(New Delhi distributing millions of jabs to nations near and far to temper Beijing’s influence in region)
As India last week announced it would send its neighbours 10 to 20 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines for free, a headline splashed on the Republic, a nationalist and right-wing television channel: “Some Spread Disease, Some Offer Cure”.
The headline was a reference to the first reports of Covid-19 emerging from the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019 and how more than a year later, New Delhi is using its position as a top producer of drugs to match Beijing’s offer of doses to developing countries as a “global public good”.
India’s Serum Institute, the world’s largest producer of vaccines, is making millions of doses of the shot developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca.
Shipments of free doses under the Vaccine Maitri programme have begun arriving in the Maldives, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and the Seychelles, while Sri Lanka is next in line for the free shots, branded as Covishield, on January 27, and Cambodia will receive doses in February.
China, meanwhile, has offered free Covid-19 vaccines to Myanmar and the Philippines.
Authorities in Nepal are still assessing Sinovac’s CoronaVac and have yet to approve its use. The situation has fuelled a narrative within India of it making headway in a pushback against years of China expanding its influence in the region.
The more nationalistic among India’s media outlets – for which China-bashing has been the flavour of the season as the nuclear-armed neighbours are locked in a face-off on their Himalayan border – have played up India’s vaccine diplomacy.
When China’s nationalist tabloid Global Times last week suggested Indian drug makers would not be able to fulfil New Delhi’s vaccine diplomacy ambitions, The Times of India, a more centrist publication, ran a piece headlined “China starts smear campaign against India’s vaccine diplomacy”.
To former Indian diplomat Sarvajit Chakrabarty, the headlines “reflect a no-holds barred competition for influence between the two Asian giants”.
“Many Indians see the vaccine as a big opportunity to curb China’s growing influence in South Asia,” said Chakrabarty, who served in the Indian foreign service for 30 years.
Foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla last week said that New Delhi planned to deliver millions more vaccine doses to countries in South Asia and further afield over the next few weeks, with the first shipment being free.
Some 92 nations were also keen to enter into commercial contracts to purchase different vaccines from India, he said.
In Nepal, which has been locked in a territorial dispute with India over the strategic border village of Kalapani located on their borders with China, officials said they were grateful for New Delhi’s gifted supplies.
With India closely watching how China had grown closer to Nepal’s ruling Communist Party and offered large infrastructure investments and economic aid to the country in recent years, Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury, a commentator on India-Nepal relations, said the Indian vaccine delivery was well timed.
Further afield, Cambodia, China’s most reliable ally in Southeast Asia, has asked for 1 million vaccine doses from India after receiving a similar amount from Beijing.
“The Chinese are all over in Cambodia and nobody expects its pro-Beijing government to turn to anyone else for anything, so this request for Indian vaccine by Cambodia is very encouraging,” said Baladas Ghoshal, former head of the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
“Modi’s vaccine diplomacy is all about leveraging our progress in science and pharma … and its priority is clearly the neighbourhood,” said former Indian diplomat Veena Sikri. “No exaggeration, this is India’s moment.”
But some cautioned the impact of Indian vaccine supplies would be short-lived unless Delhi follows them up with more substantive measures like investments, development aid and strategic tie-ups.
Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow at the New Delhi think tank Observer Research Foundation, wrote in an opinion piece on The Wire website that India’s gains from vaccine diplomacy would be small, and may not achieve its real aims as China has more might.
While India does not have China’s negative Covid-19 image, it lacks Beijing’s ability to offer loans and military equipment to win over its neighbours. But nobody can begrudge India’s attempt to use its vaccines to gain friends and influence in the region, Joshi observed.
( Courtesy : South China Morning Post )