India seeks to rival China with vaccine diplomacy

Published February 8, 2021
India has approved the shipment of Covid-19 vaccine to Cambodia and plans to supply Mongolia and Pacific Island states. — AFP/File
India has approved the shipment of Covid-19 vaccine to Cambodia and plans to supply Mongolia and Pacific Island states. — AFP/File

NEW DELHI: India has approved the shipment of Covid-19 vaccine to Cambodia and plans to supply Mongolia and Pacific Island states, officials said on Sunday, as supplies arrived in Afghanistan — all part of the country’s widening vaccine diplomacy.

Seeking to steal a march over rival Asian giant China, which has also promised to deliver shots, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been giving nearby countries millions of doses of the locally made AstraZeneca PLC vaccine, even as its domestic immunisation programme has just begun.

Modi is using India’s strength as the world’s biggest maker of vaccines for various diseases to improve regional ties and push back against China’s political and economic dominance.

New Delhi has approved 100,000 doses for Cambodia on an urgent basis following a request to Modi from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, India’s envoy to Phnom Penh said.

Cambodia is an important ally of China, which is expected to provide a million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, mainly developed by state firm Sinopharm.

“The supply has been assured through the Serum Institute of India despite innumerable competing requests from partner countries and our commitment to our domestic population,” said Ambassador Devyani Khobragade.

India has given doses to Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives to help them get started with frontline workers as part of its Vaccine Friendship initiative.

On Sunday it sent 500,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Afghanistan, the first to arrive in the war-ravaged country, which is still waiting for emergency approval from the World Health Organisation to administer them.

India has invested millions of dollars in Afghanistan over the years in an expansive effort seen as pushing back against arch rival Pakistan’s influence in the country. “The vaccines are being provided on a grant basis,” a government source said.

So far, India had supplied 15.6 million doses of the vaccine to 17 countries either through donations or commercial contracts, said foreign ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava.

Consignments will be sent to Mongolia, Caribbean countries and Pacific Island states in the coming weeks, he said. “External supplies are an ongoing process, depending on availability and domestic requirement,” he said.

India, which has the world’s second-highest caseload of coronavirus, plans to immunise 300 million people by August. It vaccinated about three million healthcare workers in the first two weeks of the campaign that began on Jan 16 and will need to step up the pace to meet the summer target.

Published in Dawn, February 8th, 2021

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