India’s huge capacity to make coronavirus vaccines is helping the country take on China in the battle to gain political influence across the developing world.
Competition among poorer nations to get cheap or free vaccines to fight the pandemic had given China a golden chance to strengthen ties in emerging markets it has been courting for years. And initially Beijing seemed in a strong position. It suppressed the domestic spread of Covid-19 last year and accelerated the production of shots.
At the same time, India was struggling to contain one of the world’s worst outbreaks of the virus, with nearly 100,000 cases a day, while a nationwide lockdown sent its economy into recession for the first time in 25 years.
But Chinese pharmaceutical companies have been reticent in sharing details of their pivotal vaccine trials crucial for building public trust around the world, and new domestic outbreaks reinforced the urgency of inoculating China’s own 1.4 billion population, a task that could take years. Meanwhile, India sent millions of doses to neighboring Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, allowing them to begin vaccinations earlier than if they had waited for Chinese doses.
“Because of their gift, Sri Lanka has been able to start vaccination immediately,” said Eran Wickramaratne, a Sri Lankan opposition lawmaker who received one of the Indian shots. “Most Sri Lankans would be thankful for this.”
So far, New Delhi has managed to ship nearly 6.8 million free vaccines around the world. China has pledged around 3.9 million, according to publicly available information compiled by Bloomberg, some of which have yet to arrive.
Beijing and New Delhi have long competed for influence in Asia, and tensions between the two have risen since the pandemic struck, including their most violent border clash in decades. India has banned hundreds of Chinese apps, including ByteDance Ltd.’s TikTok, sought to attract investors away from China and boosted security ties with Japan, Australia and the U.S.
The rapid growth of China’s economy — now roughly five times the size of India’s — has allowed Beijing to forge ties with poorer countries by loaning tens of billions under its Belt and Road Initiative.
But Covid has given India a diplomatic opportunity to pursue its aspirations of becoming a global power. Its pharmaceutical industry, especially the Serum Institute of India, had already made the South Asian nation the main supplier of essential medicines to the developing world. Now it’s allowing India to push back against China’s growing influence.
A case in point is Myanmar, which has been rocked by a military coup and shares borders with both China and India. Beijing promised to send around 300,000 doses but has yet to deliver anything, while New Delhi quickly delivered 1.7 million shots.