25, Ukraine at $17.5, Brazil at $10, and Turkey at $13, which accounts for profits worth more than $3 billion.
Chinese firm Sinovac Biotech has licensed Indonesia’s state-owned enterprise PT Bio Farma to produce 2.5 million doses per month.
Robert O. Blake, former US ambassador to Indonesia, said Chinese willingness to share licensing, which Western companies will never do, is significant.
– Chinese focus on Southeast Asia
Regarding Chinese focus to Southeast Asia, Huang said the aim is to soften the stand of these countries on territorial and maritime disputes and to cement economic ties to facilitate its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – the global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government.
In this region in recent years, China has been assertive in consolidating jurisdictional claims, expanding the military reach, and rejecting claims by other states through coercive diplomacy. In response, the US, which had virtually withdrawn from the region soon after President Donald Trump took office, is again cobbling up allies and reviving the policy of containing and responding to Chinese claims.
While India and China don’t seem to have made any immediate progress on using vaccine diplomacy to settle political objectives, they have addressed vaccine availability issues globally.
Otherwise, rich nations representing just 14% of the world’s population had bought up more than half 53% of all the most promising vaccines. According to research conducted by the Duke Global Health Innovation Center, high-income countries currently hold confirmed 4.2 billion doses, while low-middle-income nations hold just 670 million doses of vaccines.
But experts believe that while the Chinese have a competitive edge on logistics, storage or transportation, the lack of transparency and low efficacy of Sinovac has implications. “A vaccine efficiency below 80% means that the whole population needs to be inoculated to stamp out pandemic, which looks an impossible task,” said the professor.
– India’s neighborhood focus
The Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine factory, churns out the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine at a daily rate of about 2.5 million doses. That pace has allowed India to ship doses to even far-off places like Brazil and Morocco.
Sri Lanka, where both India and China are vying for a foothold, has received doses from both countries. Soon after Indian External Affairs Minister Subramanyam Jaishankar’s visit to Colombo last month, the island nation received 500,000 doses from New Delhi.
According to the country’s Health Ministry, the country has also placed a purchase order of 18 million doses with India’s Serum Institute.
But within days, Sri Lanka also received a gift of 300,000 doses from China to combat the pandemic.
While visiting the Maldives, another island nation in the Indian Ocean, Jaishankar carried 100,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine and handed it over to his counterpart Abdulla Shahid. This was in addition to the 100,000 doses that India had already sent in January.
India has also donated 6.47 million doses to Southeast Asian countries to compete with China, including 1.5 million doses to Myanmar and 100,000 doses to Cambodia.
India is also supplying to Mongolia, and the Philippines has also signed up for procurement of 30 million doses from New Delhi, which it may receive by the second half of 2021, according to Akriti Vasudeva, a research analyst at the Stimson Center’s South Asia Program.
Over the past few years, she said, India has made security and growth for all in the region (SAGAR) as part of its foreign policy doctrine to promote maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean region.
– US withdrawal creates void
“India in the past had always found it difficult to compete with China in huge infrastructure development projects and investments because of its resource constraints. But its vaccine manufacturing capacity has the potential to compete with China and claim global leadership,” said Vasudeva.
Former US diplomat Blake said while his country had made quite clear that it will not produce the vaccine for the world because of its domestic requirements, India has taken a unique position despite having the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases.
According to the US-based Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, India has reported 11 million COVID-19 cases with 156,938 deaths. It has so far administered 13.7 million doses, fully inoculating 2.2 million people, just 0.16% of its population. Although the virus originated in China, the country has reported 100,885 cases with 4,834 deaths and has administered 40.5 million doses to its 3% population.
While Vasudeva said distributing vaccines to foreign countries is seen as a moment of triumph and a display of soft power back in India, others caution that New Delhi is walking on a razor’s edge.
“This generosity [vaccine diplomacy] has deprived many Indians vaccine doses as some 17,000 people still get sick every day and over 100 people die daily from COVID-19. Being generous is one thing, but doing so at the cost of Indian lives and suffering is quite another,” said Manoj Joshi, a strategic expert and distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF).
But all experts agree that that the COVID-19 pandemic is a turning point in history that has ended the US monopoly on technology and global leadership. While there is a recognition that China has filled up the vacuum left behind by the US, there are apprehensions that it may soon use its software diplomacy to shape a new geopolitical world order to meet its interests.