PRC takes shots at India’s neighborhood vaccine diplomacy

PRC takes shots at India’s neighborhood vaccine diplomacy


India’s donation of 5.5 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to South Asian countries has elicited praise from a long string of grateful nations. The generosity evoked a darker response, however, from India’s rival for influence in the region — the People’s Republic of China (PRC) — which praised India’s vaccine diplomacy in official statements while smearing the effort in state-run media outlets.

The disconnect was noticed in India. A PRC government spokesman said there was “no place for malign competition” when it comes to supplying vaccines, but an Indian newspaper pointed out that the PRC’s state-run media were taking a more aggressive position.  “The media it controls in China have, however, adopted a different line, from accusing India of interference in preventing Chinese vaccines being used in South Asia to questioning the efficacy of Indian and Western vaccines,” The Hindu newspaper, an English-language daily in India, reported January 27, 2021.

India’s effort to position itself as the region’s first responder comes after years of working to match Chinese investment in countries that include the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka, where the PRC is building ports, power stations and roads, Reuters reported. India’s strength in the pharmaceutical sector, however, gives it an edge during the coronavirus pandemic. It plans to give 12 million to 20 million doses to neighboring countries in a first wave of assistance over several weeks, Reuters reported. (Pictured: Workers at the Department of Health Services in Kathmandu, Nepal, unload a box of COVID-19 vaccines donated by India.)

PRC officials found it difficult to publicly criticize India’s benevolence. “There are multiple COVID-19 vaccine candidates out there on the market, and countries should be able to make their choices on the vaccines independently,” PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in late January 2021. “This issue can afford no place for malign competition, let alone the so-called rivalry.”

Despite those assurances, malign competition has been the theme of reporting about India’s vaccine donations in Chinese media. The Global Times, which is run by the Chinese Communist Party, quoted an “insider” saying cooperation on vaccines between the PRC and Bangladesh was “disturbed due to interference from India,” The Hindu reported. The Global Times report claimed that clinical trials of a Chinese vaccine in Bangladesh were delayed “due to the Indian government allegedly meddling in the two sides’ cooperation during the period.”

The Bangladesh government, however, announced in October 2020 that it did not use a Chinese vaccine because it was asked to cofund a domestic trial, Reuters reported.

The Hindu also noted that state media outlets in the PRC questioned the efficacy of vaccines India is developing and are also highlighting a January 21, 2021, fire at the Serum Institute of India (SII) that killed five people as a reason for worry. The institute is manufacturing the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which was developed in the United Kingdom and is being donated by India to its neighbors. “Many Twitter users share the same uneasiness over the fire’s influence on SIIs vaccine manufacturing capacity,” the Global Times said.

Recipients of India’s vaccine diplomacy are voicing no skepticism. Since mid-January 2021, India has donated 2 million doses to Bangladesh, 150,000 to Bhutan, 1.5 million to Burma, 100,000 to the Maldives, 100,000 to Mauritius, 1 million to Nepal, 200,000 to Pacific island states, 50,000 to Seychelles and 500,000 to Sri Lanka. India also donated to Bahrain, Nicaragua and Oman.

“The government of India has shown goodwill by providing the vaccine in grant. This is at the people’s level. It is the public who are suffering the most from COVID-19,” said Hridayesh Tripathi, Nepal’s minister for health and population, Reuters reported.