Vaccine Diplomacy- New currency for nations to showcase their soft power gains

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The coronavirus vaccine has emerged as a new currency for nations to showcase their soft power gains. India and China now have been competing for influence over neighboring countries like Nepal through vaccine diplomacy. After India curtailed the exports of the vaccines as it faces a surge in coronavirus cases, China stepped in trying to fill the void by supplying additional vaccines to neighboring countries to resume vaccination.
 
 Nepal, which started its vaccination drives after getting donations from India, gave emergency approval to China’s Shinopharm vaccine. A donation of 800,000 doses of a Covid-19 vaccine from China arrived in Nepal on Monday. The spokesperson of the Health Ministry of Nepal said that the drive would resume once the population bracket is targeted.
 
 Nepal started vaccination campaigns in January after getting one million doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford manufactured by India’s Serum Institute. . Nepal had bought an additional two million doses from the institute. The officials of Nepal halted the campaign citing the shortage of doses as half of the purchase has been delayed. Only half of the follow-up order has been delivered so far. There are over 2,50,000 coronavirus cases and over 3,000 coronavirus-related deaths in Nepal so far. Although the cases and deaths have slowed in Nepal, it is not over yet. If everything had gone according to the plan and there was no delay of vaccine export from Nepal, by now all over 50 years of age would have been vaccinated. This would be a great milestone in containing the virus.
 
 India, the largest vaccine manufacturing country, is leveraging its manufacturing abilities to bolster its image as the pharmacy of the world. This will also boost India’s stature as a vital health care provider. India has already rendered free coronavirus vaccines to some of its neighbors and several other countries. They were distributed as gifts and it was in line with India’s neighborhood policy. The ‘vaccine maitri’ initiative was started by Prime Minister Narendra Modi after it began its nationwide campaign in January.

India is using its capacity to present itself as an alternative to China’s geopolitical and economic dominance. For years, India has struggled to match the pace with Chinese investment in countries like Nepal, Srilanka, and the Maldives. China is building power, ports, and roads in these countries as a part of its Belt and Road initiative.

India’s vaccine diplomacy could play a vital role to mend its strained relations with neighboring countries like Nepal, Srilanka, and Bangladesh and counter China’s rising influence in these regions.

The relations between Nepal and India have reached an all-time low due to the border disputes from November last year. India-Nepal relations have soured badly in recent years. When India imposed an unofficial blockade along the border of Nepal citing its unhappiness with Nepal’s newly-released democratic Constitution of Nepal – it opened its door for its other neighbor, China, to reduce its dependence on India. In recent years, China has pumped in millions of dollars into several infrastructure and hydropower projects in the Himalayan nation. Similarly, New Delhi’s relation with Srilanka and Bangladesh has also strained and China has been a factor.
 
 For India, the vaccine diplomacy had provided the opportunity to counter China, after watching China’s political gains in the Himalayan nation. India’s vaccines had provided developing countries an alternative to Chinese vaccines. It was also an opportunity to win the hearts and minds of people of the neighborhood, which isn’t quite easy. But it is not that overnight all neighbors will love India but the goodwill generated by supplying vaccines in difficult times can flex India’s muscles to surge its influence in neighboring countries.
 
 As neighboring countries await the shipment of India’s coronavirus vaccine, India has curtailed the exports of vaccines to prioritize local demand as there is a sharp surge in coronavirus cases. India recorded over 60,000 daily cases, which is the highest in five months. As India was running out of doses for its own people, it curtailed the vaccine exports. This temporary halt in shipment could affect India’s effort of soft power gains.

Now, as India has suspended the vaccine export in neighboring countries like Nepal, China is trying to fill the void left by India in Nepal by supplying additional vaccine doses. China is trying to show that they are more generous and increase their influence over Nepal. Both India and China have a target to vaccinate large swathes of their own population. China too has a target to vaccinate 40% of its population. So, there is pressure to grow more doses at home for both countries. If India’s deliveries are affected for a long, it will affect India’s image of vaccine-giving nations and it will also hurt Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s effort for soft power gains. India should ensure that there enough vaccines left for export while fighting its own battle if it doesn’t want to hurt its image and effort.

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