China is reaching out with COVID vaccines to Bhutan, with which it has no formal diplomatic ties, as Beijing takes advantage of the jab crunch to increase its influence in India’s immediate neighbourhood.
China and a few other countries, including the US, have pledged vaccines to the tiny Himalayan country, which was in a spot to complete its full vaccination schedule due to the shortage of jabs for the second dose due in mid-July.
Bhutan is receiving 50,000 doses of Sinopharm from China, 500,000 doses of Moderna from the US, 250,000 doses of AstraZeneca from Denmark, another over 100,000 doses of AstraZeneca from Croatia, Bulgaria and a few other countries and 5,850 doses of Pfizer from international COVAX alliance facility, according to a UNICEF press release.
As the fresh supply of vaccines started arriving, Bhutan has now geared up to roll out the much-anticipated second dose of vaccine from July 20, according to the Kuensel, Bhutan’s ‘national newspaper’.
China’s vaccine diplomacy with Bhutan also assumed significance as the two countries in April this year had an “in-depth and fruitful discussions” on the boundary issue. It was seen as a major breakthrough as only last year Bhutan had issued a demarche to China for declaring the kingdom’s Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary along the border as a disputed territory.
The sanctuary is not very far from Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. The pandemic seems to be now helping Bhutan and China to come close.
Another Indian neighbour Bangladesh resumed its stalled inoculation drive from July 8 after receiving vaccines from China and the US.
After a successful launch of a pilot vaccination programme on January 27 this year, Bangladesh started a nationwide drive on February 7 administering Covishield vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India.
The Bangladesh government had to suspend its nationwide mass vaccination programme on April 25, after India stopped exporting the vaccines as its domestic demand skyrocketed following a deadly second surge.
Prior to the second COVID wave in India, New Delhi in January this year had launched its Vaccine Maitri initiative to donate millions of doses of free vaccines to neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.
Under the initiative, India had provided 5,50,000 doses of Covishield to Bhutan for its first round of vaccinations and another 30, 20,000 doses to Bangladesh apart from other neighbours to reaffirm its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy.
Bangladesh had also signed a deal with India in December last year to procure 3 crore doses of Covishield in installments from the Serum Institute. It could procure only 70 lakh doses before India imposed the export ban, halting Bangladesh’s vaccination drive.
As the ban compelled India’s neighbours to look for alternative sources, China grabbed the opportunity to exert its soft power by stepping in to fill the gap.
Beijing has pledged vaccines to Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar among other South Asian countries, according to reports from these countries.
UNICEF press release said for the second dose, “His Majesty (King of Bhutan)” had advised the government that “sourcing vaccines from India once more would be inconsiderate” given the shortage of vaccines and a surge of cases in the country at the time.
Besides Bhutan, China will be sending 60 lakh doses of vaccines to Myanmar while it has already “gifted” 11 lakh doses of Sinopharm vaccine to Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh media on Tuesday (July 13) quoted the country’s foreign minister AK Abdul Momen as saying that he would be meeting his Chinese counterpart in Tashkent on July 15 as China would donate one million more doses of Sinopharm vaccine to Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, quoting a senior official of Myanmar’s information ministry, a news agency on Wednesday (July 14) reported that the country’s military government had “bought” four million doses from China while it would get another two million jabs from Beijing.
Growing dependency of Indian neighbours on China for vaccines has not gone unnoticed at the South Block as the sources said India has urged the USA to help out the South Asian countries to mitigate the crisis to counter the Chinese influence.
It was part of this counter China strategy that the US stepped up its vaccination outreach in India’s backyards including Bhutan, with which it has no formal diplomatic relations.