The catastrophic wave of Covid-19 in India has not only undermined its ambitions to become the ‘pharmacy of the world’, but it has also undermined a US plan for New Delhi to play a leading role in the fight against it. Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
President Joe Biden sees a Invigorated “Quad”, a diplomatic and security initiative composed of the United States, India, Japan and Australia, forming an integral part of its strategy of resistance to Chinese economic and military aggression.
But the coronavirus crisis in India and beyond ban on the export of vaccines overshadowed the quartet’s first attempt to prove that it can provide practical aid to the region and that it is not just an anti-China military alliance. Instead, India’s failure has created an opportunity that China is exploiting.
“The pandemic is a reality check – there is no way around it – and it has laid bare the structural deficiencies of the Indian state in the crudest way we have ever seen,” said Constantino Xavier at the New Delhi Center for Social and Economic Progress, a think tank.
Avinash Paliwal of the Soas South Asia Institute at the University of London said the crisis had exposed “the differential between the idea of India as a rising power” and its ability to deliver on its commitments.
“The image of India has taken a lead on itself,” he added. “But the world is starting to realize the limits of India as a rising power. Even the Indians misinterpreted their own abilities.
Washington had been the spearhead of a Quad vaccine initiative this was to lead India to produce jabs for Southeast Asia with financial and logistical support from Washington, Canberra and Tokyo.
New Delhi hailed the plan, unveiled at a summit in March, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assertion that India was “ready to protect humanity” with locally made jabs.
“It is a validation of our reputation as a reliable manufacturer of high quality vaccines and pharmaceuticals,” said Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Indian Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Three months later, India’s international position as a reliable vaccine supplier – and a regional foil for China – is in tatters, a victim of the Modi government inability to get enough vaccines for its own people.
Faced with the surge in Covid-19 cases and a growing clamor of jabs, New Delhi has imposed a de facto ban on commercial vaccine exports by the Serum Institute of India, a private company.
Its smaller neighbors, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka – where New Delhi competes for influence with China – found themselves without supplies. The World Health Organization-backed Covax program, set up to ensure vaccines reach developing countries, has also been hit hard.
“The hype goes beyond reality,” Ashley Tellis told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The presumption here was that India was this huge pharmaceutical machine that could produce these vaccines in the blink of an eye.”
Xavier said the suspension of vaccine supplies to neighbors who had already paid for the doses “clearly affected India’s reputation and reliability”, creating a vacuum that Beijing was moving quickly to fill.
“China has just come out much stronger from the point of view of these countries,” he said. “If you can’t keep your own house in order, you won’t have a lot of legitimacy to tell others how to run their affairs. “
Washington insists the “necessary steps” are being taken to ensure the Quad can meet its goal of delivering 1 billion doses of vaccine to Asia by the end of 2022.
“Our discussions with our private sector and government partners suggest that we are, knock on the wall, still on track for 2022,” Kurt Campbell, senior White House official for Asia, said last week. .
Despite the setbacks, Campbell said Washington still sees the Quad as “deeply important to the 21st century,” with an in-person summit and a new infrastructure initiative, likely this year.
In the short term, Covid issues in India will weigh on the alliance’s ability to tackle other issues of mutual concern, such as technology supply chains and cyber policy.
“Right now, we won’t be focusing much on what the Quad will do in terms of technology or security, because India will be distracted,” said Lisa Curtis of the Washington-based Center for New American Security. “It’s just a setback that we have to attribute to the unpredictable nature of the coronavirus. “
Evan Medeiros of Georgetown University said that “among the Quad partners, India will always be the biggest challenge” due to its “limited capacity” and its traditional orientation towards “non-alignment”.
But the death of 21 Indian soldiers in a clash with Chinese troops along their shared border cemented New Delhi’s commitment to the Quad as a source of support.
“It is a country that has shown the will to shed blood to challenge China,” Paliwal said. “Despite all of its problems and dysfunctions, it is a very powerful signal.”
India’s allies will experience “an expectation adjustment” in New Delhi’s capabilities, Paliwal said, but shared interests would ensure continued cooperation.
“The idea of Quad, the practice of Quad is going nowhere,” he said. “Every ally will continue to hope that India delivers.”
But doubts remain about India’s potential as a regional power. “Can India keep its promise? Tellis asked. “This is a question that everyone is grappling with.”