India tops China in vaccine diplomacy

When it comes to bullet trains, manufacturing plants, and Olympic medals, China often eats India’s lunch. But the South Asian nation is proving competitive with its East Asian rival in one important area: vaccine diplomacy.

Both China and India have made their responses to Covid-19 a central element of their global diplomatic outreach. Xi Jinping has called the vaccines made in China “a global public good.” Mr. Xi links medical supplies to the “Health Silk Road,” part of the ambitious China Belt and Road Initiative.

India takes vaccine diplomacy just as seriously. On Wednesday, in Parliament, Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar declared that the country’s “Friendship with Vaccines” program has “elevated India’s position and generated great international goodwill.”

Donating or exporting medical supplies enables Beijing and New Delhi to hone their soft power, showcase their technological prowess, give their companies a foothold in new markets, and show off to their domestic audiences that they are major players on the world stage. With Western nations preoccupied with inoculating their own populations, the Asian giants are struggling to make the most of the opportunity.

Sri Lankan and Dominican leaders personally received shipments of Indian-made vaccines at the airport, and the Mongolian Prime Minister took an Indian-made injection. Chinese vaccines have inoculated Recep Tayyip Erdogan from Turkey, Joko Widodo from Indonesia and the President of Seychelles. In Europe, Chinese vaccines have become established in Serbia, Hungary, North Macedonia, and Montenegro.

India’s huge pharmaceutical industry accounts for about 20% of the world’s generic drugs and more than 60% of all global vaccine production. A website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs lists 72 countries that have received around 60 million doses of Covid vaccines manufactured in India. A private firm, the Serum Institute of India, along with Anglo-Swedish firm AstraZeneca and Maryland-based Novavax, has pledged 1.1 billion doses to Covax, the effort led by the World Health Organization to supply vaccines to the world’s largest countries. poor of the world.

According to official statistics, widely questioned by experts, Beijing has done a much better job than New Delhi in containing the pandemic at home: only about 5,000 Chinese nationals have died, compared with about 160,000 Indians. Independently verified figures are hard to come by, but China’s advantage in vaccine diplomacy is much more limited, if at all. According to a recent essay in Foreign Affairs by Yanzhong Huang, a global health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, so far Chinese companies have received orders for roughly 572 million doses and have pledged another 10 million to Covax. China’s Foreign Ministry says it plans to provide free vaccines to 69 countries and sell them to 28 other countries.

Last week, New Delhi’s partners in the Quad, a flexible group from the US, Japan, Australia and India, stepped in to boost India’s efforts. At a virtual summit, the first in which the leaders of the four countries participated, the Quad pledged to supply at least 1 billion doses of vaccines, including one developed by Johnson & Johnson.,

to the Indo-Pacific nations by the end of next year. The US, Japan and Australia will finance the production and delivery of the vaccines by a private Indian company, Biological E. Australia will use its regional logistics expertise to deliver them.

Pooling its strengths makes sense for Quad countries, and the vaccine initiative should calm critics who see the group as little more than talk. The focus on Southeast Asia is directly at odds with Beijing’s efforts to dominate the region. But both the new initiative and the success of New Delhi’s vaccine diplomacy offer a broader lesson for India. It is far more likely to achieve its goals by working closely with Western democracies than by embarking on a quixotic quest for “self-reliance.”

Against a backdrop of growing nationalism, the Modi government has portrayed its vaccine effort as part of a successful quest to create a “self-sufficient India.” He was quick to approve emergency approval for a national vaccine developed by an Indian pharmaceutical company, Bharat Biotech, even though it had not yet completed phase 3 trials at the time. On March 1, a nurse administered the yet-untested Indian vaccine to Mr. Modi.

In reality, India’s vaccine prowess comes from collaboration, not self-reliance. Take the Serum Institute, the company that gives India much of its muscle from the Covid vaccine by pumping 2.5 million doses a day of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and by collaborating with other Western companies, including Novovax. The “Made in India” vaccine Indian diplomats tout was developed by AstraZeneca in collaboration with the University of Oxford and with the financial help of the US Serum Institute took a risk by starting manufacture of the AstraZeneca vaccine before it was clear that it would be approved by the WHO. , the UK or India. (US regulators have yet to approve it.) But that risk was underwritten in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which promised to make up for potential losses.

So far, the AstraZeneca vaccine has been approved by the WHO and has been well received in many countries. China’s vaccines, criticized by critics for poor data transparency and, in some cases, a low efficacy rate, lack this international imprimatur. If Covid vaccines made in India are welcomed around the world, it is in part because they are backed by the transparency and rigor of Western medicine. Western NGO funding often adds to its appeal.

There is nothing wrong with India’s ambition to develop homegrown vaccines. But as the country’s own experience shows, India does best when it is open and collaborative, and needs a little help from its Western friends.

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