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The vaccine diplomacy: The next battleground between India and China to dominate the global COVID-19 vaccine requirements

With India emerging as the hub of vaccine manufacturing, the battleground between the two countries has shifted from the freezing heights of Ladakh to the international arena of vaccine diplomacy.

Since April 2020, India and China are involved in a fierce standoff along the Line of Actual Control in Eastern Ladakh. While India was busy warding off the coronavirus threat that emanated from the central Chinese city of Wuhan, China’s PLA forces attempted to unilaterally change the status quo on the ground. But, the furtive advances by the Chinese forces saw a stiff resistance from the vigilant Indian Armed Forces, who stopped them making any headway. Now, a new kind of rivalry is emerging between the two nations as the world is gearing up in its final battle against the coronavirus.

With India emerging as the hub of vaccine manufacturing, the battleground between the two countries has shifted from the freezing heights of Ladakh to the international arena of vaccine diplomacy. For Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, the development and the distribution of Chinese COVID-19 vaccines was a significant step towards restoring the world’s trust it lost in the wake of the emergence of coronavirus in Wuhan. As the west-developed Pfizer and Moderna vaccine proved to be expensive and difficult to distribute due to its sub-zero temperature requirements, China thought it was well-poised to regain the lost confidence among the poorer nations by providing its affordable vaccine.

Scepticism abound as Chinese vaccines fail to regain the world’s trust

Offering a cheap alternative to the developing nations against the more expensive and anticipated shortage of western-developed coronavirus vaccine would have been a diplomatic coup for Beijing in regaining the trust of the countries it lost following the advent of coronavirus. But China is struggling to get the world to trust its vaccines, a report published last month said. Surveys in many developing countries, from China’s eternal rental state, Pakistan, to the poorer nations of Latin America, the notion of a vaccine developed by China has evoked scepticism among people, in spades.

The lack of global endorsement, the apprehensions over the efficacy of the Chinese-made vaccines, and the growing mistrust of the clinical trials carried out by them have only served to heighten the misgivings about the vaccines developed by Beijing. Recently, a Brazilian study revealed that the Chinese vaccine is only 50.4 per cent effective in preventing COVID-19 symptoms. The new results contradict the earlier data provided by the same institute a few days earlier, which claimed that the Chinese vaccine was 78-100% effective against the virus.

The new findings have certainly dampened the last vestiges of faith that some countries close to China had displayed in Beijing’s vaccines. The trust among the countries had also depleted after Chinese exported masks and PPE had turned out to be faulty. This had resulted in backlash from the citizens of the respective countries who had blamed their leadership of providing them with substandard equipment to salvage their relationship with China. After being battered by the scourge of coronavirus, global leaders are less inclined to invite the wrath of their public by fobbing them off with the apprehensive Chinese vaccines.

India’s launches vaccine diplomacy in its neighbourhood

On the contrary, India, the ‘pharmacy of the world’, has risen to the occasion of the war against the deadly coronavirus pandemic. A couple of days ago, India embarked upon the world’s largest inoculation drive—intending to vaccinate 3 crore people in the next few months. More significantly, India’s immunisation campaign relies entirely on the two indigenously-developed vaccines—Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin and Serum Institute of India’s Covishield.

The commencement of an ambitious vaccination drive by India, coupled with its impressive handling of the coronavirus pandemic, has inspired confidence among the world leaders to opt for the ‘Made in India’ vaccines. As the new wave of coronavirus ravages several countries across the world, there is a growing demand, especially among the poorer countries, for a more affordable vaccine against COVID-19. Demand is pouring in from several Latin American countries, Eastern Europeans and Asian nations for the more affordable and easy-to-handle vaccines developed by India.

Earlier, PM Modi at the UN General Assembly had reiterated India’s stance of helping the world by using its “vaccine production and delivery capacity to help all humanity in fighting the coronavirus crisis”. The first batch of vaccines is set to be dispatched to Brazil, one of the countries most severely hit by the coronavirus pandemic. With this, India is taking the first step to fulfil its pledge. Besides, India has also assured its neighbours Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka that it would cater to its needs on an urgent basis.

New Delhi plans to ship off the first batches of the COVID-19 vaccines to Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Maldives and Mauritius in the next few weeks, in a bid to help them in kickstarting their vaccination process against the coronavirus. The first shipment will be a goodwill gesture and subsequently, countries concerned would be able to get the vaccines on a payment basis from either Serum Institute or Bharat Biotech.

Nepal is the most recent one to ask for Indian-made COVID-19 vaccine. Myanmar government has declared that they had signed an agreement with Serum Institute of India to procure vaccines and so has Bangladesh. India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has assured Sri Lanka that vaccines would be made available to them too.

The Government have assured that the vaccines won’t be exorbitantly priced and the countries would not be charged much more than Indians are paying for the vaccines even when they do have to pay for the doses. However, the government added that India would export the vaccines only after ensuring that it has enough vaccines to inoculate its population.

Foreign countries can sign contracts with the two companies concerned, but officials claimed that these are generally done between the government health entities and foreign companies. Brazil’s Fiocruz Institute has inked a deal with Serum Institute. Several other countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, South Africa among others have also signed a deal with the SII. However, they would need export clearance from the government of India first.

Pakistan absent from India’s vaccine diplomacy in its neighbourhood

Pakistan has been conspicuous by its absence in India’s vaccine diplomacy in its neighbourhood. The relationship between the two countries has soured drastically following the Pulwama attack carried out by a terrorist trained by Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad and subsequently after the Indian government hollowed out Article 370, resulting in the greater integration of Jammu and Kashmir with the Union of India. Pakistani PM Imran Khan has since then been particularly critical of PM Modi and India.

Besides, the Indian government had made it amply clear that diplomacy between the two countries cannot exist as long as Pakistan continues to support and sponsor terrorism in India. The absence of Pakistan from India’s vaccine diplomacy has unsurprisingly rattled a few doves back here, who claimed that India had a golden chance of winning over the Pakistani population who might not be harbouring the same amount of hatred as displayed by the Pakistani establishment and its military. However, with the benefit of years of experience dealing with Islamabad, knows that Pakistan is a perpetually hostile neighbour, one that cannot be placated with any amount of charm-offensives, let alone vaccine diplomacy.

Additionally, the eternal rental state of China, Pakistan, remains the very few countries in the world who have reposed their faith in the Chinese manufactured vaccines despite several reports questioning its efficacy. Recently, Pakistan had already placed orders for 1.2 million doses from the Chinese vaccine manufacturer Sinopharm. It has also been running clinical trials for other Chinese-made vaccine candidates.

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Jinit Jain
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