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The Emergence of Vaccine Diplomacy: Indian & Chinese Politicization of the Pandemic

In the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, pleaded for an international ceasefire. He called for countries to unite against the emerging biological threat as it rapidly spread across the world. However, rather than forging a new era of international peace, Covid-19 exacerbated conflict. In fact, the risk of interstate conflict increased during the pandemic as it left countries with high infection rates vulnerable to foreign aggressors. One of the most notable examples of armed conflict was between India and China. The two countries clashed in January 2020 while trying to build infrastructure along their long-disputed border, also known as the Line of Actual Control, near the Aksai Chin region. Since then, tensions have risen. In June, a skirmish in the Galwan Valley resulted in the deaths of approximately 20 Indian soldiers and represented the first fatal confrontation between the two adversaries since 1975.

Although relations between India and China have remained tense, the development and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines has transformed the nature of their conflict. Instead of investing resources in defending the border, both nations have shifted their focus to producing their respective Covid-19 vaccines for neighboring developing nations. Public health has become the latest domain of  geopolitical conflict. In the India-China power struggle, the two countries’ respective influences over the vaccine production process have provided both superpowers with the perfect opportunity to build coalitions and expand their international influence. However, their ability to weaponize a critical tool for public health complicates the World Health Organization’s attempts at equitable vaccine distribution.

Both countries have used their ability to mass-produce vaccines as diplomatic tools. The Chinese Sinovac vaccine has already been approved in Indonesia and the Philippines and remains in consideration in Vietnam and Malaysia. Outlets have also speculated that countries participating in the Belt and Road Initiative will receive dosage priority. Meanwhile, India has turned to a more outspoken “vaccine diplomacy” strategy. Their “Neighborhood First” initiative commits to providing the Covishield vaccine to nearby countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Nepal. They have described their actions as a form of Vaccine Maitri, or vaccine friendship. Both governments have explicitly denied any rivalry in their vaccine distribution and simply proclaim their dedication to public health and the wellbeing of their allies. However, media allegations have begun to contribute to public distrust of the two countries’ motivations. After Bangladesh decided to cancel their order of Sinovac vaccines, a Communist-run newspaper blamed India for meddling in their relationship. In addition, Chinese media has spread disinformation regarding the efficacy of India’s Covishield vaccine by highlighting a fire at a local production plant. 

This media controversy comes as criticism of the Chinese vaccine has grown. A preliminary study from Turkey which found that the Sinvoac vaccine had 91.25% efficacy was recently undermined by a Brazilian study which found that it was only 50.4% effective. While Chinese officials hoped their vaccine would improve their reputation, it has instead led to renewed scrutiny due to efficacy concerns and distribution delays. Turkey expected to receive 10 million doses by early December. When January arrived, it had only received 3 million. Similar delays occurred in Brazil. In fact, the Brazilian Health Ministry recently announced the purchase of two million doses of the Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine from India. 

Conversely, India has continuously worked to build international respect for their distribution plan. The WHO’s recent statement lauding India’s “vaccine friendship” program is one prominent example of this, as well as the US State Department’s recognition of their goodwill. Jair Bolsonaro tweeted his gratitude to Modi for exporting vaccines to Brazil. As criticism of China’s vaccine program continues to grow, India has taken advantage of this mistrust and used it to fortify its public image. They have been able to reap political benefits from this respect as well. A few days ago, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called Modi to request one million doses after receiving criticism for Canada’s slow rollout. This action came a few days after Trudeau openly criticized Modi for his recent handling of the farmer’s protests. Although Modi publicly stated his hopes for a prosperous relationship between the two countries, the purchase raises questions regarding Canada’s future stances on India’s political affairs. If additional democratic backsliding occurs in India, Trudeau’s reliance on their vaccine supply may prevent him from publicly condemning Modi’s actions.

Although the scale of Indian and Chinese vaccine production and distribution enable them to contribute to international vaccination efforts, their control over the means of production also provides them with disproportionate influence over which countries receive the vaccine. Thus, when vaccination efforts become an extension of political conflict, underdeveloped nations with no strategic benefit to either India and China risk waiting even longer for doses. Much of their efforts have been dedicated to winning over South and Southeast Asian countries—some of which have had major success in keeping their case counts low. With the usage of vaccination as a geopolitical tool, many poorer countries in other regions may have to accept the lengthy vaccine waitlist or take the production process into their own hands. Argentina and Nigeria, for instance, have started to develop their own vaccine amid growing concern regarding supplies and case numbers. This new form of diplomacy has the potential for harm when it excludes countries with the greatest need.

With vaccine diplomacy, the World Health Organization (WHO) will have additional trouble in carrying out its already-poor attempts to distribute vaccines to low-income countries. The WHO created its own initiative, COVAX, to ensure that poor nations will have a vaccine reserve to access. However, its plan to distribute two billion doses has faced major financial and logistical challenges. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus, the Director-General of WHO, recently stated that collectively, 49 wealthy states have received over 39 million vaccine doses. However, Guinea, a poor nation, had only 25 doses. If the developed world continues this approach, Dr. Ghebreysus described the potential for “catastrophic moral failure.” With India and China playing a larger role in determining who will get the vaccine, the WHO will certainly struggle with their attempts at equity.

So far, there is no indication that either India or China will let up in their vaccine race. In fact, Russia and Turkey have started using a similar strategy to expand their influence over the Caucasus region. While Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia expect to receive vaccines from the aforementioned COVAX initiative, they only expect these supplies to provide for 10 to 20% of their respective populations. This alone will only cover high-risk groups, whereas large-scale containment of the disease will require vaccinating 50 to 60% of the population. As a result, they have prepared plans to purchase Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. Just like India, Russia now has the opportunity to establish influence in the region. The ability to offer major global powers to take advantage of the vaccine distribution process for political purposes underscores the weaknesses of the World Health Organization. 

Indian and Chinese control over means of vaccine production provides them with a critical tool to compete for influence while expanding their relationships with the world. Although the net impact of their actions has been positive, it prolongs international distribution, a process that has only highlighted existing global inequality. Despite vaccine diplomacy’s altruistic overtones,  India’s and China’s rush to distribute vaccines acts as an extension of their ongoing geopolitical conflict. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization, a moral force meant to encourage global collaboration to evenly distribute the vaccine, scrapes together doses for the underdeveloped world as two feuding nations play politics with the pandemic.

Graphic: Sharlene Deng