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How Covid-19 vaccines can shape China and India’s global influence

  • Wealthy nations have been accused of hoarding vaccines, mostly from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
  • It has created room for India, China, and to an extent Russia, to develop, produce and supply vaccines to the developing world.
  • Experts say the efforts can bolster those countries' influence and deepen their ties with other nations.

A beneficiary gets vaccinated by health staff during a pan India Covid-19 vaccination drive at Aundh district hospital, on January 16, 2021 in Pune, India.Pratham Gokhale | Hindustan Times | Getty Images

SINGAPORE – With mass vaccination campaigns against Covid-19 underway globally, there is an emerging gap between rich and poor nations in their abilities to secure enough shots to immunize their people.

Wealthy nations have been accused of hoarding vaccines, mostly from PfizerBioNTech and Moderna. That has created room for India, China, and to an extent Russia, to develop, produce and supply vaccines to the developing world. Experts say those efforts can potentially bolster those countries' influence and deepen their ties with other nations.

"While it serves their foreign policy objectives, it serves their … commercial interest to expand the market share of their vaccine products," Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, told CNBC by phone.

"In the meantime, it also helps mitigate the vast disparities in terms of the vaccine access between the wealthy nations and the poor nations," he added.

The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure – and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world's poorest countries.Tedros Adhanom GhebreyesusWorld Health Organization Director-General

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last week that drugmakers prioritized regulatory approval in rich countries where the profits are highest, rather than submitting full dossiers to expedite a global vaccine distribution initiative supported by the WHO.

"The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure – and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world's poorest countries," Tedros said.

'Political goodwill and influence'

India has already sent 1 million Covid-19 vaccine doses to Nepal, 2 million to Bangladesh, 150,000 to Bhutan, 100,000 to Maldives and 1.5 million to Myanmar, per media reports. It has also sent 2 million doses to Brazil.

India approved two vaccines for emergency use – one developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, which is being produced locally by the Serum Institute of India, and the other, named Covaxin, was developed domestically.

Vaccine diplomacy can be an effective use of soft power that can help New Delhi win friends and generate goodwill, according to Akhil Bery, South Asia analyst at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group.

India wants to burnish its credentials as a responsible global stakeholder while China would like to improve its reputation which got tarnished in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic.Harsh PantObserver Research Foundation

"India's generosity with its neighbors can help to mend ties, whether it be with Bangladesh (which was strained due to the Citizenship Amendment Act), or with Sri Lanka, where the Rajapaksas are known to have a pro-China tilt," Bery told CNBC by email. The Rajapaksas are a prominent political family in Sri Lanka – both the country's president and prime minister are part of the family.

"Even if the doses aren't that many, it's still significant enough to alleviate pressure on healthcare systems, allowing for resources to be allocated elsewhere," Bery added.

With the virus mostly under control at home, China's strategy includes striking deals with emerging economies to conduct clinical trials for a vaccine developed by Chinese firm Sinovac and helping to build vaccine production facilities in some of those countries. Beijing is also giving priority access to its vaccines in places like Southeast Asia, which is of strategic importance to China. In other places, the country is offering loans to fund vaccine procurement.

Eurasia Group's China researcher, Allison Sherlock, told CNBC that the benefits for China are limited to reinforcing economic and political ties in its existing sphere of influence in regions including Southeast Asia. There, Beijing "is especially hoping that the vaccine will help repair relationships strained by tensions over the South China Sea, including with Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam."

"India wants to burnish its credentials as a responsible global stakeholder while China would like to improve its reputation which got tarnished in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic," said Harsh Pant, head of the strategic studies program at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

"Both would be hoping that their outreach would give them some political goodwill and influence as well," he told CNBC by email.

The coronavirus was first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan in 2019 and Beijing has faced criticism over its early handling of the pandemic.

Domestic considerations

Given the nature of Sino-Indian ties, experts said it was inevitable that New Delhi and Beijing's efforts in providing vaccines to other countries would be viewed through a competitive lens. Both India and China have downplayed the notion of vaccine diplomacy, describing the jabs as a necessary public good to tackle the global pandemic.

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