Tensions between India and China have continued to escalate in recent years and months, highlighted none more so than the clashes which have taken place in Ladakh, an area which across 2020 and 2021, saw numerous clashes between Chinese and Indian forces with deaths and casualties on both sides.
Whilst risk of escalation on the Sino-Indian border continue to be a worry in the short to medium term, the rivalry between the two nations has taken on yet another dimension, that of vaccine diplomacy. China now see vaccine diplomacy as a crucial part of their ‘Health Silk Road’, a way for them to gain soft power influence and goodwill, with helping developing, and smaller nations kickstart their vaccine programmes being just one facet of this.
One early example of this rivalry was in January when China supplied 50,000 vaccine doses to the Seychelles, swiftly followed by an Indian Aircraft Carrier dropping off a further 50,000 doses of the Indian made Astra-Zeneca vaccine. This was one early salvo in what has become an intriguing diplomatic battle, with both China, India, and now Russia, recognising the diplomatic value that vaccine doses, and their targeted distribution, can now carry.
India, responsible for 60% of global vaccine production capacity, initially found itself in a unique and potentially unprecedented position to take advantage of these capabilities to expand its own soft power influence in the region and even further afield. So far India has brokered deals, or gifted, tens of millions of Indian produced doses to countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. With China equally ramping up its vaccine exports to the region, we have seen another front develop in the ever growing rivalry between the two nations, and as this continues India has felt increased pressure to match and counter China’s moves, and in doing so stretch their own capacity for domestic vaccinations.
With domestic cases surging, India has been forced to cut back on these vaccine exports and balance this with providing enough vaccines for its own people with demand for doses increasing, and public pressure growing to prioritise domestic vaccinations. India is left vulnerable to any increased Chinese attempts to ramp up their vaccine diplomacy, and means that other countries who look set to have a surplus of vaccine doses, such as the United Kingdom, should be ready to step in to neutralise any attempts from China to use vaccines to gain soft power influence over developing nations in the region, to the detriment of one of our more crucial friends and partners moving forward, India.
With the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said to have recently held talks with US President Joe Biden over the possibility of setting up a ‘green alternative’ to China’s investment in developing countries, there is no better time for the UK to bring on board one of our most valuable Commonwealth friends, India, into any talks and to find ways we can work together to combat China’s growing influence in the region, be that through helping developing nations with vaccine supply, or supporting India and its neighbours with investment in their infrastructure projects.