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South Asia Turns to China for COVID Vaccines after India Halts Exports

A woman receives a dose of Covishield, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for COVID-19 in her car at a drive-in vaccination facility in Ahmedabad, India, May 28, 2021.

South Asian countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are turning to China for vaccines for Covid 19 after India suspended vaccine exports due to critical shortages at home. Analysts say this will help Beijing increase its clout in the strategic Indian Ocean region where it has been building influence.

China has given 1.1 million doses of vaccines made by its Sinopharm Group company to Sri Lanka. Bangladesh received its first donation of half a million vaccines from China this month while Nepal has been promised an additional one million shots.

South Asian Countries Turn to China for COVID-19 vaccines after India Suspends Exports
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The shots from China are helping these countries restart inoculation drives that had stalled as supplies from India dried up. They come at a critical time -- surging infections are raising fears that the torrid second wave which India is battling could impact neighboring countries.

“Make no mistake, India's suspension of vaccine exports is a strategic opportunity for Beijing,” according to Michael Kugelman, the Deputy Director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center. “China certainly sees its vaccine diplomacy as an image-building tactic at a time when Beijing has had a tough time with image management.”

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As in many countries, there was some hesitancy in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh about Chinese-developed vaccines, but the emergency approval granted last month by the World Health Organization to Sinopharm’s has boosted its acceptance.

These countries had initially relied on India, which had also given AstraZeneca vaccines to several countries including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal earlier this year. They had also placed commercial orders with the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine producer, but many of those have not yet been fulfilled due to India’s surging need.

In a video conference with several South Asian countries last month, Beijing’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, offered to set up an emergency reserve of vaccines for the region.

Analysts say as China moves in to fill the gap left by India, Beijing’s “vaccine diplomacy” could give it leverage in the strategic Indian Ocean region, where it has been pushing its Belt and Road initiative that aims at building infrastructure projects across many countries.

“Given that this crisis will be with us for the foreseeable future, certainly there is going to be a sense of China becoming a very important player for many of these countries if India is not able to pick up some slack after a few months once things stabilize,” according to Harsh Pant, Director Studies and Head Strategic Studies program at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

In Sri Lanka, Beijing has already built several strategic infrastructure projects including port, roads and railways. It is now building a gleaming new port city off the coast of Colombo on reclaimed land.

The vaccines will add another dimension to its growing presence in the country, says political analyst, Asanga Abeyagoonasekera in Colombo. “China already has influence in Sri Lanka, but the vaccines represent another layer that would strengthen the Chinese influence. Chinese humanitarian assistance during the pandemic is always welcome but the question is whether it will deepen its strategic inroads,” according to Abeyagoonasekera.

The Quad Counters China’s Vaccine Diplomacy
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China’s “vaccine diplomacy” may not be all about soft power, point out some analysts. The Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh recently said in Dhaka that any move to join the Quad would damage ties with China. The Quad, an informal strategic alliance which Beijing views as anti-China, comprises India, United States, Japan and Australia.

Bangladesh meanwhile has also urged Western countries to help as it runs out of AstraZeneca shots with which it rolled out its drive – more than a million citizens have not received the second shot.

Calling the vaccine situation a "crisis", Foreign Minister A K Abdul Momen said recently that Bangladesh is "desperate" to get vaccines from countries like the U.S., Canada, Russia, China and Britain.

FILE - A medical worker holds a package for a Sinopharm vaccine at a vaccination facility in Beijing, Jan. 15, 2021.
FILE - A medical worker holds a package for a Sinopharm vaccine at a vaccination facility in Beijing, Jan. 15, 2021.

Analysts say it will be crucial for countries like the United States, which has promised to donate 80 million shots, to help those scrambling for vaccines in a region that is of strategic importance.

“The fact that Chinese are able to help countries at this point will go a long way in shaping those countries memories and remembrances of what happened at a very critical phase in global history,” according to Pant. “So, America would do well to respond to some of these issues. Of course, the question is how far and how fast they are willing to go, but that might really shape the way in which these small countries, small players in the Indo Pacific, South Asia, would look at their foreign policy.”

India, which had exported about 65 million doses before it shut down shipments, hopes to ramp up enough capacity to resume vaccine deliveries to other countries – but that may not happen till the end of the year.

“New Delhi has the opportunity to reassert itself further down the road. India is the world's top manufacturer of vaccines, so it has an inherent comparative advantage over China,” points out Kugelman. China’s vaccine diplomacy, he says is aimed at promoting its image at a time when it has taken a hit both due to its expansionist policies and questions over how and where the COVID virus originated.

China has emerged as the world’s largest vaccine exporter as many countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America use shots from Beijing for their inoculation drives.