Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Can Narendra Modi's vaccine diplomacy help India win some lost ground in South Asia?

Though setbacks remain, it offers an opportunity to improve ties with neighbouring countries

Manu Balachandran
Published: Jan 29, 2021 02:09:55 PM IST
Updated: Jan 29, 2021 09:32:09 PM IST

Can Narendra Modi's vaccine diplomacy help India win some lost ground in South Asia?India's ambassador Suresh Reddy, Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo, Brazil's Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello and Communications Minister Fabio Faria prepare to receive two million doses of AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccines against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) from India, at Sao Paulo International Airport in Guarulhos, Brazil January 22, 2021.
Image: Amanda Perobelli/ REUTERS

It’s been a diplomatic coup of sorts. And, it certainly hasn’t gone down very well with China.

But that’s precisely what the Narendra Modi government could have expected after it unveiled Vaccine Maitri, an initiative to send millions of doses of the Indian manufactured Covid-19 vaccines to its neighbouring countries, and sometimes even as far as the Middle East and South America.

India had earlier supplied hydroxychloroquine, Remdesivir, and paracetamol tablets, as well as diagnostic kits, ventilators, masks, gloves, and other medical supplies to a large number of countries during the pandemic. This time, however, even as the country rolled out what’s touted as the world’s largest Covid-19 vaccination programme, it also deftly moved to send vaccines to neighbouring countries.

Quite importantly, the move also comes at a time when no other country has delivered free vaccines to other countries. Even the United States, where the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are being made, is yet to send vaccines to developing nations hit hard by the Covid-19 crisis.

Immunisation programme is being implemented in India, as in other countries, in a phased manner to cover the healthcare providers, frontline workers and the most vulnerable,” India’s ministry of external affairs had said in a statement on January 19. “Keeping in view the domestic requirements of the phased rollout, India will continue to supply Covid-19 vaccines to partner countries over the coming weeks and months in a phased manner. It will be ensured that domestic manufacturers will have adequate stocks to meet domestic requirements while supplying abroad.”

So far, India has managed to vaccinate some 2.8 million people since the nationwide vaccine rollout began on January 16, one of the fastest in the world. Over the past week, the country also managed to send over five million vaccine doses to countries including Bhutan, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, Seychelles, and Mauritius.

Besides, doses have also been sent to Brazil, Morocco and more supplies are planned for South Africa and Saudi Arabia. India has approved two vaccines that are currently manufactured in India, Serum Institute of India’s Covishield, popularly known as the AstraZeneca vaccine, and Bharat Biotech’s indigenously developed vaccine, Covaxin. Several more vaccines, manufactured by Serum Institute of India, Zydus Cadila, Dr Reddy’s and Biological E, are likely to be ready over the next few months.

“On a commercial level, the export has taken place for Brazil, Morocco, and Bangladesh. Further supplies to countries on commercial basis are likely to take place to Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Canada, Mongolia, and other countries,” a spokesperson for India’s external affairs ministry said on January 28. “We plan to supply 10 million vaccine doses to Africa and 1 million to the United Nations health workers under GAVI.” GAVI, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, through its Covax facility is targeting the equitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.  

Can Narendra Modi's vaccine diplomacy help India win some lost ground in South Asia?

“India’s vaccine diplomacy is an important way for New Delhi to show regional and global leadership,” Daniel Markey, the academic director of the global policy program and senior research professor in international relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies told Forbes India. “It shows that India has resources and capabilities of critical importance to the world, which is an important message for New Delhi to send to often-sceptical audiences.”

The move to send vaccines, many of them to India’s neighbours free of cost, is in line with the Narendra Modi government’s plan to reclaim some lost ground in diplomatic relations and in championing the Neighbourhood First policy, a cornerstone of the Indian government’s diplomatic relations under Modi since 2014. India, meanwhile, hasn’t offered to send the vaccines to Pakistan. 

Incidentally, the move also comes at a time when there had been a studied silence from India’s neighbours amidst the recent military confrontations with China at the borders. In June 2020, tensions between India and China had escalated after the death of soldiers in the disputed Galwan Valley, following a confrontation. Troops on both sides of the fence had engaged in a fierce hand-to-hand combat, with over 60 casualties in total, marking one of the most serious military conflicts between the two sides in decades.

For long, India and China have been aiming for regional dominance, something that China has been aggressively pursuing with its One Belt One Road Initiative, a global infrastructure development strategy to invest in nearly 70 countries. While Pakistan is an important ally of China, Asia’s largest economy has been steadily ramping up its influence in the region, making investment commitments of more than $150 billion in Bangladesh, the Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. China is now also the largest overseas investor in the Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. In Pakistan, China is already helping build the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor, a collection of infrastructure projects under construction since 2013, and passing through the disputed Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK).

Can vaccine diplomacy help?

“The programme is aimed at bolstering India’s diplomatic relations in three important ways. The first is in advancing its Neighbourhood First policy, which has faced some setbacks in recent years as China has made inroads in the region,” Aman Thakkar, the J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Scholar at St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford and an adjunct fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in US-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The early prioritisation of Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan are indicative of this desire for India to maintain strong ties with countries in its immediate periphery.”

For nearly five years now, India-Nepal relations have been strained, particularly due to border disputes, amidst growing resentment within Nepal against India. In 2020, Nepal’s parliament had even cleared a Constitution Amendment Bill that endorses the country’s new map that includes territories within India. With Bangladesh, however, even though India managed to end a long-standing boundary dispute, the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act passed by the Indian parliament in 2019 had strained relations, with Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen and Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan cancelling their planned trips to India in the aftermath.

However, on January 27, soon after the first shipments of the vaccine reached Kathmandu, Nepal’s prime minister KP Sharma Oli thanked India for providing the vaccines, particularly for sending them within a week of their rollout in India. “I thank Prime Minister Narendra Modi for sending the vaccine (batch) as a gift,” Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s prime minister also said on January 22.

“The second way is advancing India’s Indian Ocean Region strategy, particularly with pivotal island states such as Maldives, Seychelles, Mauritius, and Sri Lanka,” adds Thakkar on how the vaccine diplomacy is helping bolster India’s diplomatic relations. “Finally, beyond its geographies, its wider engagements with countries such as Brazil and Morocco underscore India’s desire to continue to be a leading voice within and for the ‘Global South’ or the group of developing countries. In this context, India’s vaccine diplomacy not only plays a role in advancing India’s regional strategy in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region but bolstering its image as a responsible voice for the developing world.”

Already, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro tweeted an image of Hindu god Hanuman carrying a mountain of coronavirus vaccine to Brazil, after India began commercial exports and sent two million doses of the domestically manufactured Covishield vaccine to Brazil. India is currently the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines, and Serum Institute of India, which manufactures vaccines including those for Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis, Hib, BCG, r-Hepatitis B, Measles, Mumps, and Rubella, estimates that at least 65 percent of the children in the world have received at least one vaccine manufactured by the company.

“The China factor certainly looms large in this story,” Michael Kugelman, the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC says. “Beijing, mainly through Belt and Road Initiative investments, has deepened its footprint in India's neighbourhood. Vaccine diplomacy offers a way for New Delhi to push back, especially because Beijing's own efforts to provide vaccines abroad have lagged. This is one of the rare areas where India has a leg up on China in a strategic competition where Beijing tends to hold the broader advantage.”

Perhaps that’s precisely why China hasn’t quite been appreciative of the initiative underway. “A vaccine is supposed to be the last fortress against the raging novel coronavirus pandemic,” an article in the Global Times says. “In the eyes of India, however, it has become a lever in its tool kit to compete with China.” The Chinese government meanwhile was quick to dismiss the concerns and said that there shouldn’t be any vicious competition, and “certainly not confrontation.”

However, despite that, it may not be easy for Beijing to ignore India’s move in the region, especially when it comes at a time when countries are desperate to find some reprieve from the pandemic. “It's certainly a risky gambit for India to ship so many vaccines abroad when it's struggling to take care of the huge demand at home,” adds Kugelman. “But it makes good sense from a diplomatic and soft power standpoint. India, as a major global supplier of vaccines and chief medicines, can leverage its comparative advantage and seek to earn goodwill with its neighbourhood at a moment when New Delhi is experiencing tensions with several small states in the region--and not just Pakistan.” Since the initiative began, the World Health Organisation and even the United States, have lauded India’s efforts in sending the vaccine to countries.

To do all this, the government is of course banking on the Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech who have been stockpiling vaccines for the past few months. Serum Institute of India has stockpiled between 40 million and 50 million doses and the purchase of the vaccines for the neighbours are different from the earlier purchase of 11 million doses that the Indian government procured for vaccinating the Indian population. Bharat Biotech has stockpiled nearly 20 million doses and has laid out plans to manufacture some 700 million doses this year.

Going beyond South Asia

India’s gamble to export vaccines also comes at a time when Chinese vaccines have faced criticism both in terms of efficacy and supply constraints. Currently, three vaccines made in China, by Sinopharm, Sinovac Biotech and CanSino, are under development.

“While India must receive full credit for undertaking this important initiative to supply vaccines under grant assistance to its extended neighbourhood, it is important to remain cognisant that the delivery of these vaccines will not erase the setbacks India has faced within its neighbourhood,” adds Thakkar.

“Many issues–ranging from the border dispute with Nepal in Kalapani to the impact of the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the proposed plans for a National Registry of Citizens on India’s plans with Bangladesh–will need to be addressed with a well-crafted and well-executed diplomatic strategy,” says Thakkar. “While its vaccine diplomacy can help India regain some favour with its neighbours, it is not a panacea.”

Yet, vaccine diplomacy certainly offers a much needed opportunity to improve ties, even if India still has a long way to go in carving out its status as a regional behemoth. Over the past few years, China’s trade relations with many of India’s neighbours have grown significantly, and in some cases even surpassed India’s. Alongside, China has also been ploughing money into the energy, defence and transportation sector across south Asian countries.

“India’s place as a regional superpower will depend on its performance along with a variety of dimensions,” adds Markey. “Initiatives like vaccine diplomacy cannot alone make up for the much smaller overall size of the Indian economy or military relative to China’s, or entirely counteract China’s global initiatives like BRI. But such Indian efforts are important nonetheless, as they begin to demonstrate how India can transform itself into an essential, although not exclusive, partner to other states.”

That’s perhaps why India’s vaccine diplomacy gamble could be a timely move in cementing Narendra Modi’s Neighbourhood First policy. “India and China have arguably done more than any other country--including the US--to try to spearhead coordinated global responses to the pandemic,” adds Kugelman. “During the early days, New Delhi and Beijing pursued efforts to organise regional and global conferences focused on the delivery of medical supplies and the planning of policy responses. This isn’t a surprise, as China and India are in a global competition for power and leadership, and they are led by nationalist governments for which building influence abroad is a core foreign policy priority. To this point, Beijing has had an edge, due to its relative economic and military advantage, over New Delhi. That's why India's more robust vaccine delivery programme to this point is so significant.”

Perhaps, a crisis is the best opportunity to solve another crisis.

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