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

By Mirza Abdul Aleem Baig

Modern infectious diseases and viruses have stimulated anew war and conflict along with poverty, counterurbanization (deurbanization), and climate change that need fresh assessment in international relation arena.

International cooperation for objective of infectious disease control goes back to at least 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 regarded optimistically, 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 are contemplating 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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