The Sino-Indian border dispute being at a standstill, the two rising nations are now competing not through violence, but by asserting their power through international influence, such as through vaccine diplomacy. While there are humanitarian and altruistic purposes involved, the political ambition behind the campaign of exporting COVID-19 vaccines to neighbouring countries is worth discussing.
India first launched its Vaccine Maitri (Vaccine Friendship) initiative in January 2021. As the third-largest producer of pharmaceuticals by volume, India’s pharmaceutical powerhouse provides nearly 60 percent of the world’s vaccines. Its two WTO-approved COVID-19 vaccines, Covashield and Covaxin, both have an efficacy of over 70 percent. Unlike the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines which require a minus 70 Celsius storage environment, these vaccines don’t have that requirement, making them much easier to use for low-income markets lacking financial and infrastructural support. As of May 29th, India has supplied over 600 lakh vaccine doses to 95 countries through gifting and commercial obligation under the COVAX initiative, which aims at global equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.
Following India’s actions, China announced its determination to make its COVID-19 vaccines a “global public good” in May 2021. However, China’s approved vaccines—Sinovac and Sinopharm—while having the same benefits as the India vaccines, have caused great suspicion among experts. Indeed, the trial results from different countries are mixed. Moreover, evidence showed that, among the eight countries using the Sinopharm Vaccine, only Hungary has seen decreasing cases, undermining people’s confidence in the Chinese vaccines. Nevertheless, China has been distributing 350 million vaccines to over 80 countries through donation and commercial agreements.
Tracking down the Global Vaccine Flowchart, it is noticeable that China and India’s vaccine distributions are concentrated in mainly African and southeast Asian countries, which brings the two countries’ rivalry over the same regional influence under the spotlight. China’s strategy coincides with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the newly proposed Health Silk Road, in which the Chinese government promised to contribute to international cooperation in defeating the pandemic. Launched in 2013, BRI has helped China gain massive economic and political influence through investments in the building of infrastructure in Southeast Asia and East Africa. Providing vaccines to these countries is a continuation of the standards established by BRI. The logistic network of China’s multinational technology company Alibaba Cainiao even launched an air route with Ethiopian Airlines to deliver COVID-19 vaccines, providing aid and facilitating connectivity simultaneously, as suggested by the cooperation priorities. In Latin America, China has also had a major success winning leverage as the largest vaccine provider in the region.
Other than following its grand BRI project, China practices vaccine policy to repair its damaged international image. Being blamed as the bane by some people, especially the Trump administration, of the COVID pandemic, China has been spending efforts to salvage its role as a leading world power. At the beginning of the pandemic, China practiced the “mask diplomacy” by shipping medical supplies to European countries, filling in the European Union’s delay. It is not surprising that China extends the mask policy to the vaccine policy now that we are closer to the final stage of defeating the epidemic. On the other hand, to address the geopolitical issues with its neighbours that happened over the years, China struck a deal with Malaysia and the Philippines—who both have territorial conflicts with China with regards to the South China Sea—as a potential strategy to win advantages in the disputes.
As for India, one of their focuses is gaining back influence over South Asian countries from China. India has donated 1 million vaccines to Sri Lanka, which is the largest amount of donations India has given out. Since Rajapakasas was elected as president of Sri Lanka in 2019, rebuilding a stronger diplomatic relationship between China and Sri Lanka has been a priority. China and Sri Lanka’s promising relationship causes a threat to India as China has offered a $295 million grant to counter the “real or imagined threat” from Sri Lankan nationalists who believe India would help the ethnic minority Tamils’ revolt for independence. However, India seems to win over Sri Lanka in their competition of vaccine diplomacy with China, as Sri Lanka rejected the donation from Sinopharm for “all practical purposes” and has only agreed to buy from China after India failed to provide the promised vaccine stocks because of their domestic outbreak.
Myanmar is also on both countries’ agendas. To India, Myanmar is an essential partner in helping to crack down civil unrest across India-Myanmar borders and “the springboard of India’s Act East policy and the third strategic frontier”, as described by Indian press The Tribune. One of the purposes of The Act East policy was to counter China’s expansion of influence over Southeast Asia through building connections with the vast Asia-Pacific region. The fact that China is building such a strong relationship with Myanmar is a threat to this policy. Furthermore, China is the largest trading partner and crucial investor of Myanmar. The China-Myanmar Economic Corridor was developed under BRI, and China invested billions of dollars for Myanmar’s infrastructure building, such as in their natural gas and oil pipelines. For political reasons, as with India, Myanmar is crucial for China to gain access to the Indian Ocean and the larger Southeast Asia region. This competition is unreservedly shown in the large volume of 3,700,000 vaccines shipped to Myanmar from India and 300,000 doses of donation from China.
With the United States’ absence in vaccine diplomacy, China and India are grasping opportunities to claim the leading political role after the hegemonic nation. However, the situation might take a turn after India’s pause of vaccine exports due to the domestic outbreak since the end of March of 2021. With the rising vaccination rate of countries worldwide, returning to normal life seems to be closer to reach. China and India’s vaccine diplomacy has shown us that not only have the dynamics of global political power changed because of the pandemic, but also that soft power is playing an increasingly important role in the political sphere.
Edited by Olivia Shan