India beats China at its own game in Covid-19 vaccine diplomacy

A case in point is Myanmar, which has been rocked by a military coup. Beijing promised to send around 300,000 doses but has yet to deliver anything, while New Delhi quickly delivered 1.7 million shots
India’s huge capacity to make coronavirus vaccines is helping the country take on China in the battle to gain political influence across the developing world.

Competition among poorer nations to get cheap or free vaccines to fight the pandemic had given China a golden chance to strengthen ties in emerging markets it has been courting for years. And initially Beijing seemed in a strong position. It suppressed the domestic spread of Covid-19 last year and accelerated the production of shots.

At the same time, India was struggling to contain one of the world’s worst outbreaks of the virus, with nearly 100,000 cases a day, while a nationwide lockdown sent its economy into rece­ssion for the first time in 25 years.

But Chinese pharmaceutical companies have been reticent in sharing details of their pivotal vaccine trials crucial for building public trust around the world, and new domestic outbreaks reinforced the urgency of inoculating China’s own 1.4 billion population, a task that could take years. Meanwhile, India sent millions of doses to neighbouring Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, allowing them to begin vaccinations earlier than if they had waited for Chinese doses.

“Because of their gift, Sri Lanka has been able to start vaccination immediately,” said Eran Wickramaratne, a Sri Lankan opposition lawmaker who received one of the Indian shots. “Most Sri Lankans would be thankful for this.”

So far, New Delhi has managed to ship nearly 6.8 million free vaccines around the world. China has pledged around 3.9 million, according to publicly available information compiled by Bloomberg, some of which have yet to arrive.

Beijing and New Delhi have long competed for influence in Asia, and tensions between the two have risen since the pandemic struck, including their most violent border clash in decades. India has banned hundreds of Chinese apps, including ByteDance Ltd.’s TikTok, sought to attract investors away from China and boosted security ties with Japan, Australia and the US.

The rapid growth of China’s economy — now roughly five times the size of India’s — has allowed Beijing to forge ties with poorer countries by loaning tens of billions under its Belt and Road Initiative.
But Covid has given India a diplomatic opportunity to pursue its aspirations of becoming a global power. Its pharmaceutical industry, especially the Serum Institute of India, had already made the South Asian nation the main supplier of essential medicines to the developing world. Now it’s allowing India to push back against China’s growing influence.

A case in point is Myanmar, which has been rocked by a military coup and shares borders with both China and India. Beijing promised to send around 300,000 doses but has yet to deliver anything, while New Delhi quickly delivered 1.7 million shots.

Indian vaccines

New Delhi recognised early on that Indian production capacity would be crucial to beating the pandemic, said Ashok Malik, a policy adviser to the Ministry of External Affairs. Last year, when Indian manufacturers were exporting the anti-malaria drug Hydroxychloroquine — hyped by then President Donald Trump — Prime Minister Narendra Modi was already talking to world leaders about providing vaccines, he said.

Not that India doesn’t need doses itself. It too has more than a billion people to protect, and while China swiftly suppressed Covid-19, India was unable to prevent the virus from spreading rapidly.

New Delhi says it’s prioritising its own population. But India’s ability to manufacture vaccines was always going to outstrip the nation’s ability to inoculate all of its own citizens. And the country’s leaders can now deploy those millions of surplus vaccines to win friends and influence abroad.

“In Bangladesh, the process of vaccination has started and it’s going very well, at least in the cities,” said Meghna Guhat­h­a­kurta, who is set to get the Indian dose in Dhaka this mon­th. She said her relatives in the Indian city of Kolkata “haven’t been contacted and don’t know when they will get vaccinated.”

Even as the Covid death toll in India passed 156,000, compared to less than 5,000 official deaths in China, New Delhi promised it wouldn’t engage in vaccine nationalism and block exports.

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