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India-made Covid vaccines open a new chapter in New Delhi’s continuing medical diplomacy

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Ever since the pandemic began, India’s goodwill has significantly improved among its neighbours in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, as New Delhi continues to expand its soft power with timely delivery of needy drugs, as seen in last year, and vaccines, this year.

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Continuing its long-standing legacy as first responder to crises in the region, India reached out to most of its neighbours even before the World Health Organisation and the Covax initiative of GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization).

While China too promised supplies to South Asian nations, only India delivered it so far. Perhaps, the only exception to this would be Islamabad, which has neither requested nor discussed the delivery of India-made Covid vaccines.

India’s vaccines

The beginning of 2021 saw India’s drugs regulator granting emergency use approval for two domestically-made vaccines.

One is Covishield, manufactured by the Pune-based Serum Institute of India, the largest vaccine producer in the world, and the other is Covaxin, manufactured by Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech. The former is made in partnership with AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, and the latter entirely indigenous.

Government of India has procured hundreds of millions of vaccine doses at reduced prices offered by these two domestic companies. More domestic manufacturers are awaiting approval for their respective in the coming months. Currently, at this stage, India also has four vaccines in active clinical trials and fifteen vaccines in the pre-clinical stages, as well.

Adding a new dimension to ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy

For about seven years now, one of the key tenets of the Modi government’s foreign policy has been ‘Neighbourhood First’, as a means to improve cooperation with partner countries in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. The pandemic opened up new prospects to this highly-held policy.

Even though India has its own big challenges such as the task lying ahead to inoculate a billion-plus population in phases, as it began the world’s largest inoculation drive for Covid-19 on January 16, with the first phase targeting 30 million frontline and healthcare workers.

Notwithstanding the domestic challenges, three days after the beginning of inoculation drive, Indian government announced its decision to dispatch vaccines to countries in its neighbourhood such as Bhutan, Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, and Seychelles, which began the very next day after the announcement, mostly as gifts and grant assistance, free of cost, and some on a commercial basis.

Just four days after India began its inoculation drive, the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan became the first country in South Asia to receive India-made Covishield vaccines, followed by the Indian Ocean island state of Maldives on the same day.

As gift and grant assistance, India supplied “150,000 doses of vaccines to Bhutan, 100,000 doses to Maldives, one million doses to Nepal, two million doses to Bangladesh, 1.5 million doses to Myanmar,  100,000 to Mauritius, and 50,000 doses to Seychelles”, the country’s foreign ministry said.

Sri Lanka and Afghanistan will also receive India-made vaccines soon after getting regulatory clearances. These moves come amid Chinese attempts to extend its influence in India’s backyard, as seen in the recent years.

When the world plunged into coronavirus-induced lockdowns in March 2020, India quietly began its medical diplomacy bidding for a collective response to this new health emergency by convening a virtual meet of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and by leading the effort to institute a new relief fund to tackle the pandemic.

Previously, the regular meetings of the organisation remained stalled due to India’s bilateral tensions with Pakistan. But, New Delhi used the pandemic as a good opportunity to revive the regional grouping which was followed by governmental level meetings in the later months.

India has also provided training to several neighbouring countries to enhance and strengthen their clinical trials of vaccines, through various assistance programmes.

‘Pharmacy of the world’

Being the global hub of vaccine production, New Delhi’s diplomacy is very much focused on reaching out to all needy countries, and it is not limited to the immediate neighbourhood. Throughout the pandemic period, the world also saw India projecting its soft power beyond its traditional spheres of influence to a truly global scale.

An effective conduct of medical diplomacy by providing medicinal tablets last year and this year through the supply of domestically-made Covid vaccines, India reaffirmed its position as the ‘pharmacy of the world’, being the world leader in the production of generic drugs and vaccines, and making three-fifth of the world’s total vaccines.

Even while battling the challenge of inoculating a very large population, Indian Prime Minister has recently stated that India’s vaccine production and delivery capacity will be used for the benefit of ‘all humanity’ to fight the pandemic.

Contractual supply of India-made vaccines to Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Brazil, and Morocco are also currently underway.

Indian government has made clear that continue to supply vaccines to friendly and partner countries even while the second phase of inoculation drive goes on at home. India also comes with an experience of running a successful immunization programme for more than four decades now.

Being a leader in drugs manufacturing, India was approached by many countries including the United States, last year, for the supply of medicinal tablets like hydroxychloroquine, which was exported to more than a hundred countries around the world from Asia to Africa toLatin America.

India also exported other tablets such as remdesivir and paracetamol, as well as diagnostic kits, ventilators, masks, gloves and other medical supplies to a large number of countries around the world.

When it comes to immunization against Covid through vaccines, India’s potential lies well beyond just its domestic population due to its invaluable experience in the pharmaceutical front.

Statistics say one in every six humans on earth reside in India. If this Asian powerhouse succeeds in its fight against the coronavirus pandemic, it simply means, a sizeable proportion of humanity is saved, so do the countries it assisted, contributing to the global response and continuing efforts of the scientific community in bringing the pandemic to an end.

Bejoy Sebastian is an independent journalist based in India who regularly writes, tweets, and blogs on issues relating to international affairs and geopolitics, particularly of the Asia-Pacific region. He also has an added interest in documentary photography. Previously, his bylines have appeared in The Diplomat, The Kochi Post, and Delhi Post.

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Diplomacy

Cutting Distances with a Cricket Stump

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Sports are the common threads that bind people and countries together. The interlocking rings of the Olympics rings symbolize the coming together of all nations. The former US President Nixon successfully used “ping-pong diplomacy” to open the US-China relationship leading the US to lift embargo against China on June 10, 1971. Cricket has been used in a similar manner to bring together the people of different countries, especially South Asians. Sport in South Asia is a significant part of culture. For South Asians, it is not only a sport but part of their collective identity. Some legends of Cricket in South Asia like Imran Khan, Sachin Tendulkar, Waseem Akram, Sunil Gavaskar, Kumar Sangakkara, Shahid Afridi, Shakaib Al Hasan, Shoaib Akhtar and Virat Kohli are the household names. Though, Pakistan is known as the manufacturer of the official FIFA World Cup ball, football is not popular in Pakistan. Pakistan has remained world champions in Squash, Hockey, Cricket, Snookers, Kabaddi and many other individual events of athletics, yet cricket is the most sought-after sport in Pakistan despite bottlenecks like terrorism and COVID-19.

While the overall sports spectrum went down, Pakistani cricket maintained its presence in cricketing world. Since last few years, Pakistani cricket team has been able to revive and reinvent itself internationally. I remember one of the slogans during Independence Cup 2017 in Lahore that said “It is not Pakistan vs. World, it is Pakistan vs. Terrorism”. In Pakistan, cricket is also a measure of national strength. Pakistan’s cricket teams take part in domestic competitions such as the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, the Patron’s Trophy, ABN-AMRO Twenty-20 Cup, and the ABN-AMRO Champions Trophy. In 2015, Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) organized a franchise based T20 cricket league known as the Pakistan Super League (PSL). The two seasons of PSL, 2020 and 2021 are held entirely by PCB. Additionally, Mr. Imran Khan, incumbent Prime Minister of Pakistan has conceived the new basic structure of the game in country.

Pakistan-World Champion

Pakistan has won international cricket events, which include the 1992 Cricket World Cup, the 2009 ICC World Twenty20 and the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy besides finishing as runner-up in the 1999 Cricket World Cup and the 2007 ICC World Twenty20. Women’s cricket is also very popular, with KiranBaluch holding the current record of the highest score in a women’s test match with her innings of 242. Mr. Imran Khan has the honour of leading Pakistan national cricket team which won the 1992 Cricket World Cup. In 2010, he was also inducted into International Cricket Council’s Hall of Fame.

Hitting Balls not Borders

In South Asia, cricket and politics are interwoven. Wars have been fought and conflicts have been de-escalated alongside the bat hitting ball. The history of India-Pakistan relations did not inspire confidence in rebuilding relations through non-political means. However, the cricket matches between them are loaded with deeper political and diplomatic meaning.

From 1947 to 1965 only three test series were played between India and Pakistan. The 1965 and 1971 wars led to complete stoppage of cricket exchanges between two countries and there was a very little window to use cricket as a tool to maintain goodwill. After a gap of 17 years, cricket was resumed between them in 1978. The first instance of cricket diplomacy was in 1987 when General Zia-Ul-Haq visited India to attend a test match in Jaipur, and the resulting diplomatic dialogue cooled relations. In 2004, Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, went to Pakistan to attend the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit. He also allowed Indian cricket team to visit Pakistan to play and advised the cricketers to not only win the matches, but also the hearts of Pakistani public. Over the next three years, the two countries played each other three times. Cricket diplomacy again emerged when then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart, Yousuf Raza Gilani, met each other for the World Cup 2011 semifinal between India and Pakistan. Peace talks started again and Pakistan toured India in December 2012 for a T20 and three One Day Internationals (ODIs). The efficacy of cricket diplomacy in Indo-Pak relations can also be gauged from the fact that it brought both states to the negotiating table to manage the issue of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K).

All for One and One for All

Any major international sporting event like a World Cup gives one a sense of belonging to a larger global community. Sportsmen have always been successful goodwill ambassadors for any country and have admirers across borders. Fans’ love for cricket break all barriers that is why the peacekeepers see cricket as a tool to bind people together. Despite tensions, Pakistani fans recently celebrated India’s historic win over Australia. Nelson Mandela also believed that “Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”In short, a link between international cricket’s revival and national resilience need to be established. Restarting international cricket in South Asia would enhance the opportunity to establish aspired will of peace and prosperity.

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Can diplomats be proactive online without becoming “wolf-warrior”?

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Photo: camilo jimenez/Unsplash

With the increasingly important digital world, traditional, offline tools and approaches are becoming less and less sufficient and effective in shaping the public conversation, influencing the global or national public opinion, and obtaining trust.

As a part of reform that veers towards revolution in a domain well known for its adherence to norms, today’s diplomacy is also experiencing functional changes in terms of what strategic communications means in the digital environment. As we are witnessing lately, the emerging diplomatic virtual presence has become a significant part of public diplomacy and policy.

Today, the undeniable power of social media lies in its fundamental role of linking the public and political sphere as part of a worldwide conversation. It is notable that the general reason behind its effectiveness and the steep rise of adoption lie in the power of this environment of building strong brands and credibility. This certainly is today’s Zeitgeist and involves the systematic cultivation of the attempt to influence the public opinion with every single action and to boost social legitimacy, in a more and more interconnected world that seeks to turn individual gestures and actions into symbols.

However, does this fully explain why social media is becoming an emerging playground for sarcasm and open battlefield for a digital war of accusations and threats? 

One of founders of today’s Twiplomacy phenomenon is the former US president, Donald Trump, who proved to be, for better or worse, one of the most vigorous and captivating presences on social media among world leaders.  What is striking in this is the gradual increase in the adoption of the new diplomatic style, known as the Wolf-warrior approach, which gained prominence in the context of the COVID-19 crisis and Chinese presence in the social media. This approach, which originated from a Chinese patriotic movie, in which the main mission of the warrior is fighting back foreigners, is characterized by a more aggressive and assertive style of conducting foreign policy.

It is argued by some that this approach is not being adopted in order to display authoritarian tendencies and to project but rather it is more often adopted by Chinese diplomats as a defense response to the repeated attacks and accusations. It seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Drastic times call for drastic measures?

Either way, the US-China digital war leads to questioning the adequate behavioral approaches to addressing the continuous global power competition and diplomatic tensions. Assertive and offensive or proactive? What makes a wolf-warrior and where do we draw the line?

When credibility and national identity are under threat, assertive approaches seem to come in handy when defending one’s stance and strengthening confidence. We know it very well from the Chinese ancient wisdom: project strength when you are weak. This general principle applies to political stances and authority in advancing agendas, as well as preserving independence in hegemonic environments. However, when increased assertiveness is taken down the wrong road, the world ends up being divided into conflicting blocs. While proactiveness is certainly the adequate modus operandi to overcome such blockages and prevent escalating disputes from bouncing back, the line is certainly crossed when it reaches bullying and propaganda levels.

What is the smart and well-balanced dose of actions when interests and sovereignty come first? Assertiveness or smart power? 

Proactiveness and high reliance on social media can also be channeled into advancing one’s objectives and consolidating strategic gains through smart use of power or through soft power. One of the best examples of this strategy is India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who’s presence on Twitter proves that, most of the time, the tone defines the effectiveness of the message and that balance is to be preferred to unhinged assertiveness. In the end, the art of persuasion is not limited to the right choice of words and actions here and now but also includes the challenging task of building trust in the long run. 

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China-India Vaccine Diplomacy – Will Pakistan Learn From Neighbors?

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Modern infectious diseases and viruses have stimulated anew war and conflict along with poverty, counterurbanization (deurbanization), and climate change that need freshassessment in international relation arena. International cooperation for objective of infectiousdisease control goes back to atleast the 14th century, and to the later date of 1851, when Europe held its first International Sanitary Conference for multilateral cooperation to prevent the spread of cholera and yellow fever. Beginning in 2000, vaccine became cohesive as key tools in helping developing countries to achieve MDGs. In 2007, foreign ministers from seven countries issued the landmark “Oslo Ministerial Declaration” that formally linked health to foreign policy. Yet,in the past, there have been very few moments, as CoVID19, that assimilated such a huge number and variety of the world’s state actors at diplomatic front. The coronavirus vaccine – one of the world’s most in-demand commodities – has become a new currency for “Vaccine Diplomacy”. Vaccine diplomacy is not only the use of vaccine to increase diplomatic relationship and influence other countries but also, from a strategic perspective, vaccine access opens the door to expand long-term health security provisions.

China, one of the first countries to make a diplomatic vaccine push, promised to help developed and developing countries.Since the start of the pandemic, China used medical supplies to pursue foreign policy gains, sent masks and protective equipment to hard-hit territories,at present distributing vaccine.The vaccine diplomacy is a expansion of China’s endeavors to frame itself as the solution to the pandemic. Since the early days of the CoVID19 outbreak, China’s President Xi Jinping has focused on publicizing Chinese efforts  to supply medical aid worldwide. China’s planeloads of CoVID19 donations including hospital gowns, nasal swabs, and surgical masks etc. – were regardedoptimistically, especially in developing countries. In addition, Chinese government sent experts to support medical personnel across the continent.Correspondingly, the Serum Institute of India, one of the world’s largest vaccine producers,produced Covishield, developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca. India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar said it plans to supply CoVID19 vaccine to 49 countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. So far, the country has been distributed 22.9 million doses under its “Vaccine Maitri” (Vaccine Friendship)initiative. Mr. Jaishankar also announced a gift of 2 lakh vaccine doses for about 90,000 U.N. peacekeepers serving in numerous hotspots around the world.

The vaccine race has become a new domain for China-India strategic competition. China’s whole state apparatus is behind the drive and Beijing sprang into action “Health Silk Road” through the cooperation channels of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Moritz Rudolf (German Institute for International and Security Affairs) says, “Health was one of the many subtopics of the BRI. With the pandemic, it has become the main focus”. On the other hand, C. Raja Mohan, (Director, Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore) said, “There is no way India can match China on a lot of issues, but in this particular case, because of India’s pharmaceutical infrastructure, India is in a good position”.In reality, both countries arecontemplating vaccine diplomacy as a matter of national pride and soft-power projection.

In Pakistan, the power of vaccine diplomacy has been underexplored despite the successful facts that included promoting peace between the Cold War powers of the 1950s and 1960s.The historical and modern-day track records of vaccine diplomacy are impressive. But, it has not yet led to an overarching framework for its expanded role in foreign policy of Pakistan. At the moment, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination, and National Command and Operation Center should establish vaccine diplomacy framework and play an imperative role in promoting international health agreements between Pakistan and governments throughout the world. Vaccine diplomacy will not only enhance Pakistan’s reputation in international arena but also blunt the propaganda of anti-Pakistan forces within boarder and abroad. Consequently, vaccine diplomacy activities should integrated into the foreign policy of Pakistan.

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