China and India are competing as goodwill suppliers of Covid-19 vaccines in Asia and across the world in a bid to secure international ascendancy. The strategic rivalry is most pronounced in nations where both China and India are actively vying for influence.
With India’s credibility dented by its failure to contain the virus, and China’s reputation tarnished by the widely held belief that the virus originated there amid a cover-up, both countries are keen to deflect blame and shore up their standing in the world.
China will be relying on two domestically developed vaccines while India is manufacturing and distributing the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and hopes to be producing 1 billion doses a year by the end of 2021. China produces the Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines that have been approved by the WHO for emergency use and it takes part to the GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization) that plans to make 110 million doses and distribute through the Covax scheme 2 billion doses.
Both vaccines are based on killed viral particles and, since they have a more traditional technology, they can be stored more easily and can be distributed in less developed countries where highly refrigerated facilities may be missing (temperatures at -20 or -70 degrees).
China insists its vaccine rollout overseas is not politically motivated and is exporting vaccines to 27 countries while providing immunization aid to 53 nations in need. Its target could be to reach some 80 countries through various assistance schemes.
Geopolitical analysts say both countries are engaged in carefully orchestrated media campaigns to support their diplomatic efforts in distributing vaccines to neighbours.
However, Beijing’s vaccine rollout abroad has hit a few hurdles. There have been delays in vaccine delivery to Turkey and Brazil, and continued secrecy around trial results has fuelled scepticism. But in AfricaChina has a much wider diplomatic network than India and is distributing vaccines more rapidly.
India for its part, is projecting itself as a different model to China, a democracy that is prepared to help its neighbours and help other developing countries to deal with this pandemic.
French President Emmanuel Macron lately warned that if more vaccines from Western countries do not arrive for another six to 12 months, some African nations may face “justified pressure from their people” to buy doses from China or Russia.
Sinologist and Chief Analyst on Chinese Affairs at Nato Defense College Foundation. Foreign affairs writer for international magazines and publications.