India is well-positioned to use vaccine as a hedge to generate goodwill and offset China’s growing influence
The single most important lesson learnt during the coronavirus pandemic has been that global responses alone can help tackle the diseases that know no boundaries. No wonder that vaccine diplomacy has become a major foreign policy talking point around the world. Being the world’s largest producer of vaccines, meeting over 60% of the global demand, and also of generic medicines, India is well-positioned to use this as a hedge to generate goodwill, foster stronger ties in the region and offset China’s growing influence attributable to its financial investments and social-development projects. Already, India has sent free doses of Covid-19 vaccine doses to Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives while donations to Mauritius, Myanmar and Seychelles are set to follow. Sri Lanka and Afghanistan are next on the list. In the race to combat the pandemic, several countries are using vaccine production as a route to enhance their global influence. But, New Delhi seems to be the first to deliver multiple gifts to neighbouring countries. The shipments reflect one of India’s unique strengths. Vaccine Maitri, as the initiative has come to be known, is one of the most diplomatically astute moves by the government on the foreign policy front in recent times. China has made a concerted push to sell its vaccines to countries around the globe for months but only recently announced donations to Myanmar and Cambodia.
India will need more than a billion doses to protect its own population. But it also aims to offer 20 million doses to neighbouring countries, followed by supplies to Latin America, Africa, and the former Soviet Republics. The vaccine diplomacy provides an opportunity for New Delhi to create circumstances to resolve outstanding issues with immediate neighbours like Nepal and Bangladesh while in the Indian Ocean countries like Maldives and Mauritius it can help foster stronger ties in the region and offset China’s growing influence. It sends a strong message to the people in the immediate neighbourhood that India will come to their aid whenever there is a crisis. Vaccine manufacture and distribution is one area where India has some comparative advantage over China and has a longer track record of supplying medicines and vaccines to the rest of the world, especially to low- and middle-income countries. Besides, Chinese vaccines lack transparency. There has been global appreciation — from the World Health Organization (WHO) to the State Department of the United States — for India’s gesture. This further boosts India’s soft power. By being a responsible power, empathetic to the needs of the people beyond its borders, ready to help even as it faces its own crises, in a tough region, New Delhi has served itself and the wider region of South Asia and the Indian Ocean well.
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