South Asia’s vaccine geopolitics

Nepal took delivery of one million doses of Covishield vaccine ordered from the Serum Institute of India, on Sunday. Photo: AMIT MACHAMASI

Amidst the pandemic, Covid-19 vaccines have become a means for countries to exert influence over others. This has seen global powers flex their manufacturing prowess to reap geopolitical gains.

As a landlocked country perched between China and India, the world’s two most populous countries and the largest global vaccine manufacturers, Nepal has benefited from them. Attempts by both Beijing and Delhi to distribute vaccines to Nepal signify the Himalayan state’s growing strategic value to both.

India made the first move. In January, New Delhi pledged to inoculate Nepal’s frontline workers before any other country, and promptly dispatched one million doses of the Covishield vaccine manufactured by its Serum Institute of India.

“Nepal is getting the vaccines within a week after India rolled out its vaccination drive, which signifies the friendship between India and Nepal and the importance India attaches to Nepal,” India’s ambassador to Nepal Vinay Mohan Kwatra said, as the first shipment of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine arrived at Kathmandu airport.

Such rosy optics masked recent complications in relations between the two neighbours. India’s ties with Nepal have been strained in recent years by the Kalapani border dispute. In May 2020, India’s Defence Ministry opened a new 80 km-long road in the Himalaya to the Chinese border that passed through territory claimed by Nepal. In response, Kathmandu changed its own official map, and set up new border posts.

There had been concerns in New Delhi that Nepal has become increasingly ‘Sinified’, especially since its six-month blockade of the border in 2015. China was the architect of the alliance of Nepal’s Maoist and UML parties, which swept the 2017 elections and united to form the Nepal Communist Party (NCP).

Since 2018, Prime Minister K P Oli has signed off on numerous projects that are part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. The NCP and the Chinese Communist Party forged fraternal ties, with various workshops on ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ held in Kathmandu.

After infighting among members of the Maoist coalition, Oli was forced to dissolve Parliament in December, presenting an opportunity for New Delhi to jostle for influence. While India will need to present more robust measures of support to Nepal than vaccines to cement its influence, India has a head start in the case of vaccine diplomacy.

Evidently, Beijing has grown increasingly frustrated with the NCP leadership, and has voiced its displeasure by not opening its two border checkpoints, citing the pandemic. China’s Ambassador in Nepal Hou Yanqi failed after repeated attempts to get the NCP leadership to patch up their differences, Beijing sent its Army Chief Wei Wengfe to Kathmandu in November just after India’s Chief of Army Staff M M Navarane himself paid a visit to Nepal.

Not to be outdone in vaccine geopolitics, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali on 5 February, and pledged 500,000 doses of its Sinopharm vaccine. After a long delay, the Chinese vaccine finally got approval from Nepal’s Department of Drug Administration last week for emergency use.

The delay in the approval process for the Sinopharm vaccine, which has not been approved by the WHO yet, appears to have miffed Beijing. The Indian media played up supposed pressure by the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu to fast-track the approval process.

Beyond the Himalaya, vaccine geopolitics is playing out elsewhere in South Asia. Attempts by China to distribute vaccines to Bangladesh were thwarted after the government there refused to contribute to the development costs of the Sinopharm vaccine.

After India donated two million doses of Covishield to Bangladesh, Dhaka struck a deal to purchase 30 million doses of the vaccine for the country, snubbing Beijing. Chinese state media accused Delhi of meddling with its  attempt to distribute vaccines in Bangladesh.

China’s closest ally in the region, Pakistan, became the first country to receive donated shipments of China’s Sinopharm vaccine, with Beijing pledging to send over 1.2 million doses to Islamabad.

Along with Nepal and Bangladesh, New Delhi also gifted Covishield to Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Seychelles, Mauritius and Burma as part of its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy.

Nepal also took delivery of 1 million more Covishield vaccines that it ordered from the Serum Institute of India on Sunday, and another 2.2 million doses purchased by Britain under the WHO’s GAVI-COVAX initiative are arriving next week.

China has made strategic gains in the region in recent years to India’s detriment. Through its Belt and Road Initiative, China has poured investment into Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal and the Maldives. Funded by Chinese money, massive ports, highways and other infrastructure projects have been built. With its muddled bureaucracy and weaker spending power, Delhi had not been able to keep up with Beijing’s soft power expansion.

Now, India is using vaccines as the vanguard of its response. The Serum Institute has been producing vaccine supplies at a much faster rate than the Indian government’s inoculation program can distribute them, making it easy for Delhi to send them abroad without suffering political backlash at home.

This has given India a new edge for its soft power ambitions in the South Asian and Indian Ocean regions. Given that most of the developing world will not be vaccinated until 2023, demand for vaccines will only rise. While China’s manufacturing prowess means that it is likely to keep up with demand, regional resistance to its largely un-trialed vaccines will complicate efforts to gain approval by government agencies.

What happens in Nepal over the coming months will be a microcosm of regional vaccine geopolitics. The erosion of Chinese influence with its inability to keep the NCP together, gives an opening for New Delhi to reassert itself in Kathmandu.

While China may have promised Nepal its continued support to help overcome the pandemic, its assistance may not be needed or welcomed if India already fulfils this role.

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