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India’s vaccine diplomacy failure and its foreign policy implications

One can foresee a long period ahead in which Indian embassies will spend time recovering lost ground about being a reliable supplier of vaccines, and about public health and safety, to name just a few concerns — forget about being a rising power

May 19, 2021 / 11:57 AM IST

The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced India to accept foreign aid — including from the Chinese Red Cross — for the first time in 16 years. For Indians of a certain persuasion, there is a particular shame in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Indian government having to seek foreign aid. This is because seeking aid from outside, or relying on an ‘outsider’, deflates the vishwaguru trope.

It is difficult really to say if vaccine maitri was born out of this sentiment alone for it is possible that within the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) some of the old spirit of non-alignment or Third World solidarity still animates its actions. Nevertheless, the contrast in the space of a few months to go from vaccine akshayapatra to an aid recipient is jarring.

There are wider foreign policy ramifications for India.

China’s recent convening of a virtual conference of South Asian foreign ministers on vaccine co-operation will have longer term implications. Not only was the Indian representation conspicuously absent, New Delhi looks unlikely and unable to convene anything of the sort anytime soon or in time to prevent these countries from reaching out to China to restock their vaccine supplies. A door left ajar will now be firmly pushed open by Beijing.