India's vaccine diplomacy on robust footing despite Chinese campaign to smear it

China’s move is likely aimed at removing vaccine hesitancy among nations unwilling to use China-made vaccines by using as bargaining chip access to its fast-recovering market and economy

Sreemoy Talukdar March 18, 2021 15:48:32 IST
India's vaccine diplomacy on robust footing despite Chinese campaign to smear it

Representational image. AFP

As an aspiring great power, it isn’t surprising that India’s foreign policy is distinguished by a sense of exceptionalism. Yet, instead of economic or hard power, that exceptionalism is identified by its soft power overtones and a strong moral dimension. When the prime minister of India stresses on Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (world is one family), pledges to take India’s role as ‘pharmacy of the world’ seriously or promises at the UNGA that “India’s vaccine production and delivery capacity will be used to help all humanity in fighting this crisis”, he stays true to the moral component in India’s external relationships — a legacy that threads five thousand years of contiguous Indian civilisation.

Author Aparna Pande points to this “Messianic idealism” trait in Indian foreign policy, an intrinsic belief that “India is an example for the world and has the duty to set an example for other nations.” This may help explain the motivations behind New Delhi’s “Vaccine Maitri” (vaccine friendship) initiative through which India, despite all its problems, has emerged as a normative power amid the pandemic.

New Delhi’s decision to give low-income countries — who have been unable to compete with rich nations in procuring life-saving jabs for their citizens — access to low-cost, high-quality vaccines at a scale that only India (a vaccine superpower) is capable of, constitutes an act that is pregnant with more significance than just vaccine diplomacy.

It shows that a leading power’s rise need not be malevolent. This message is important now more than ever as we see China, in its quest for global preeminence, tear down the existing power structure and attempt a Sinocentric world order.

India’s role becomes even more important when we find that the global north, led by the ‘leader of the free world’, is busy hoarding vaccines — striking exclusive deals with manufacturers to acquire jabs many times more than their need at the cost of impoverishing the global south. This isn’t just a “catastrophic moral failure” but also a myopic, self-defeating strategy in countering a pandemic.

In his statement on the floor of the House on Wednesday, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said: “In planning and executing Vaccine Maitri, we are naturally guided by a determination to make a difference at a difficult moment for global society. Our reputation as the ‘Pharmacy of the World’ has been reinforced in that process. So indeed has the faith in ‘Make in India’. But more than the vaccines themselves, our policies and conduct have emerged as a source of strength for the stressed and vulnerable nations of the world. They can see that there is at least one major nation that truly believes in making vaccines accessible and affordable to others in dire need.”

This isn’t rhetoric. India is walking the talk. In just 53 days, it has shipped 594.35 lakh doses of Made-in-India COVID-19 vaccines to 72 nations across the world while inoculating its own citizens. Among this, 81.25 lakh doses have been given as gift for free, 339.67 lakh doses have been commercially distributed while 173.43 lakh doses have been delivered via the Covax programme under the aegis of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI), according to MEA data.

The modalities and the targeted beneficiaries make the effort more significant. Both India-made vaccines (Covishield, manufactured under license from Oxford-AstraZeneca and Covaxin, developed by Bharat Biotech) are low cost, highly effective serums that are easy to store and transport compared to Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines that require a minus 70°C cold chain.

The recipients of Indian vaccines cover the global South — including Argentina, Brazil, Egypt and South Africa — and constitute at least 50 percent of the Least Developed (LDC) nations and one-third of the Small Island Developing (SID) countries, reports Indian Express. These are the forgotten nations who lack the monetary power to outmuscle the wealthy nations that, by some estimates, have grabbed a majority of the world’s vaccine supplies.

The Global Health Institute of Duke University, which is monitoring the global distribution of vaccines, finds that “rich nations comprising just 16% of the world’s population (including Australia) have cornered 60% of the global vaccine supply (4.2 billion doses) and low-income countries have secured only 270 million doses.”

Not just vaccines, as the EAM pointed out in his statement, India has also met “requirements for hydroxychloroquine, paracetamol and other relevant drugs across the world”, led the region in battling against the pandemic through creation of a SAARC Fund and holding workshops and training courses for health officials of the region along with a “special visa scheme for doctors and nurses, coordinating a regional air ambulance agreement, a platform for studying data on the effectiveness of vaccines and a network for technology-assisted epidemiology for preventing future pandemics.”

The minister also gave details on India’s push for online training and capacity building well beyond the neighbourhood. The MEA “conducted 14 e-ITEC courses in partnership with premier institutions like AIIMS and PGI Chandigarh. There was even an exclusive one conducted in Bangla for Bangladeshi professionals. And one by Armed Forces Medical Services for the military doctors in South-east Asia. These 14 courses had a total of 1131 professional participants from 47 countries.”

Evidently, India is showing what it can achieve when its traditional strengths — in this case, its prowess as a vaccine superpower with a $42 billion pharmaceutical sector — are backed by decisive leadership and belief in people-centric diplomacy. India is not only enabling poorer nations get access to free, effective and affordable vaccines, but also resisting China’s attempts of weaponising vaccines in emerging markets for geopolitical clout.

As Bloomberg notes in a report, India’s “domestic vaccine producers were free to sell to richer nations, but the government promised to buy supplies for smaller countries, as well as its own citizens. Officials organized trips for foreign ambassadors to visit pharmaceutical hubs in Pune and Hyderabad, and assured neighbors in South Asia, the Indian Ocean” and even distant Caribbean nations that they would get “affordable vaccines and would receive initial shipments for free.”

The result is evident. While the Caribbean nations including the 15-country CARICOM community are asking wealthy nations to share their vaccine supplies they have all thanked India for its “generous contribution”. Ambassador Irwin LaRocque, secretary-general of CARICOM, in a tweet last month thanked PM Narendra Modi for India’s “generous contribution of 500,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines to the Caribbean Community,” calling it “a tangible expression of goodwill in this challenging time.” 

At the WTO, CARICOM praised India for facilitating vaccine supplies to those in need, also suggesting that other vaccine-producing countries should follow India’s example.

When an Indian aeroplane carrying two consignments of India-produced version of the AstraZeneca vaccine landed in the Caribbean last month — one containing 100,000 doses for Barbados and another 70,000 for Dominica, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit of Dominica said: “I must confess that I did not imagine that the prayers of my country would be answered so swiftly.”

Barbados prime minister Mia Amor Mottley also thanked India’s prime minister for “his quick, decisive, and magnanimous action” and so did the cricketers from the Caribbean Islands, including Vivian Richards, Richie Richardson, Jimmy Adams among others.

India’s ability to quickly produce vaccines at scale also has geopolitical significance — allowing countries in its neighbourhood another option beyond China’s malfeasant “vaccine diplomacy”. Bangladesh turned to India after Beijing asked Dhaka to share the costs of clinical trials of its Sinovac vaccine.  A furious China accused India of “meddling” and scuttling the deal through its state-run newspaper though Beijing’s claims at variance with Dhaka’s account.

Chinese state media has also been raising questions and running a smear campaign against India’s home-developed vaccines while offering no evidence, reports The Hindu.

China’s behaviour betrays a frustration at being thwarted at the game of linking export of vaccines to gain a geostrategic advantage. “China has a long history of seeking political, commercial, or diplomatic gains from its humanitarian assistance,” Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, is quoted as saying by a report in South China Morning Post. Gostin added that unlike China, “India does not have a history of seeking special benefits from its health assistance.”

India’s role has enabled it to become the fulcrum of Quad’s vaccine initiative — the biggest takeaway from the Quad leaders’ historic summit— through which India, Japan, Australia and the US will provide a billion doses of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine to south-east Asian nations — the theatre of China’s malevolent “vaccine diplomacy”.

Following the Quad summit on 12 March, in a joint op-ed for Washington Post Modi, Suga, Morrison and Biden pledged to “expand and accelerate production in India of safe, accessible and effective vaccines. We will partner at each stage to ensure that vaccines are administered throughout the Indo-Pacific region into 2022.”

The US, at least, is in dire need of salvaging its image after suffering massive reputational damage due to its vaccine nationalism. India’s altruistic gestures throw in stark contrast the behaviour of rich nations such as the US that have “cleared the shelves” by hoarding jabs more than they need.

The UK has reportedly “ordered 219 million full vaccinations for its 54 million adults (a surplus of 165 million), while Canada has ordered 188 million full vaccinations for its 32 million adults (an excess 156 million).” The Guardian reports that “rich countries with 14% of the world’s population have secured 53% of the best vaccines. Almost all of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines will go to rich countries.” In another report, it observes that the American government has now “bought enough doses of vaccines from Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson to vaccinate 500 million people – nearly the entire eligible population twice over.”

While the rich western nations are indulging in vaccine nationalism — the UK and EU are fighting among themselves — China, the rival axis of power, is busy using jabs as a currency for geopolitical dominance. Faced with increased competition from India, Beijing has tied visa processing for foreigners to inoculation with Chinese-made vaccines.

A day after Quad announced the vaccine initiative, Beijing announced through notifications issued by its embassies in around 20 countries including India, the US, Australia, the Philippines (among others) that “prospective entrants must have taken either the full two-dose course of a vaccine, or a single dose vaccine at least 14 days before travelling, but the vaccine must be one of China’s domestically produced shots.”

China’s move is likely aimed at removing vaccine hesitancy among nations unwilling to use China-made vaccines by using as bargaining chip access to its fast-recovering market and economy. It is also a clever attempt at extending its geopolitical influence at a time when India has emerged as the more preferred alternative among nations in the Indo-Pacific theatre. This alone is an acknowledgement of the effectiveness of India’s ‘vaccine maitri’ initiative. The pandemic has exposed the moral bankruptcy of normative western powers and further reinforced the mercantilism of China, leaving space for India’s humanist diplomacy.

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