Longview: Indian vaccine diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific – A taste of larger geostrategic ambitions

On 19th January 2021, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) issued a press release stating that India, which had just announced the clinically-proven success of its Covaxin and Covishield, would begin exporting them internationally. Of note were four among the first six countries which had authorized the imports of Indian vaccines. These were Bangladesh, Myanmar, Seychelles and the Maldives- all littoral states of the Indo-Pacific or island-nations located within the region. New Delhi’s decision to export the vaccines to the abovementioned countries is indicative of India’s increasingly assertive foreign policy in a post-Covid era. It shows that India aims to build on the impact of her soft power via ‘vaccine diplomacy’ to grow into a more influential geopolitical player in the Indo-Pacific.

Amid the Coronavirus pandemic and ensuing military standoffs – most notably with China in the Galwan Valley in summer 2020 – India has expanded its reputation as a global supplier of critical medical material. As early as April 2020, Indian authorities decided to export hydroxychloroquine tablets to various countries, including the US and Brazil. The same month, India exported approximately 3 million packs of paracetamol to the UK. Throughout 2020, India consolidated its image as a crucial global exporter and manufacturer of medical equipment, exporting facemasks and signing agreements with other nations to ship Remdesivir. In this regard, India’s bulk pharmaceutical exports are estimated to have grown by 11% in 2020-21 alone – a reflection of this new status.

With the Coronavirus pandemic having broadly damaged China’s international reputation, India seeks to fill in what it sees as a potential political-economic vacuum left behind by a weakened China in the aftermath of the pandemic

However, while India’s global vaccine diplomacy says much about its ambition of becoming an increasingly visible and active player in global politics, this objective is best exemplified by her use of vaccine diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific. With Indian External Affairs Minister (EAM) S Jaishankar making official visits at the time of writing to key strategic partners in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), it is increasingly evident that India aims to capitalise on the bilateral goodwill engendered by its exports to expand her geopolitical reach in the region. Indeed, India’s vaccine exports act as a means to push back against Chinese strategic influence in the Indo-Pacific region. With the Coronavirus pandemic having broadly damaged China’s international reputation, India seeks to fill in what it sees as a potential political-economic vacuum left behind by a weakened China in the aftermath of the pandemic. Union Minister Nitin Gadkari’s comments in April 2020 highlighted this sentiment within the Indian government when he encouraged Indian firms to enter joint ventures with their western counterparts exiting China.

With vaccine diplomacy, New Delhi is positioning herself to regional allies as a comparatively reliable partner whose humanitarian aids in vaccines come without strings attached – unlike China

With vaccine diplomacy, New Delhi is positioning herself to regional allies as a comparatively reliable partner whose humanitarian aids in vaccines come without strings attached – unlike China. As EAM Jaishankar noted in a concealed criticism of China during a virtual conference with representatives from African countries in September 2020, Indian development projects aim to “empower” recipient countries rather than “extract” from them. Given the Indo-Pacific’s role today as a theatre for Sino-Indian geostrategic rivalry, it becomes increasingly clear that India’s soft power conceals a desire to contain Chinese influence. This is further proven by India’s shipment of 500,000 vaccines to Sri Lanka in late February 2021 . With its proximity to India and importance as a link in China’s BRI, Sri Lanka is a focal point of Sino-Indian rivalry. Hence, India needed to make overtures to the Colombo administration, facilitated by its vaccine diplomacy and a visit by EAM Jaishankar the month prior.

The reason behind India’s use of vaccine diplomacy to counter China’s aggressive expansionism becomes clear when viewing 2020 as a whole concerning the relations between the two countries. From India’s enactment of financial restrictions in April 2020 against Chinese investments in India’s banking and commercial sectors to Chinese-provoked skirmishes in the Galwan Valley in the summer, 2020 was a decisive year for bilateral ties between the two countries, setting the stage for further geopolitical rivalry.

Ultimately, India’s vaccine diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific is closely interlinked with her concerns about a resurgent China and the consequences for Indian national security

Ultimately, India’s vaccine diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific is closely interlinked with her concerns about a resurgent China and the consequences for Indian national security. Vaccine diplomacy allows India’s soft power and humanitarian aid to shore up relationships in the region, cementing herself as a serious and assertive player in the Indo-Pacific theatre and present herself to the international community as a major, independent regional power. Yet, unlike China, India hasn’t attached any economic or political conditions to her aid infringing on recipients’ sovereignty, consequently establishing a more trustworthy partner and solidifying her place in regional geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific of the 2020s.


The Editor: Archishman Ray Goswami

Archishman Ray Goswami is a 2nd year undergraduate student from India, studying International Relations at King’s College London. He specialises in Indian foreign policy and grand strategy, particularly in the Indo-Pacific and the Af-Pak region. He is especially interested in the intersections between terrorist groups, intelligence agencies and organized crime in the region.

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