Gifting vaccine to countries, positive influence in Afghanistan and recognition as a counterweight to China have given India significant edge in the world
Notwithstanding, recent reports by western NGOs questioning democratic credentials and the debate in the UK Parliament on farmer’s protest, global events show that there is nothing to hold back India from becoming a global power. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue also known as the Quad — strategic forum between Australia, India, Japan and the US, besides its supplying vaccines to a large number of countries, shows that India has significantly enlarged its global profile.
India’s gifting of vaccines has polished its global image and earned it goodwill, especially in South Asia where it is often criticized for its “big brother” behaviour. It has also served as a powerful soft power tool to counter China’s considerable influence in South Asia, Africa and elsewhere.
India maintaining a supply line of vaccines has come to a great relief for the world as all big powers engaged in ‘vaccine nationalism’, hoarding vaccines and not sharing them with poorer countries. According to Duke University’s Global Health Institute, a group of advanced countries, accounting for only 16 per cent of the world’s population, have secured 60 per cent of the global vaccine supplies for themselves. Canada heads the list of ‘vaccine nationalists’, having secured vaccine supplies nearly ten times its population, while the US has stocked enough doses to vaccinate every citizen well over six times. Other countries securing vaccine supplies well beyond their domestic requirements are Australia, Chile, the UK, and members of the European Union.
The Quad also decided to launch a mega vaccine initiative under which coronavirus vaccines will be produced in India for the Indo-Pacific region – to counter Chinese influence. It recognized that India is sharing its available vaccine supplies with several countries, while also ensuring that domestic demand is met.
Briefing reporters on the summit, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said it was decided that India’s manufacturing capacity is something that is going to be leveraged to make COVID-19 vaccines. The aim is to produce a billion doses by the end of 2022. He said the financing for the creation of additional capacities will come from the US and Japan while Australia will contribute to the last mile logistics and delivery help. Australia will also finance countries that are going to receive the vaccines.
According to the President of the World Economic Forum (WEF) Borge Brende, the world has already realized India’s vision of becoming a $5-trillion economy in the next five years and a $10-trillion economy in the next decade-and-a-half. India’s commitment to renewable energy through voluntary and ambitious renewable power capacity targets, a lead role in the Paris Climate Agreement negotiations and the International Solar Alliance shows its aspiration of becoming a leader in environmental security and climate change mitigation.
India has also expanded its global stature in space exploration through widely celebrated breakthroughs such as its recent lunar mission and its distinction of becoming the fourth country worldwide to shoot down a low-orbit satellite with a missile.
Brende said India is also more involved in global humanitarian efforts and development initiatives, including infrastructure development in Afghanistan, the International North-South Transport Corridor, the Ashgabat Agreement, the Chabahar port and the India-Myanmar-Thailand highway.
Prime Minister Modi has often articulated his strong vision for an India-Africa cooperative interest and India’s deepened participation in coalitions demonstrate its growing global influence and appetite for enhanced visibility on a range of global initiatives and multilateral forums.
With half of its population of working age, India has a unique demographic advantage. Climbing to the 52nd spot in this year’s Global Innovation Index, India is one of the few countries to have consecutively improved its rank for nine years.
“Its distinctive demographic advantage, technical prowess and knack for innovation, fused with the leap-frogging opportunities of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies, can consolidate its position as a dominant force in global economic, political and strategic affairs,” said WEF president.
The world is paying attention to India as it shares its available vaccine supplies, instead of choosing the nationalist course of blocking exports. India has also offered 1.1 billion vaccine doses to the WHO’s COVAX program to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to poorer countries. As Modi has tweeted, “We are all together in the fight against this pandemic.
Simultaneously aware that the quest for becoming a great power must begin at home, India has undertaken groundbreaking structural reforms mirroring its growth ambitions and development priorities. Initiatives aimed at revamping India’s restrictive business regulations have already borne fruit. India’s 65-place leap in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings demonstrates an improved business climate and expounded investor confidence.
Low key, non-lethal approach
India’s low key, non-lethal, soft-touch soothing diplomacy in Afghanistan has paid dividends. Schools, hospitals, technical training institutes, hospitality to the injured by flying them to Indian hospitals – all of this found their way to Afghan hearts. Visit parts of Hauz Rani opposite Max hospital in Saket, and you have Afghan eating houses complete with Chapli Kebabs, giant size naans, and travel agents offering amazing rates for the Delhi-Kabul-Delhi journey. Nothing can compare with the effectiveness of India’s diplomacy.
After having sent consignments of testing kits, personal protection equipment, respirators, and medicines to other countries to help them fight the COVID-19 pandemic, India is now reaching out to them with “vaccine diplomacy.”
India is a global pharmaceutical powerhouse, manufacturing some 20% of all generic medicines and accounting for as much as 62% of global vaccine production, so it was quick off the mark when the pandemic struck. Before COVID-19 vaccines were developed, India supplied some 100 countries with hydroxychloroquine and paracetamol and sent pharmaceuticals, test kits, and other equipment to around 90 countries. Later, even before the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was approved, Adar Poonawalla, the 40-year-old head of the privately-owned Serum Institute of India, audaciously decided to manufacture it – a billion-dollar gamble. When approvals came, SII was able to churn out millions of doses, making them available to the government both for domestic use and export.
In keeping with its “Neighborhood First” initiative, the first consignments of the Covishield vaccine — which is developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University and manufactured by the Serum Institute of India — and Covaxin, a locally developed and manufactured vaccine by Bharat Biotech and the Indian Council of Medical Research, have gone to its immediate neighbours, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Myanmar, and Nepal, and key Indian Ocean partners, Mauritius and Seychelles. Sri Lanka will begin receiving vaccine consignments from January 27 and Afghanistan will do so after it has completed regulatory clearance procedures.
Vaccine Maitri (Vaccine Friendship), as India calls its drive to provide other countries with the COVID-19 vaccine, has evoked a positive response globally. Neighbouring governments, including ones like Nepal which have been sparring with India in recent months, have expressed gratitude, while others like the U.S. applauded India’s gesture.
India’s gesture of sharing its vaccine supplies with other countries stands in sharp contrast to several rich countries that are cornering, even hoarding vaccine supplies. Although a handful of rich countries account for just 16 per cent of the world’s population, they have cornered 60 per cent of the vaccines bought globally.
India’s Vaccine Maitri initiative will help ease to some extent the” vaccine inequality” in the world by making COVID-19 vaccines more accessible to developing countries.
India is one of the largest manufacturers of vaccines in the world; it supplies around 60 per cent of the global requirement of DPT, BCG, and measles vaccines. Vaccine Maitri will add to its credibility as a reliable vaccine producer. Indian vaccines have shown fewer side-effects and are low cost and easier to store and transport. Global demand for its COVID-19 vaccines is soaring; some 90 countries have entered into pacts for its procurement. Its commercial supply of the vaccines will benefit Indian pharmaceutical businesses now and in the long run.
Both India and China supplied Asian and African countries with protective equipment and medicines during the pandemic. Their vaccine diplomacy is a follow-up effort to win hearts, minds and influence, especially in the developing world.
India has gained a head-start over China in this regard, especially in South Asia. Chinese vaccines are yet to reach the region. Even Pakistan, its closest ally, is expected to receive the first consignment of Chinese COVID-19 vaccines only by the end of this month.
China’s conditions for the supply of its COVID-19 vaccines also seems to have not gone down too well with some South Asian countries, including Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. China wanted the Bangladesh government to share the cost of vaccine trials and when it refused, talks on vaccine supply broke down. It prompted Bangladesh to turn to India.
Indian vaccines are arriving even in richer countries. The UK has ordered ten million doses from the Serum Institute of India. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau telephoned Modi to ask for two million vaccines; the first half-million were delivered within days. Trudeau effusively declared that the world’s victory over COVID-19 would be “because of India’s tremendous pharmaceutical capacity, and Prime Minister Modi’s leadership in sharing this capacity with the world.”
India is using the country’s capacity in this sector subtly to advertise an alternative to China’s economic and geopolitical dominance. While China has been secretive in releasing data about its vaccines, leading to controversies over the efficacy of them, India organized trips for foreign ambassadors to visit pharmaceutical factories in Pune and Hyderabad.
Helping hand to counter HIV/AIDS
Indian companies made critical interventions during the HIV/AIDS pandemic by supplying affordable antiretroviral medicines to African countries, where major pharmaceutical producers were demanding excessively high prices. After the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria took shape as a multi-stakeholder initiative to reduce the burden of these diseases, India’s generic pharmaceutical industry emerged as one of the largest suppliers.
In June Serum Institute of India (SII), entered into a licensing agreement with British-Swedish biopharmaceutical company, AstraZeneca, to supply one billion doses of the Oxford University COVID-19 vaccine to middle- and low-income countries. Before this, another Indian biopharmaceutical company, Bharat Biotech International Limited, together with the Indian Council of Medical Research, began collaboratively developing a COVID-19 vaccine, ‘Covaxin’.
India is also supplying 10 million vaccine doses to Africa and one million to UN health workers under the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) facility coordinated by the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations (GAVI).
Several other countries, including Mongolia, Oman, the Philippines, Bahrain, and the Dominican Republic could also be included in India’s ‘vaccine assistance’ program. India is using its soft power to assist developing countries, a role that it has increasingly been playing as a development partner.
The government has allowed for commercial vaccine exports to countries seeking them while placing an embargo on the commercial sale of vaccines in India. Brazil and South Africa are benefiting from this, importing millions of doses of Covishield.
World wants India
According to Biswajit Dhar is Professor at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India’s initiatives to make vaccines widely available to developing countries, together with growing evidence of the benefits from making COVID-19 vaccines accessible, suggests that during a pandemic, medical products must be treated as global public goods.
The world wants to keep India onside as they recognize its rising strategic importance in Asia as a counterweight to Beijing. India is an important economic and strategic partner, or potential partner, for countries ranging from France to the US to the Gulf states. India’s status as a rising free-market, rancorous democracy known for soft power exports like yoga and Bollywood lend it a benign character, whereas China often acquires the ire of the international community owing to the common narrative surrounding its efforts to build an Orwellian authoritarian system.
There is no doubt that India’s international profile has been enhanced.