In order not to be outdone in the geopolitics of vaccines, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on February 5 called Chinese Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali, and promised 500,000 doses of its Sinopharm vaccine. After a long delay, the Chinese vaccine was finally approved by the Nepalese Department of Drug Administration last week for emergency use.
The delay in the approval process for the Sinopharm vaccine, which has yet to be approved by the WHO, appears to have bothered Beijing. Indian media played the alleged pressure from the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu to speed up the approval process.
Beyond the Himalayas, the geopolitics of vaccines is played out elsewhere in South Asia. China’s attempts to distribute vaccines in Bangladesh were thwarted after the government refused to help with the costs of developing the Sinopharm vaccine.
After India donated two million doses of Covishield to Bangladesh, Dhaka struck a deal for buy 30 million doses of the vaccine for the country, snubbing Beijing. Chinese state media accused Delhi from interference with his attempt to distribute vaccines in Bangladesh.
Pakistan, China’s closest ally in the region, became the first country to receive donated Chinas Sinopharm vaccine, along with Beijing committing to send 1.2 million doses in Islamabad.
Along with Nepal and Bangladesh, New Delhi has also offered Covishield to Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Seychelles, Mauritius and Burma as part of its Neighborhood First policy.
Nepal also received on Sunday 1 million additional Covishield vaccines it ordered from the Serum Institute of India, and 2.2 million additional doses purchased by Britain as part of the WHO GAVI-COVAX Initiative arrive next week.
China has made strategic gains in the region in recent years at the expense of India. Through its Belt and Road initiative, China has invested in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal and the Maldives. Funded by Chinese money, massive ports, highways, and other infrastructure projects were built. With its confused bureaucracy and weaker purchasing power, Delhi had not been able to keep up with the expansion of Beijing’s soft power.
Today India is using vaccines as the vanguard of its response. The Serum Institute has product vaccine supplies at a much faster rate than the Indian government’s immunization program can deliver, making it easy for Delhi to send them overseas without facing political backlash at home.
This has given India a new edge for its soft power ambitions in the South Asian and Indian Ocean regions. Since most developing countries will not be vaccinated until 2023, the demand for vaccines will only increase. While China’s manufacturing prowess means it is likely to meet demand, regional resistance to its largely untested vaccines will complicate efforts to gain approval from government agencies.
What happens in Nepal over the next few months will be a microcosm of regional vaccine geopolitics. The erosion of Chinese influence with its inability to maintain the cohesion of the NCP gives New Delhi an opening to reassert itself in Kathmandu.
While China may have promised Nepal its continued support to help overcome the pandemic, its help may not be necessary or welcome if India is already fulfilling that role.
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