Covid Vaccines: New Diplomacy Instrument for India and China

NEW DELHI – India, the unmatched vaccine producer, is dispensing millions of doses to friendly and estranged neighbors. It seeks to counter China, which has made the gun distribution a central point of its external relations. And the United Arab Emirates, which are drawing on their oil wealth, are buying pounds on behalf of their allies.

The coronavirus vaccine – one of the most sought-after products in the world – has become a new currency for international diplomacy.

Countries with the means or the know-how use the shots to find favor or to thaw frosty relationships. India sent them to Nepal, a country that has increasingly come under Chinese influence. Sri Lanka, in the midst of a diplomatic tug-of-war between New Delhi and Beijing, gets doses of both.

The strategy carries risks. India and China, both of which make vaccines for the rest of the world, have large populations of their own to vaccinate. While there is little evidence of grumbling in either country, this could change if the public watch boxes are sold or donated overseas.

“Indians are dying. Indians are still getting the disease, ”said Manoj Joshi, a distinguished contributor to the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi think tank. “I could understand if our needs were being met and you were giving the stuff away. But I think there is a false moral superiority that you are trying to convey where you say we give our things away even before we use them ourselves. “

Donor countries are making their offerings at a time when the United States and other wealthy nations are taking up the world’s supplies. The poorer countries are desperately trying to get their own. An inequality recently warned by the World Health Organization has brought the world “to the brink of catastrophic moral failure.”

With their health systems tested like never before, many countries are eager to take up the offer – and donors could reap good political will as a reward.

“Instead of securing a country by sending troops, you can secure the country by saving lives, saving the economy and helping with vaccination,” said Dania Thafer, executive director of the Gulf International Forum, a Washington-based think tank.

China was one of the first countries to undertake a diplomatic vaccine boost, pledging to help developing countries last year even before the nation mass-produced a vaccine that was proven effective. Just this week it was announced that it would donate 300,000 doses of vaccine to Egypt.

However, some of China’s efforts in vaccine diplomacy have stemmed from late shipments, lack of disclosure of the effectiveness of its vaccines, and other issues. Chinese government officials have cited unexpectedly strong needs at home in isolated outbreaks, a move that could mitigate any domestic backlash.

Even as Chinese-made vaccines spread, India saw an opportunity to bolster its own image.

The Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine factory, produces the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine at a daily rate of approximately 2.5 million doses. This pace has allowed India to distribute free cans to its neighbors. Too much fanfare, plane loads have arrived in Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, the Seychelles and Afghanistan.

“Act eastward. Quick action ”, said the Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar on Twitter the arrival of 1.5 million cans in Myanmar.

Updated

Apr. 11, 2021 at 7:21 ET

The Indian government has tried to collect promotional points for cans that have been shipped to places like Brazil and Morocco despite those countries buying theirs. The Serum Institute has also pledged 200 million doses for a global WHO pool called Covax, which would go to poorer nations, while China recently pledged 10 million.

Currently, the Indian government has room to donate overseas, even after months when cases have skyrocketed and the economy has faltered, and despite vaccinating only a tiny percent of its 1.3 billion people. One reason for the lack of setbacks: The Serum Institute is producing faster than the Indias vaccination program can currently handle, leaving extras for donations and exports.

And some Indians are in no rush to get vaccinated because they are skeptical of a native vaccine called Covaxin. The Indian government approved its use in an emergency without disclosing much data on it, causing some people to doubt its effectiveness. While the AstraZeneca-Oxford shock was less skeptical, those who are vaccinated have no choice as to which vaccine to receive.

For India, it has received a rejoinder to China for its soft-power vaccine initiative after years of making political gains for the Chinese in their own backyard – in Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Nepal and elsewhere. Beijing offered deep pockets and quick answers when it came to large investments that India, with a complex bureaucracy and a slowing economy, was struggling to achieve.

“India’s neighborhood has become more crowded and competitive,” said Constantino Xavier, who studies India’s relations with its neighbors at the Center for Social and Economic Progress, a think tank in New Delhi. “The vaccine boost strengthens India’s credibility as a reliable crisis helper and solution provider for these neighboring countries.”

One of India’s largest donations went to Nepal, where India’s relationship was at an all-time low. The tiny land between India and China is of strategic importance to both.

For the past five years, the government of CP Sharma Oli, the prime minister, has started to snuggle up to China after border disputes and what some in Nepal criticize as a master-servant relationship with India. Mr. Oli gave Xi Jinping Thought workshops based on the strategies of the Chinese leader and signed contracts for several projects under the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s Infrastructure and Development Boost.

But the prime minister lost power last year. When both Chinese and Indian delegations arrived in Kathmandu to direct Nepal’s domestic jockeying, the Nepalese leader appears to have cut the temperature with India.

After Mr Oli sent his foreign minister to New Delhi for talks, India donated a million cans. China’s Sinopharm has also applied for approval of its vaccine from Nepal, but drug authorities there have not given it approval.

“The vaccine came as an opportunity to normalize relations between Nepal and India,” said Tanka Karki, a former Nepalese envoy to China.

Still, the strategy of winning hearts and minds with vaccines is not always successful.

The United Arab Emirates, which is importing vaccines faster than any other country besides Israel, has started donating Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccines to countries where it has strategic or commercial interests, including 50,000 doses each to Seychelles, the island nation in the US, Indian Ocean and Egypt, one of its Arab allies.

In Egypt, some doctors have resisted using them because they did not trust the data that the UAE and the Chinese manufacturer of the vaccine had published on studies. The government of Malaysia, one of the Emirates’ largest trading partners, declined an offer of 500,000 doses, saying regulators would need to independently approve the Sinopharm vaccine. After regulatory approval, Malaysia instead bought vaccines from Pfizer in the US, the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, and a vaccine from another Chinese company, Sinovac.

Even accepted goodwill can be short-lived. Experience Sri Lanka, where India and China battle for influence.

Since Gotabaya Rajapaksa took office as president in 2019, New Delhi has struggled to get its government to commit to a contract that its predecessor signed to complete a terminal project in the port of Colombo, part of which will be developed by India should. While large Chinese projects continued, Mr Rajapaksa opened the Indian deal for review.

Indian Foreign Minister visited Jaishankar last month hoping to highlight the importance of the project. In the same month, 500,000 doses of vaccine arrived from India. Mr. Rajapaksa was at the airport to meet them. Sri Lanka has also placed an order for 18 million doses from the Serum Institute, the Ministry of Health in Colombo confirmed.

The Indian media saw both as a diplomatic victory, and it seems clear that Sri Lanka will largely depend on India for vaccines. On January 27th, Mr. Rajapaksa received another gift from China: a promise to donate 300,000 cans.

The duel donations are only part of a much larger diplomatic dance. Just a week later, Mr Rajapaksa’s cabinet decided that Sri Lanka would develop the Colombo terminal itself and force India out of the project.

Mujib Mashal reported from New Delhi and Vivian Yee from Cairo. Bhadra Sharma, Elsie Chen, Aanya Piyari, Salman Masood and Zia ur-Rehman contributed to the coverage.

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