India’s industrial strength in manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines and producing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) place the country in direct competition with China on the diplomatic game to gain international influence as a potential source of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Both the United States and Japan view India as an important strategic partner in the Indo-Pacific region.
The free and open Indo-Pacific strategy aims to “achieve regional peace, stability and prosperity” based on an international order to enhance cooperation among like-minded countries in the democratic, economic and security fields.
Under the leadership of President Trump, the U.S. started pushing its allies to fight back against the growing influence of the Chinese Communist Party in the region, where India plays a key role by pushing democratic principles and considering China a trade enemy,
Beijing and New Delhi have long competed for influence in Asia, and tensions between the two have increased since the pandemic hit, including a clash between the two countries’ armies in 2020 where at least 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a Himalayan border area.
With the production of a highly effective COVID vaccine, India is positioning itself as a power willing to gain diplomatic ground in developing countries that were only counting on the low-efficiency Chinese COVID-19 vaccines to combat the pandemic.
Indian COVID-19 vaccines gaining ground in Asia and the West
China is trying to conquer the diplomatic power of developing nations by donating vaccines, but India’s industry gives those countries an opportunity to acquire better vaccines.
To fight COVID-19, India has licensed the production and export of foreign vaccines and has urged the production of a local one.
These are Covishield (the local name for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine developed in the UK) made by Serum Institute, which in turn produces the vaccine developed by the British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, and Covaxin, manufactured locally by the pharmaceutical company Bharat Biotech.
India’s powerful vaccine industry, “ships to both developing and developed economies,” with shipments to Burma and Canada standing out.
India has become a key supplier of COVID-19 vaccines to poor countries, as Western pharmaceutical companies focus their efforts on achieving local immunity in the United States and Europe.
In the face of the population’s fear of the low efficacy of Chinese COVID-19 vaccines, India provides higher quality inputs with more transparent information, mainly in the case of the Covishield vaccine, developed in the United Kingdom.
India’s diplomacy on the rise
The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been heavily criticized for its handling of farmers’ protests and censorship of the press, as well as persecution of activists.
However, Modi had to adjust his stance following pressure from the United States and Japan to agree to aid needed to advance infrastructure development, freer trade law reform and military support.
Analysts add that the Biden Administration will press Modi to continue with reforms to respect democracy and human rights, bearing in mind that India is the world’s largest democracy.
The Serum Institute plans to send 200 million doses to the Covax program that would go to the poorest nations, while China recently pledged 10 million.
India in the American agenda
A state visit to India by Trump in late February 2020 “sealed this bilateral relationship and the importance of defense cooperation” according to analysts.
In Washington’s bid to strengthen the United States and its allies to fight the Chinese Communist Party, India and its pharmaceutical production provide new strength to American interests.
Although for decades India has stayed out of China-U.S. disputes, even strengthening ties with Moscow, from where it acquired sophisticated military equipment, since the Trump Administration, Delhi has begun to tilt toward American interests.
To maintain ties that since the Cold War have had substantial positive changes, analysts insist that Modi must repair the democratic system in India.
It should be recalled that one of the main arguments of the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy is its democratic component as opposed to the Communist authoritarianism of China and its allies.