India’s Neighbourhood First Policy and Vaccine Diplomacy
At a time when the world has been grappling with an unprecedented global health crisis due to novel Corona Virus known as COVID-19, what needed most was the healing touch through a united and concerted global effort. But unfortunately, major countries of the world were busy with issues of secondary or least importance. While the United States of America was busy fighting a trade war with China and then after the election of the President of the United States (POTUS), the arch-rival China was busy in celebrating the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation in the aftermath of Corona and therefore busy expanding its territory beyond its border to establish regional hegemony in Asia. Russia although developed Sputnik vaccine yet failed to serve the greater humane cause while the European nations were preoccupied with the rise of political Islam and were busy tackling widespread violence especially in France. Even than countries have imposed a ban on medicine exports and prohibited essential medicinal supplies to stabilize the domestic supplies. While vaccine nationalism followed the suit, the wolf warrior diplomacy of China warning half of the world has been a real cause of concern. At this juncture, India – the soft power capital of world practising the philosophy of ‘Vasudheiva Kutumbakam’ emerged as the Viswaguru and produced two effective vaccines named Covaxin (Bharat Biotech) and Covishield (SII in collaboration with AstraZeneca and Oxford University). It is well known that India has been the storehouse of generic medicines and meets almost 62 per cent of the world vaccine requirements. Particularly, during the COVID-19 pandemic, India was supplying essential medicines and generic drugs to more than 100 countries while Corona tests kits, pharmaceutical equipment were supplied to at least 90 countries worldwide on their requests is no less praiseworthy. It is to be noted that, India like any other country was too the worst victim of the virus, but without indulging in the blame game or undiplomatic aggressiveness (wolf warrior diplomacy) stood up to the challenges and took consistent measures even before the WHO or any other international organization were on board to do so. Despite hurdles, lockdown challenges at home and rising Covid cases, India just not made efforts to protect its people from the mayhem but also determined to help out its tiny neighbours by supplying the life-saving vaccine to them to which the Brazilian President twitted in respect as no less than ‘Sanjivani’. India in a goodwill gesture is planning to provide at least 12 million to 20 million doses to its neighbours Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Mauritius, Nepal, Seychelles and Sri Lanka while planning ready to distribute vaccines to the countries of Latin America, Africa and the former Soviet republics.
The benevolence of India has been well received by its neighbours hitherto dancing to the tunes of the Chinese dragon. The citation of Nepal is worth mentioning as very recently Nepal was sitting in the laps of China developed a territorial dispute with India by releasing a controversial political map depicting some of the Indian areas as its own in the Kalapani area. China also promised Nepal of immediate medical and vaccine support and in fact, has entered into a deal which is yet to be approved by the Nepalese drug administration authority on the ground of lack of information and documentary evidence regarding the effectiveness of the Chinese vaccine – Shinovac. Meanwhile, Indian vaccines are not just approved by the Nepalese authority but have been well received as a mark of India-Nepal historic friendship. As part of its first phase, India had given 1 million doses to Nepal free of costs while Kathmandu evinced interest to buy at least 4 million doses from India and sought the help of New Delhi during the visit of Nepalese Foreign Minister Shri Pradeep Gyawali to India last week. India’s vaccine gesture is expected to undo the damages the Oli government has done to the bilateral relationship and would bring the two neighbours further together unmeshed by the Chinese design.
Similarly, Bangladesh – India’s eastern neighbour received 2 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine and plans to buy 30 million doses from India after frustrating negotiation with Sinovac – the Chinese vaccine. New Delhi’s timely help and humanitarian aid was well appreciated by the Bangladesh Prime Minister and is expected to mend the irritants by bringing the public’s of both the countries together through vaccine diplomacy. Another neighbour of India, Sri Lanka would receive a consignment of free vaccine from India on 27th of January after due approval from the President of the island nation. In the same way, New Delhi has already sent 150,000 doses to its Himalayan neighbour – Bhutan and at least 100,000 doses to the Island country – Maldives. Alike, India as part of its ‘Vaccine Maitri’ (Vaccine Diplomacy) has dispatched 1. 5 million doses to Myanmar 1 million doses to Mauritius and 50, 000 doses of Covid vaccine to the Indian Ocean Island country Seychelles.
This vaccine maître gesture of India offering free vaccine to its small neighbours earned much appreciation and goodwill gestures all-around. The humane act of Prime Minister Modi is widely admired in Myanmar while received thumping applause in Nepal. Meanwhile, Bangladesh praised India’s friendly gesticulating and Sri Lanka held India’s timely help in high regard. It is for the first time that China is lagging behind India in South Asia which it had flooded with monetary help and investment aids hitherto now have no takers of its vaccine. If managed effectively, many believe that Covid Vaccine diplomacy of India in tune with its neighbourhood first policy would yield strategic leverages and foreign policy benefits for New Delhi in long term. Although some believe that India’s vaccine aid programme would only bring momentary advantage to India, it couldn’t stop the Chinese influence in Asia and Oceania largely attributed to its financial investments and infrastructure development projects. Yet some others put India’s vaccine drive in direct competition with China. They are of the view that the broader geopolitical ambition of vaccine is no secret and China is well aware of this yet they cannot disagree that New Delhi has bulldogged the Chinese soft-power by its ‘Health Silk Road Initiative’ to bring its neighbour together by standing on their side at the time of crisis. The Indian message of service to mankind is service to God demonstrated through the vaccine maître programme bolstered India’s image globally and hailed regionally as a reliable partner and a true friend of the neighbours.
And to those who draw a comparison and competition with China, India’s vaccine diplomacy is not limited to South Asia or the Chinese Silk Road orbit instead it spread wide across the globe. The Latin American country – Brazil had already received 2 million doses of vaccine and thanked India for the unparallel help and humanitarian support. Next in line were the African countries, Saudi Arab, Morocco and Afghanistan. No doubt India’s vaccine outreach programme earned her few foreign policy brownie points but what it has likely achieved is the bonding of the people and appreciation of the countries making India the Viswaguru amidst powerful countries struggling with health crisis. While others faded during the crisis, India under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi transformed the crisis into an opportunity and presented the Indian sanjivani to safe the mankind from global scourge – Corona virus.
By Dr. Ramakrushna Pradhan
(The writer is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Fakir Mohan University, Balasore, Odisha)