NEW DELHI — India, the unmatched vaccine manufacturing power, is giving away millions of doses to neighbors friendly and estranged. It is trying to counter China, which has made doling out shots a central plank of its foreign relations. And the United Arab Emirates, drawing on its oil riches, is buying jabs on behalf of its allies.
The coronavirus vaccine — one of the world’s most in-demand commodities — has become a new currency for international diplomacy.
Countries with the means or the know-how are using the shots to find favor or thaw frosty relations. India sent them to Nepal, a country that has fallen increasingly under China’s influence. Sri Lanka, in the midst of a diplomatic tug of war between New Delhi and Beijing, is getting doses from both.
The strategy carries risks. India and China, both of which are making vaccines for the rest of the world, have vast populations of their own that they need to inoculate. Though there are few signs of grumbling in either country, that could change as the public watches doses get sold or donated abroad.
“Indians are dying. Indians are still getting the disease,” said Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi think tank. “I could understand if our needs had been fulfilled and then you had given away the stuff. But I think there is a false moral superiority that you are trying to put across where you say we are giving away our stuff even before we use it ourselves.”
The donating countries are making their offerings at a time when the United States and other rich nations are scooping up the world’s supplies. Poorer countries are frantically trying to get their own, a disparity that the World Health Organization recently warned has put the world “on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure.”
With their health systems tested like never before, many countries are eager to take what they are offered — and the donors could reap some political good will in reward.
“Instead of securing a country by sending troops, you can secure the country by saving lives, by saving their economy, by helping with their vaccination,” said Dania Thafer, the executive director of the Gulf International Forum, a Washington-based think tank.
China was one of the first countries to make a diplomatic vaccine push, promising to help developing countries last year even before the nation had mass produced a vaccine that was proved to be effective. Just this week, it said it would donate 300,000 vaccine doses to Egypt.
But some of China’s vaccine-diplomacy efforts have stumbled from supplies arriving late, a lack of disclosure about the efficacy of its vaccines and other issues. Chinese government officials have cited unexpectedly strong needs at home amid isolated outbreaks, a move that could blunt any domestic backlash.
Even as Chinese-made vaccines spread, India saw a chance to bolster its own image.
The Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest…
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