Doctor Who: India's Soft Power Vaccine Diplomacy

Of Farmers and Pharma!


That was the theme in India during the first months of 2021, alluding to the farmers' protest in the capital and India’s vaccination drive and the race to vaccinate millions of citizens.


At a time of closed borders and mandatory quarantine, when survival skills bring out an internal sense of selfishness, and global cooperation around sharing scant resources of the vaccine is unheard of, India has adopted a different approach.


But at a time of social distancing globally, India has been active in its outreach exporting vaccines across the globe. While Doctor WHO (World Health Organization) has faced censure for being slow in its pandemic response and now in its vaccine distribution, India has stepped up on the vaccine distribution front to several countries, including Mongolia, to mitigate some of the delays by the WHO.


This is an approach; one where soft power meets concerted diplomatic outreach with India’s vaccine diplomacy.


Dubbed ‘Vaccine Maitri’ or Vaccine Friendship, India has shipped hundreds of vials of Indian-made Covishield vaccines to 71 countries so far. The vaccine is manufactured under licence from Oxford University and British-Swedish Pharma giant, AstraZeneca, but manufactured locally by Pune-based Serum Institute of India.


India donated 13 boxes (150k doses) of the COVID-19 vaccine to Mongolia, making it one of the first 25 countries to receive the vaccine from India. During the donation ceremony, Ambassador of India to Mongolia M P Singh noted the importance of Mongolia for India’s Act East policy as a strategic partner and ‘spiritual neighbour.’


Indian Ambassador to Mongolia Singh and Deputy Prime Minister Amarsaikhan (montsame.mn)
Indian Ambassador to Mongolia Singh and Deputy Prime Minister Amarsaikhan (montsame.mn)

So why vaccine diplomacy?


For starters, India is a vaccine powerhouse and produces 60 percent of the world's vaccines and is home to half a dozen major manufacturers. Even prior to the vaccine, India was among the first to supply 100 countries, including the United States, the most infected country at the moment, with the hydroxychloroquine and the paracetamol drug. In addition to this, India has sent pharmaceuticals, test kits and other PPE equipment to around 90 countries.


As Indian Member of Parliament and former UN Diplomat, Shashi Tharoor writes, “in developing vaccines for its own use, the global north overlooked the prohibitive cost of vaccines for poorer countries. Indian-made vaccines, on the other hand, are reportedly safe and cost-effective, and—unlike some others—don’t require storage and transport at very low temperatures”.

Apart from global diligence and a certain sense of altruism, there is the geopolitical merit of India’s soft power combined with its medical and scientific prowess that has been accentuated.


The elephant in the room is the dragon - China.


Furthermore, when it comes to supply chains, that has been synonymous with China. The recent border skirmish for India with China has only exacerbated the rivalry, one where India has been able to leverage its reputation for providing cheap, accessible vaccines to the global south in a safe and efficient manner.


When it comes to China, there is also the Quad, the joint pact between India, United States, Japan and Australia. What started off as naval maritime exercises and a key part of the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy is also playing a part in India’s vaccine diplomacy.


In addition to Covaxin and Covishied, reports claim that India would manufacture the single dose Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine with financing from the US and Japan, while Australia would be involved in shipping it to Southeast Asia and Pacific countries.


As the Quad has increasingly focused on Beijing’s bellicosity in the South China Sea, India has urged the other three members of the Quad to invest in its vaccine production capacity in an attempt to counter Beijing’s widening vaccine diplomacy.


It was noteworthy how China raced to deliver Sinopharm vaccines to its immediate neighbor Mongolia the day after India’s delivery (February 22) and doubled its donation (300k doses) than that of India.


During March last year, when the world was getting acquainted with the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chains in China were being disrupted with the global lockdown. Disrupted supply chains in China disrupted meant disrupted supply chains around the world. It was too much for several countries, that realized that they needed a manufacturing alternative, a way to buy supply chain insurance in order to hedge their bets. India has used its pharma manufacturing capacity and global outreach to answer the “if not China, then WHO” question when it comes to the vaccine rollout.


However, there are some concerning critiques. Particularly given that the country has a large burgeoning population of a billion-plus, India has exported more overseas than administered for its own citizens, and hence India may fall short of its own target of vaccinating 300 million of its own citizens (the rough population of the United States) by August this year.


But India sees it differently. As I wrote last year, “this pandemic been unprecedented on so many levels, from Melbourne to Madrid, Seoul to Seattle, Tehran to Tuscany, seldom has the world been confronted with the same geopolitical, economic, national security and health conundrum that the COVID-19 disease has presented."

India, a country that has long been criticized for being too protectionist about its own economy, making it harder for companies to enter the market and exhibiting trepidations on trade deals for this protectionism of its own domestic industries, has eschewed any sense of nationalism and protectionism on the vaccine distribution front and has come to the “First Aid” of many, including Mongolia, which aims to vaccinate its all adult population by this summer.


Akshobh Giridharadas (@Akshboh) is a director of the strategic advisory firm BowerGroupAsia and a former broadcast journalist based in Washington.

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