By Pooja Jain, PhD, Research Fellow at Asia Centre.
In the fight against coronavirus, India stands out for its twin initiative of fighting the virus at home and providing it simultaneously to the rest of the world. This vaccine diplomacy capsuled in generosity seems foolhardy given the sheer need of India’s own population and the devastating effect the pandemic has had on the country’s health and economy. So, why would a country battered by the pandemic and with historically low growth rate invest in vaccine diplomacy?
Though badly affected by coronavirus, India’s mortality rates are less glaring when compared to countries like the United States. According to data released by the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center (last consulted on March 26, 2021), India has had a relatively low mortality rate from the virus: 11, 90 for 100 000 inhabitants compared to 167, 14 for the United States. In terms of number of deaths, 160 949 died from the coronavirus in India (3rd highest in the world). The United States and Brazil have each suffered 545 822 and 300 462 deaths respectively from the virus. And, India produces more vaccines than it can administer. The country has the reputation of being the world’s pharmacy with 60 per cent of the world’s vaccine manufacturing capacity concentrated in it; a rare instance of India surpassing China, often spoken of as the world’s factory. The pandemic is an opportune moment for India to shine the spotlight on its manufacturing capacity, in a sector as critical as global health. Though inconspicuous, India has another unique strength, a democratically elected Prime Minister whose domestic approval and popularity are incomparably high. In the current pandemic, this strong domestic approval endows him and his administration an edge over competitors who are more and more protectionist and risk averse.
This brings us to what precisely does India stand to gain from its push for vaccine diplomacy? An apparent reason would be India trying to limit China’s influence in its neighbourhood, where its presence has only been growing. Checking Chinese influence in its backyard is an imperative for India whose relations with China have been at a historic low after confrontations at the border in 2020. However, does India really have the diplomatic mettle and resourcefulness of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative? What factors work in favour of India’s vaccine diplomacy? Do countries accepting vaccines from India run the risk of fraying relations with their partners from the West? Through the course of this article, we shall observe that trust, perception, timing and framing of the diplomacy can be potential game-changers.