India’s Vaccine Diplomacy aims to beat China to the chase, delivering millions of free Covid-19 Vaccine doses to neighbours and developing nations of the world; in an attempt to bolster its Soft Power.
On January 21, five days after beginning its Coronavirus vaccinations, India delivered its first doses to neighbouring Bangladesh and Nepal under grant assistance. Soon, consignments of Oxford-Astra Zeneca vaccines (marketed as Covishield vaccines in India) were dispatched to Bhutan, Maldives, including Myanmar, Seychelles, and Mauritius, with commercial agreements in the pipeline. In February, the list of beneficiaries from India’s vaccine diplomacy added countries like Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Mexico.
Indeed, India’s efforts towards vaccine diplomacy are highly ambitious but will the effects sustain or be ephemeral is the question.
Ten months ago, a US-based foreign affairs magazine declared India’s public health infrastructure as “woefully underfunded” and unequipped to handle the surge of the virus. The Boston Review group proclaimed the country’s response to the virus, a humanitarian disaster, and BBC’s India report on Coronavirus did not mince words either – “Doctors and epidemiologists have long warned that toxic air will only hamper India’s fight against the virus.”
Today, there is a steady decline in the spread of infection since mid-September when over 97,000 cases were reported in a single day. The world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, Serum Institute of India is expanding its capacity to 2.5 billion doses to cater to rising demand from countries across the globe. The indigenously developed Bharat Biotech vaccine, cleared by the government for emergency use is under Phase – 3 trial, has already been shipped to various Indian states for mass inoculation.
Is India turning adversity into an advantage?
Vaccine Diplomacy as Soft Power: In times of the deadly pandemic, why is India looking more intent at helping at its other countries, as opposed to inoculating its vast population as quickly as possible? Prime Minister Narendra Modi is certainly looking to reap long-term political or economic benefits by practicing diplomacy. While China faltered in delivering vaccines to the South Asian nations, India did not waste time in stepping in.
The move is being touted as another feather added to India’s soft power cap. Experts believe what looks like a grand friendly gesture could be about mending ways with countries where China has had increasing influence.
Watch: India bolsters its Soft Power with its Vaccine Diplomacy
In domestic echo chamber, such steps are considered as pure foresightedness aiming to take on a leadership role. However, there are contrasting issues with India and China. While India is desperately trying to project a positive image and position itself as a global leader, China is attempting to clear its image as an economic and military power, perceived as a threat. It can be argued that China used the pandemic for diplomatic purposes post its initial recuperation from the Covid-19 crisis, and India is attempting to do just the same. But there is a notable difference.
While China majorly catered to the developed nations, India is executing otherwise. Moreover, China had exported the PPE suits, masks, gloves, testing kits, and medical aid, which were also rejected by countries such as the Netherlands, Spain, and Turkey owing to concern about the quality of supplies. While so far information on the efficacy of the Chinese Covid-19 vaccine has been scarce and conflicting, India has already begun dispatching millions of indigenously manufactured vaccines to the world both as a friendly gesture and commercially. Consignments of the Covishield vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University and manufactured by the Serum Institute of India have gone beyond its immediate neighbors. India is leaving no stone unturned to steal a march over its rival Asian giant China. Prime Minister Modi is leveraging the country’s strength as the largest vaccine manufacturer to improve bilateral and regional ties and counter China’s political and economic predominance.
Will India’s VaccineMaitri (Vaccine Friendship) remain potent?
So, will #vaccinemaitri further India’s diplomatic interests is a point in question. History is replete with examples where long-term positive impacts of such gestures have been ephemeral. Analyst Manoj Joshi points that although China was bestowed with massive capital resources by the then Soviet Union in the 1950s for its industrial set-up; by the mid-1960s Chinese were openly hostile to them. Likewise, India was presented with colossal aid for its structural development including biotechnology for its Green Revolution; but by 1971 India and the US were at loggerheads on various policy issues.
How far will India’s politically and morally correct gesture go in strengthening its ties with its neighbours and bolster its image as a global leader, is a long shot under present circumstances. It seems to be an incredibly ambitious undertaking, for a country with the world’s second-largest population. Much of this hinges on India’s manufacturing capabilities and mass production lines.
“It’s very important we take care of our country first, then go on to COVAX after that and then other bilateral deals with countries. So I’ve kept it in that priority,” says Adar Poonawalla, CEO of the Serum Institute of India.
According to Balram Bhargava, Director General of the Indian Council of Medical Research, as the world’s second-most populous country, India’s strategy is to vaccinate “a critical mass of people and break that virus transmission,” so that it doesn’t have to vaccinate the entire population of 1.3 billion. India’s Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan also mentioned that the government does not plan to vaccinate the entire country, at this point.
Nevertheless, such initiatives at a massive and international level specifically under emergency situations as this, are likely to transform the country’s image as a global ally. India has gone from being a dark horse to the front-runner in a global fight against the pandemic, wherein the country is not just catering to its own population but also nursing its neighbours and far-off allies fight the virus. The rich countries have paid for millions of doses far in excess of their need while less wealthy countries are crying foul. Now, it remains to be seen whether India will be able to position itself or rather emerge as a global leader during these taxing times.