Amid global powers’ vaccine diplomacy, analysts say Nepal should make the most of it and tread carefullyAfter India gifted 1 million doses, China is offering half a million shots, and there are other countries too joining the fray.
The past few weeks have been busy for Minister of Health and Population Hrydesh Tripathi.
Over the last few days, Tripathi has held a series of meetings with ambassadors of various countries—India, the United States and the United Kingdom. On Thursday, Tripathi held talks with Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi.
The purpose: ensuring early availability of Covid-19 vaccines.
On Friday evening, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a press statement, saying that China will provide half a million doses of Covid-19 vaccine to Nepal under grant assistance.
According to the ministry, State Councillor and Minister for Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic China, Wang Yi, during a telephonic conversation with Foreign Minister Gyawali announced that China will provide 500,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccine to Nepal on a grant basis. “China will accord priority to Nepal in vaccine cooperation,” read the statement.
The Chinese pledge comes days after Nepal rolled out its vaccination drive with the one million doses provided by India under grant assistance.
On February 4, British Ambassador Nicola Politt announced via Twitter that the British government would provide 550 million pounds to the World Health Organisation’s COVAX facility, under which Nepal would receive over 2 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine.
For more than a year the world has been grappling with the coronavirus, which has killed over 2.31 million across the globe as of Sunday.
Countries like China, where the first case of the coronavirus was detected, the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, Russia and India were in a race to find a cure for the disease that upended the world like never before.
Now with the vaccine found, it has become a political commodity, and many countries are using it as a tool of diplomacy.
Senior government officials say there have been pledges from powerful nations for vaccine cooperation, and China’s announcement is part of those. For a country like Nepal, early availability of vaccines is always a welcome move, according to them.
Prof Sridhar Khatri, executive director at South Asia Centre for Policy Studies, says naturally Covid-19 vaccine has become a global diplomacy tool.
“The vaccines can provide a good opportunity for big countries to expand their clout,” Khatri told the Post.
After year-long tensions between Nepal and India, rapprochement started to begin in late 2020 after a flurry of visits from New Delhi.
During his visit to Nepal, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla announced that Nepal was on India’s high priority when it came to providing cooperation to fight the pandemic.
Analysts say Delhi pulled off a coup by swiftly supplying vaccines to all its neighbours—Bangladesh, Bhutan and the Maldives, Myanmar, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.
The Serum Institute of India is locally producing the vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca.
As home to the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, India is trying to use its manufacturing heft to earn goodwill of its neighbours.
“India played it well, beating China in supplying the vaccines [to Nepal],” said Khatri. “India can rightfully boast about its neighbourhood first policy [again].”
Despite China’s growing interests in Nepal over the recent years, Beijing faced a major setback after Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s House dissolution move on December 20 last year. Oli’s decision resulted in a split in the Nepal Communist Party, in which the Chinese are said to have invested a lot.
The Chinese continued to make efforts to keep the party united, but in vain.
According to analysts, China was caught unawares when political turmoil unfolded in Nepal, while India swiftly played its vaccine diplomacy to its advantage.
Rupak Sapkota, a China watcher and deputy executive director at the Institute of Foreign Affairs, a semi-government think tank under the aegis of the Foreign Ministry, told the Post that due to the sudden political changes in Kathmandu, negotiations for securing Covid-19 vaccines from China faced some disturbances.
“As far as I understand, negotiations with China had reached an advanced level on securing Covid-19 vaccines, but as power equations changed in Kathmandu, the government looked to India,” said Sapkoa.
By the time what had happened in Kathmandu sank in among the Chinese, Delhi had already dispatched the vaccines to Nepal.
After initially announcing 300,000 doses of vaccine, China on Friday announced 500,000 doses.
But it was not clear which vaccine it is going to provide.
So far, Nepal’s drug regulator has granted emergency use approval only to the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which is produced in India as Covishield.
“The United States and the United Kingdom too are keen to support Nepal in its fight against the pandemic by supplying vaccines bilaterally or multilaterally,” said Sapkota. “Now, Covid-19 vaccine has become a soft power tool. Each vaccine manufacturing country wants to use it in diplomacy. Many believe India managed to have the upper hand in the region with its vaccine diplomacy.”
Despite what looked like promising cooperation prospects from China, things have not moved ahead in Nepal. The northern border remains closed for over 16 months now on the pretext of the pandemic, much to the chagrin of Nepali importers, who are said to have faced losses to the tune of millions.
China’s vaccine offer is aimed at maintaining ties, but unless there is something in action, promises may not work, observers say.
A year after the pandemic, China managed to bounce back—it effectively contained the virus, its economy was recovering and criticism of its crisis management was fading. To its credit, Beijing worked on a war-footing to develop vaccines, as it was not only in a bid to contain the virus and treat its population at the earliest, it was also eying a geopolitical win as well as showcasing its scientific prowess.
From Asia to Africa, Beijing was promoting its vaccines “to win” friends, the New York Times reported in September last year. The same paper, however, wrote last month that delays, inconsistent data, spotty disclosures and the country’s attacks on Western rivals marred its ambitious effort to portray itself as a leader in global health.
Observers say the way cooperation talks had moved ahead between Nepal and China in recent years, there were expectations that it would not take long for vaccines to arrive in Nepal from the north.
Nepal is planning to roll out its second phase of vaccination drive, most probably next month, after it receives a little over 2.2 million doses of vaccine under the COVAX facility at the end of this month.
“We have set up certain criteria. We will accept only those vaccines which are approved by the World Health Organisation. There must be emergency use authorisation by our drug regulator,” Tripathi, the health minister, told the Post in an interview on Saturday.
“Since we are also planning to procure the vaccines, we will also look at prices and try to get a deal at subsidised rates with the vaccine providing countries and manufacturers.”
According to Tripathi, the government has rejected offers made by some countries to provide Covid-19 vaccines because they are yet to complete the third phase trials.
“Our priority is procuring vaccines at subsidised rates rather than seeking them under grant assistance,” Tripathi told the Post.
Russia was the first country to offer Covid-19 vaccines, and reports in September last year suggested that it would supply 25 million doses of its potential vaccine to Nepal. Officials in the government, however, had said they were unaware of any such development. It was first reported by Reuters that Russia’s sovereign wealth had agreed to supply 25 million doses of its potential Covid-19 vaccine to Nepal via Trinity Pharmaceuticals.
There, however, were concerns about the Russian vaccine, given reports that it had skipped several stages required for vaccine development. The New York Times reported earlier this week that Russia’s vaccine is safe and effective.
Government officials say Russians have informed them that they are ready to provide 10.5 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine. But it was unclear if the manufacturer has applied at Nepal’s drug regulator for emergency use approval.
According to officials, there is also a possibility of getting additional two million doses of vaccine from India.
Covishied, manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, has been the preferred choice of Nepali authorities because the government can use its existing storage and transport facilities for vaccinating people. Covishield can be stored in temperatures between 2 to 8 degrees Celsius.
Analysts say while Nepal must use all its diplomatic tools to acquire enough vaccines to inoculate its population, it should also tread carefully to make its stand, and steer clear of the risk of falling into geopolitical games.
Bishnu Raj Uprety, executive director at Policy Research Institute, also a semi-government think tank that conducts research on emerging issues and trends on international relations, foreign policy, diplomacy and strategic affairs, agrees that Covid-19 vaccine has emerged as a major diplomacy tool for many countries in the wake of the pandemic.
“The way vaccine diplomacy is being used widely lately shows this jargon is going to dominate foreign policy matters for at least two to three years to come,” Uprety told the Post. “Various vaccine manufacturing countries like the UK, the US, India, China and Russia have been trying to use the vaccine to expand their clout.”
According to Uprety, when global powers compete to provide a commodity that is essential but scarce, poor nations like Nepal can benefit, but it depends on the recipient country to strike a fine balance between accepting the assistance and maintaining its own standing.
“Such competition among global powers is but natural and this may impact us also,” said Uprety. “We are planning to assess how we could be impacted by ongoing vaccine diplomacy of power nations, and accordingly we will make our recommendations, if need be.”