India should vaccinate its own people first rather than let the US co-opt it into its anti-China jab diplomacy
Washington is once again pressuring PM Narendra Modi to export vaccines across Asia in a bid to counterbalance Beijing’s exports, but with only 13% of India’s 1.3 billion people double jabbed, New Delhi’s focus should be internal.
Today it has been widely reported that the United States are urging India to restart its export of Covid vaccines. The South East Asian nation is known for its competitive pharmaceutical industry and was, until China displaced it this year, the world’s largest producer and exporter of vaccines. In partnership with AstraZeneca, New Delhi created the ‘Covishield’ vaccine which Modi aspired to use under a ‘vaccine diplomacy’ stint of his own at the beginning of this year. That was until the country’s ‘Covid Tsunami’ struck and, under immense political pressure to vaccinate at home, forced him to announce a ban on exports, given the sheer size of its population, ending India’s participation in the international Covid race.
That ban has remained in place ever since. Now, Biden is personally pushing New Delhi to resume this push. Why? Because in wake of the race to scramble for ‘Booster shots’, the US now wants to stockpile doses for themselves, amassing 100 million already, and want to use India, as it was intended at the beginning of this year, to be an effective ‘vaccine lackey’ against China to dilute its own global vaccination push. While Modi was tempted previously by this initiative, he should not sacrifice the interests of Indian people on behalf of America’s crusades, with the gruesome scenes of April and May still fresh in people’s memories.
At the beginning of this year, the United States itself maintained an ‘America first’ policy of withholding vaccines for itself and upholding a Trump-era ban on exports. Having already faced over half a million deaths at that point in time, Washington was on the back foot against Beijing’s global vaccine push. To put this into perspective, China has since today exported 797 million doses of Covid vaccines and donated 68 million more for free. The US initially had no answer to this, and sought to use India as the counterweight to Beijing. During the first Quad leaders’ summit, which was held digitally in March, the four leaders together made a pledge to donate two billion vaccines to South East Asia within the next year, financed via the US and Japan, and produced by India.
The proposal soon went up in smoke after the Delta variant ravaged India. Although since that time US policy has pivoted towards donating vaccines itself, as well as making ever more ambitious commitments along with G7 countries to donate billions more vaccines. The unpredictability of the Covid-19 crisis has in fact hit another snag, the revelation that vaccines do not make the pandemic completely go away entirely in the way people assumed has led to a growing scramble for booster shots ahead of winter. Logically, it’s making quick work out of the goodwill of Western nations to donate billions selflessly. The West has always put themselves before poorer countries, and it comes amid Xi Jinping’s pledge China will donate another 100 million vaccines by the end of the year.
The US president faces more trouble than just boosters, the continual ‘tooth pulling’ act of even getting some Americans to take vaccines at all remains a problem, so what is his solution? One which can pivot away from exports and compete with China? In light of the upcoming second Quad leaders’ summit (the first in person), on September 24, the president is now strong-arming India to try and join the vaccine diplomacy game yet again. The intent is obvious, to downgrade America’s participation, ease their burden and to fill the gap with New Delhi who again will be predictably used to try and compete with China’s efforts; precisely because the West are now less confident in living up to their promises. It’s never been about genuinely helping countries as it has been about attempting to contain Beijing.
As the Axios scoop on the issue notes, India’s vaccines are among “the cheapest” on the market and tailored for poorer nations. While the piece claims: “vaccinating as much of the developing world, as quickly as possible, is in America’s vital interest”– this is not strictly true because all evidence shows an ‘America First’ approach has always taken precedence. In addition, this has coupled with an extreme lack of appreciation for China’s own efforts. The mainstream media have, in conjunction with US interests, sought to relentlessly trash-talk and spread misinformation about the efficacy of Chinese vaccines as much as possible, also seeing their contribution as a challenge to ‘Big Pharma’– Reuters one for one has created a prolific amount of negative and even misleading stories about Chinese vaccines. Why? Because its chairman James Smith sits on the executive board of Pfizer.
As we can also see from the Axios article, Biden aims to play to Modi’s sense of status through ‘elevating him’. Modi enjoyed the strongman ‘leader to leader’ summits under Trump, yet, the facts do not change that getting carried away with this is a bad idea because India is not in ‘safe territory’ when it comes to its own vaccine totals and doses a day. While the country has made progress in giving around half its huge 1.3 billion population one dose, the rate of fully vaccinated people is only 13%, indicating the mammoth effort which lies ahead. Another Covid wave, or another variant, would have extremely deadly consequences, matching the scenes of earlier this year whereby bodies were being flushed up in rivers, hospitals were running out of oxygen and deadly black fungus was killing people in conjunction with Covid.
In a nutshell, Biden wants Modi to drop ‘India First’ so he can have ‘America First’ yet again. India is not being used as a global good here, but simply a tool to hit China back, which in a nutshell is the entire impetus of its role in the ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’. Of course, it is true to say that “the more vaccines the merrier” is a global good. However, the reality is that it is the West who owes India a favour, directly so to speak, and not the other way around. India needs to secure its own front and population rather than simply be a tool of the obsessive US crusade against China. It should not be pressured, but resume contributions in its own time, its own proportions in its own way, after its own population has been secured.
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