China piqued by Indo-US collaboration on Covid vaccines

As the second wave of Covid-19 engulfed India and the deadly virus spread its fangs in the cities and towns, the government of India realized the dire consequences of lowering the guard after it had successfully braved the first wave. The people had not anticipated the ferocity of the second wave and did not realize what price they will have to pay for ignoring Covid discipline on which the entire government machinery had laid stress previously.

In retrospect the questions like shouldn’t the assembly elections in five states been postponed through a Presidential decree or shouldn’t the Kumbh Mela been drastically restricted to a few dozen religious gurus, will remain to be answered. Even some of our friendly foreign countries have also felt puzzled why India, so precocious about the first wave of the pandemic, slipped to become the country in the world with the highest numbers of Covid -19 affected persons. The loss of lives is tragic.

No sensible observer will buy the story that the government remained negligent or non-serious as some among the opposition are wont to point out. What happened was the magnitude of the affected people at a time and the huge death toll taking place on the one hand and the shortage of Covid vaccine and medical oxygen on the other hand. This brought a great strain on the availability of hospital beds with oxygen facility all over northern India as also in badly affected states of southern and western India like Maharashtra. The available supplies were far inadequate as against the demand. Consequently, the government of India could no more wait to make appeals to friendly countries in the world to come to her help in a very critical situation. 

There was a palpable response from many big and small countries and they promised to send as much help as they could. Within hours of this appeal, messages poured in from many friendly countries asking for specific items need to provide immediate relief. Various ministries joined heads to systematize the receipt and distribution of consignments of medicines and equipment that had to be dispatched to different parts of the country. Gigantic teamwork followed to look to even the smallest of detail about the distribution of the items of healthcare.

PM’s appeal for aid had gone to Washington also. Most of us know that India has good friendly relations with the US and that the US is the leading member of QUAD which has various commitments to the Indo-Pacific countries in terms of healthcare and associated matters. India’s appeal received a warm and quick response from President Biden. However, it did not come and many eyebrows were raised on the much-touted Indo-US cooperation in various fields of the common good. Sections of Indian and foreign media that would waste no time in magnifying things would rejoice on bilateral relations getting sour.

A closer examination of these media sources reveals that they are only orchestrating the propaganda emanating from a bigger source to which they bear allegiance. A short survey of China’s reactions to delayed American aid shows how viciously the Chinese mind can think about India faced with a crisis that originated in China. Beijing has called the US’ late announcement of help to India a “U-Turn” explaining it diabolically as the “White House’s geopolitical gain by getting India “cheap” into the American alliance in “Indo-Pacific”, a term Beijing is not willing to accept and use.” This and other comments of China in this context, as we shall see, is to diabolically disinform the Indo-Pacific nations that the US delayed aid to India to force her to become a US ally in the Indo-Pacific at no price whatsoever.

Before we proceed, let us take hindsight. The US had earlier imposed an embargo on raw materials for India’s Covid-19. It has been overlooked by the media that the QUAD summit took place on 13 March, whereas Biden’s decision on export curbs was taken on 5 February under the Defence Production Act (DPA)— a law dating from the 1950s that grants the US President broad industrial-mobilization powers to bolster vaccine-making in the country.

It was so because the US was passing through a very critical stage of pandemic and under “America first concept” wanted to ensure that she had the requisite stockpiles for home use and would not want to be caught on the wrong foot. This technical matter was duly resolved during a long telephonic conversation between the Security Adviser to PM Modi and his counterpart at the Pentagon. President Biden might have other compulsions, geopolitical, domestic technological/industrial, et al but India reacted to it positively trying to understand and incorporate it into the overall format of the Indo-US relationship. That is how big nations conduct their relations.

A prominent Chinese media outlet was more vocal in misleading the Indo-Pacific countries by this commentary: “In addition, some experts also pointed out that the US is taking advantage of India’s humanitarian crisis – as Washington wants to use minimum resources to push India to come closer to the US…..It’s not surprising to see the US adopting such old-fashioned tactics of paying little attention to other countries’ crises first but suddenly appearing to be ‘willing’ to offer urgent help…..Promises and help come at the last-minute from the US as it would help it gain more from the partner with less offering.”

This is a typical Chinese hegemonic style of a phenomenon of bilateral relationship. What the media outlet wants to emphasize is that the US deliberately delayed aid to India to force her into its alliance, and having done that, Washington finally announced the withdrawal of the embargo. The point is that the corpus of Indo-Washington relations in the context of Indo-Pacific security strategy was not finalised during the Covid times. The Indo-Pacific Security Strategy was first mooted way back in 2003 when the small island countries in the China Sea began to feel the Chinese aggressiveness and hegemonic behaviour. China must find an issue to convert it into a dispute with any of its neighbouring countries, small or big. This is the history of China. Indo-US relations are not based on a crisis blueprint. The guiding principles of this relationship are enshrined in the constitutional provisions of the greatest and the largest democracies in the world. These democracies stipulate that natural disasters taking a heavy toll on human lives are to be handled beyond the pale of politics.

China’s embarrassment stems from a different source and not necessarily from the US’ massive shipment of vaccine to India. The Chinese analysts and officials explain “the American hypocrisy” in terms of the fact that Biden imposed curbs on the US raw material for vaccines to be made in India, though in the virtual “QUAD summit” on 13 March (the very first multilateral meeting that Biden as President held with leaders of India, Japan, and Australia), it was announced that the four countries would cooperate to deliver one billion vaccine doses in the Indo-Pacific. However, in passing, it should be known that even the US depends on India for raw material for its pharmaceutical industry.

The QUAD is a red rag to the Chinese bull. China wants absolute domination of the Indo-Pacific as the only power whose writ should run. QUAD vaccine agreement counters China’s monopoly in distributing vaccine to the regional countries. It may be noted that three Chinese vaccine makers (Sinopharm, Sinovac, and CanSino) had received by March overseas orders for more than 572 million doses, accounting for nearly 8 per cent of all doses under contract globally. In Indonesia alone, Sinovac has a deal to supply 38 per cent of the nearly 330 million doses. In fact, in Southeast Asia, the heart of Indo-Pacific, China has committed 250 million doses, estimated to be 44 per cent of the total doses it has committed worldwide. China has already donated (as per an estimate made in March) 500,000 doses to Nepal, 300,000 doses to Sri Lanka, and 300,000 doses to Myanmar.

According to Yanzhong Huang (Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations), “If the vaccine were priced at $10 per dose with a 40 per cent net profit margin, even a 15 per cent share of the vaccine market in lower – and middle-income countries would generate total sales of $10.8 billion and a profit of $4.32 billion for the Chinese economy,” he argues. Thus, we see why China would want to take the Indian example and try to malign the QUAD. It is a huge eco-political game China is making out of the Covid vaccine.

All told, the US had successfully led the world in fighting natural calamities and minimizing their impacts in the past. In 2003, President George W. Bush started the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the largest global health program focused on a single disease in history.

Indo-US collaborations in vaccine productions are good and beneficial not only for the two countries but also for the rest of the world. Prakash Nanda has rightly concluded (Eurasian Times of 6 May) that “hurdles to India in this regard will hurt everybody, given that it is the largest provider of generic medicines globally. India occupies a 20% share in global supply by volume, supplies 62% of global demand for vaccines, ranks 3rd worldwide for production by volume and 14th by value, and happens to be the only country with the largest number of US-FDA compliant pharma plants (more than 262 including APIs) outside the United States”.

Prof. K.N. Pandita
Prof. K.N. Pandita
Prof. K.N. Pandita is the former Director of the Centre for Central Asian Studies, University of Kashmir. Prof. Pandita was awarded Padma Shri by the Government of India for his contribution in the field of literature and education.

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