Vaccine diplomacy: Is India winning the soft power game?

Soon after the COVID-19 vaccines started appearing in the global market, it has emerged as a strong, yet unexpected, diplomatic tool for the handful of manufacturing countries

Shraddha Nand Bhatnagar Feb 09, 2021

Soon after the COVID-19 vaccines started appearing in the global market, it has emerged as a strong, yet unexpected, diplomatic tool for the handful of manufacturing countries. Undoubtedly, so far, India has emerged as a clear winner in this sphere, outsmarting its closest rival China in the game of vaccine diplomacy. Despite having a huge domestic demand, and pressure to inoculate its own huge population, India rolled out vaccines to neighbors and allies just days after it started its own vaccination drive.

Not to be left behind, China, too, has started supplying its vaccines to South Asian countries under grant assistance. Pakistan was the first to get it; later Nepal and Sri Lanka featured in the list.

For big nations, it is also a tool for expanding their clout in the countries that fit into their strategic interests. Conversely, the smaller nations, which have long been the battleground for geopolitical rivalry are looking for ways to benefit from this race.

Earlier, Nepal received one million vaccines of Covishield from India and Sri Lanka 500,000 doses from India under grant assistance. Last week, China announced 300,000 doses of Sinopharm, the COVID-19 vaccine developed by a state-owned company, to Sri Lanka under grant assistance. Similarly, Nepal got 500,000 doses from China.

“Now, the Covid-19 vaccine has become a soft power tool. Each vaccine manufacturing country wants to use it in diplomacy. Many believe India managed to have the upper hand in the region with its vaccine diplomacy,” Rupak Sapkota, a China watcher at the Institute of Foreign Affairs, Nepal, was quoted by The Kathmandu Post.

A report in the paper said Nepal was expected to get the vaccines first from China but the political turmoil in the country gave India an "advantage" - it did not say how - in supplying its vaccines to the country. 

Sri Lanka has also been in touch with several countries for bilateral arrangements to get vaccines. Apart from the direct commercial contracts with manufacturers, Sri Lanka and Nepal are also trying to get subsidized rates at the governmental level.

“Since we are also planning to procure the vaccines, we will also look at prices and try to get a deal at subsidized rates with the vaccine providing countries and manufacturers.” Hridayesh Tripathi, Nepal's Health Minister, was quoted by The Kathmandu Post.

“Nepal must use all its diplomatic tools to acquire enough vaccines to inoculate its population, it should also tread carefully to make its stand, and steer clear of the risk of falling into geopolitical games,” the paper said. 

Interestingly, wealthy Gulf nations, who aren’t yet manufacturing vaccines themselves, are also procuring it for donating it to lower middle-income nations of their interest. UAE, for example, procured Sinopharm Vaccine and donated 50,000 doses to Seychelles, a small Indian Ocean island nation with just 100,000 population, in December last year. Later, Egypt also received 100,000 doses from UAE as donations.

In January, Seychelles received 50,000 doses of Covishield from India under grant assistance.

"I would have thought that rich countries like Bahrain or the UAE can afford to purchase any vaccine and do not have to rely on access to the Chinese ones," Steve Tsang, head of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, was quoted by the Middle East Eye.

He believes gaining the goodwill of the Chinese government was also one of the factors that prompted the UAE and Bahrain to acquire the Chinese vaccines. 

On 31 January, Abu Dhabi had announced its intention of setting up a manufacturing facility for Sinopharm and said it would be a hub of delivery of vaccines around the world.

Undoubtedly, rich western nations are hoarding most of the limited vaccine supplies, in some cases hoarding more than their own domestic requirement, thus promoting what is being termed ‘vaccine nationalism.’

Despite being a lower-middle-income group country with a huge domestic requirement, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced India’s vaccine production and delivery capacity will be used to help all of humanity to fight the pandemic. In sharp contrast, India has stood for "vaccine internationalism."

UN Secretary-General Antonio-Guterres called India’s vaccine capacity the “best asset” in this testing time. Since January, the country has donated more than 5.5 million vaccines to its neighbors, and allies. Over the next few days, New Delhi plans to gift 500,000 doses of coronavirus vaccines to CARICOM countries (Caribbean Community), and another 200,000 lakh doses each to Nicaragua and the Pacific Island states.

Beyond that millions of vaccines to several nations have already been shipped through commercial contracts from the Serum Institute of India (SII), which is developing Covishield. Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said there are three categories of countries that are keen to get the vaccine from India - poor, price-sensitive nations and countries which directly deal with pharmaceutical companies that make the antidote.

India's Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said, "We have so far supplied vaccines to Bhutan, Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, the UAE, Brazil, Morocco, Bahrain, Oman, Egypt, Algeria, Kuwait and South Africa." This is beside India's commercial supply of vaccines to Saudi Arabia, Canada and Mongolia among other nations. 

Furthermore, the World Health Organisation (WHO) Covax facility to provide vaccines to poorer countries is heavily dependent on vaccine supplies from India. India promised 10 million vaccines to WHO’s Covax.

It is important to note here that the vaccine distribution through Covax was delayed by weeks as it faced stiff competition from rich nations that were offering higher prices just for early delivery. 

India, on the other hand, rolled out its vaccines in neighborhood countries while these countries are yet to receive their first consignment from Covax. 

(The writer is a researcher at Society for Policy Studies (SPS). He can be contacted at

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