As the vagaries of international politics unfolded amidst the global pandemic, the last nine months have been remarkable for one consistency in India’s diplomatic response to the crisis. The current impetus to vaccine diplomacy is in line with Indian foreign policy’s initial recognition of the diplomatic window presented by the situation.
In March 2020, New Delhi began to make moves by seeking a prime mover role in reaching out to its neighbours in South Asia through regional platforms like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. While hosting a video conference with leaders of SAARC countries, Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed a slew of measures, including the setting up of a Covid emergency fund with an initial contribution of $10 million from India, putting together a rapid response team of doctors and specialists, and setting up an information system for disease surveillance.
As the world now moves to the alleviatory phase of inoculation against the disease, India’s efforts at using its technical advantage in large-scale vaccine production to enhance its diplomatic leverage is gathering momentum. The last two weeks have seen India pushing this new driver of bilateral engagement with a number of neighbours as well as other countries of the developing world.
The obvious enabler of the current push is India’s status as a pivotal vaccine supplier as the country meets 62 percent of the global demand for vaccines. Moreover, India’s role as the “pharmacy of the world”, with 20 percent of the global production of generic medicines, was validated during the pandemic when it supplied medicine to 133 countries, including developed countries like the United States. This was acknowledged by the secretary general of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, or SCO. Meanwhile, as international affairs scholars Harsh V Pant and Aarshi Tirkey pointed out in Foreign Policy, India was seen supporting the initiative to temporarily suspend intellectual property rights over the Covid vaccines. This was meant to enable faster production of generic versions. India also sponsored the World Health Organisation’s resolution for the global access to the vaccine.
This month, India unrolled, for its citizens, its vaccination programme which would ultimately require billion-plus doses. Along with made-in India vaccines like Covishield (Serum Institute, Pune) and Covaxin (Bharat Biotech, Hyderabad), other companies like Zydus and Gennova are producing indigenous vaccines. There are also examples of foreign collaborations, as the Pune-based Serum Instituted has tied up with Britain’s AstraZeneca.
Three days after the start of the Covid vaccination drive, the ministry of external affairs released a press note on January 19 saying India had received requests for Indian manufactured vaccines from neighbouring and partner countries. It added, “Supplies under grant assistance to Bhutan, Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and Seychelles will begin from January 20, 2021. In respect of Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Mauritius, we are awaiting their confirmation of necessary regulatory clearances.”
The last few days have seen supplies already reaching some of these countries. Leaders and diplomats of neighbouring countries, and even a South American country like Brazil, thanked India for its supply of the vaccines. According to a report in the Washington Post, India has already sent 3.2 million free doses to Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives, Mauritius, Myanmar and Seychelles. In the next three months, it’s estimated that India would supply 20 million vaccine doses to neighbouring countries before extending the delivery to African and Latin American countries.
On the other hand, vaccine diplomacy could be another arena for Indo-China rivalry in the region. In South Asia, India has emerged as the only potent challenger to Chinese hegemonic ambitions and, hence, both countries could be making an assessment of the extent to which India’s vaccine reach-out could bring diplomatic leverage in the region. This would be particularly relevant to India making a headway in nullifying recent downswings in its ties with Nepal, or even Bangladesh.
Given that China is seen as the country where the virus came from and its dubious conduct in sharing information in the formative stages of the pandemic, China’s drive to supply medicine and vaccines also comes from its anxieties about recovering its soft power.
This, apart from reclaiming a moral cause under which all big powers hide their ambitions, also dovetails with the Chinese urge to be seen as the leader of the developing countries. As Rana Mitter, a professor of history and politics of modern China at Oxford University, wrote in Foreign Affairs, “The use of rhetoric that draws on traditional thought suggests that China, like all states, would prefer its choices to be understood as moral and not just realist ones...That vision of a fundamentally moral China supports another ambition: China’s wish to position itself as the leader of the global South. This aim is not original; during the Cold War, China sought to portray itself as a champion of what was then called the Third World.”
The subtext of Chinese competition on the turf of vaccine diplomacy should alert India to the threats of propaganda against Indian vaccines. The heft of Chinese presence and purse could unleash a disinformation drive to discredit India’s credentials in what’s emerging as global health diplomacy. Much like thinking about an effective communication approach to quell rumours and debunk misinformation about vaccines at home, India’s vaccine outreach should entail anticipation and pre-emption of a possible disinformation campaign.
As the terms of international engagement in a world trying to find its feet while grappling with pandemic shows signs of continuity as well as change, India’s vaccine diplomacy goes beyond mere soft power projection. In the process of generously showcasing its pivotal presence in the global vaccine supply chain, India hopes to reap diplomatic dividends in repairing some recent irritants in its ties with its neighbours and retain its heft as a significant presence within the global South.