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Wily South Asians brave Covid-19 onslaught, evade China’s vaccine trap

Wily South Asians brave Covid-19 onslaught, evade China’s vaccine trap

China has launched an aggressive vaccine offensive, targeting key developing countries of high strategic value, to re-ignite its controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Those on its hit list in South Asia include Bangladesh and Nepal, both with longstanding special relationship with India. Others who have been promised with Covid-19 vaccine in return for advancing Beijing’s footprint include Myanmar and Indonesia—both pivotal states, which are bound to play a defining role in the lengthy contest for geopolitical ascendancy in the Indo-Pacific.

But China’s heavy reliance on wrenching transactional windfalls by exploiting the vulnerabilities of its less powerful and affluent neighbors is unlikely to satisfy Beijing’s expectations. On the contrary, there are ample indicators, which demonstrate that the pragmatic and hard headed leaders of aspirational developing countries in the Indo-Pacific region, such as Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Joko Widodo, President of Indonesia are deftly side-stepping Beijing’s health dependency trap. Even the current leadership in Nepal, otherwise known as pro-Beijing, is avoiding putting all its eggs in the Chinese basket.

China’s vaccine offensive has systematically followed its so called “mask diplomacy”. Having created enormous excess capacity, apparently to serve its Covid- hit population, Beijing later flooded developing countries with masks churned out by its gigantic factories, once the pandemic was under control at home. By cynically deploying its medical soft power, Beijing softened the ground for a more potent vaccine offensive in countries reeling under the merciless onslaught of the virus.

It is not difficult to gauge that lurking behind its so-called humanitarian concerns, crass geopolitical calculations driven by China’s Middle Kingdom, mercantilism mentality is at play. This becomes transparent in China’s state councillor and foreign minister Wang Yi July video conference on combating Covid-19 with his counterparts from Pakistan, Nepal and Afghanistan.

These three countries on the fulcrum of South and Central Asia are prime candidates for expanding the tentacles of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—a giant connectivity enticement that is expected to anchor China’s rise as an unrivalled global power by 2049. Incidentally, 2049 marks the centenary of the formation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), led by the Communist Party of China (CPC).

During the video conference, Wang promised the ministers that China was inclined to priorities the availability of Covid-19 vaccines to all the three countries, once they were available. But this was only one part of an unequal bargain. Wang was emphatic that in return, China expected the trio to “resolutely” advance BRI projects including the extension of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan. Resource-endowed Afghanistan, rich in lithium, the feedstock of the electric car revolution, which China wants to lead, is a pivotal nation on the gates of Central and South Asia.

In instructions to Nepal, whose economy has been structurally integrated with India, Wang stressed that Kathmandu should energise the formation of a Beijing-centred trans-Himalayan corridor, a strategic move to draw Kathmandu as a satellite in the expanding Chinese orbit.

“The four countries should firmly advance Belt and Road cooperation, work for the early resumption of key cooperation projects, keep the industrial and supply chains stable, and create new growth areas in the digital domain,” Wang said. He added: “The four countries should utilise their geographical advantages to strengthen interactions and connectivity with Central Asian countries, and to safeguard regional peace and stability.”

In Bangladesh, a rising economy with umbilical ties with India—a country that is also strategically located bridging South and Southeast Asia—the Chinese have bulldozed their way, armed with a concrete Covid-19 vaccine plan. Last month, Bangladesh cleared the way for privately owned Chinese company Sinovac Biotech to conduct a stage three clinical trial of its CoronaVac vaccine.

Dhaka-based clinical research institute ICDDRB will conduct the trial. In case the trials are successful, it is likely to pave the way for the local production of the vaccine.

But Dhaka is cautious about the dangers of falling into a dependency relationship with China, which Beijing can leverage later to its unilateral strategic advantage. "Bangladesh should ensure that [any] vaccine is not offered as a part of a quid pro quo—especially as a tool to exercise political influence in future," says Ali Riaz, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, as quoted by the <em>Nikkei Asian Review</em>.

Unsurprisingly, Bangladeshi company Beximco Pharmaceuticals last month tied up a deal for bulk vaccine supply with Serum Institute of India. Dhaka is also reaching out to Moscow for locally manufacturing the Russian Sputnik V vaccine.

Even Nepal is demonstrating its discomfort with prospects of an excessive reliance on China for a Covid-19 vaccine. "The Nepal Health Research Center (NHRC) has started preparations for clinical trials for vaccines against Covid-19 following a green signal from the health ministry. We are preparing for phase III clinical trials of three vaccines developed in the United Kingdom, China, and Russia," Pradip Gyawali, member secretary at the NHRC, was quoted as saying by the Nepalese daily, <em>Republica</em>.

China’s vaccine assault has vigorously targeted Myanmar and Indonesia, insisting that the two countries should rev up the stalled engine of BRI in their countries. Fearing a debt trap, Myanmar has launched only nine of the 38 BRI related projects that were flagged by Chinese President Xi Jinping during his January visit to Naypyitaw. These projects are part of the China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC).

New obstacles have also been cropping in the Beijing-Naypyitaw relationship. In August last year, during a meeting with China’s Special Envoy on Asian Affairs Sun Guoxiang, the Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar Defence Forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing confronted the Beijing official with photographs of Chinese-made weapons, which had been recovered during the Myanmar army’s clashes with the Northern Alliance (NA), a four-member coalition, which includes the Arakan Army.

But hoping to reverse the negative tide, China’s trouble shooter Yang Jiechi, a part of the powerful 25-member Politburo of the CPC, dangled the transactional carrot of arming Myanmar with a Covid-19 shield if his hosts re-ignited CMEC projects, soon after he landed in Naypyitaw on September 1.

China is also encountering major problems in its relationship with Indonesia, a country which hosts the critically important Malacca straits, Beijing's trade lifeline. Both countries have rival maritime boundary claims in the South China Sea, and tensions between the two have surged in recent months.

China hopes that its vaccine largesse can put the brakes on a vital relationship going downhill. On August 31, Chinese President Xi Jinping reached out to his Indonesian counterpart Joko Widodo. A Chinese statement pointed to the possibility of empowering Indonesia with a Covid-19 vaccine. But in return, China wanted Jakarta to fully participate in the BRI. Specifically, Xi wanted to revive the stalled Bandung-Jakarta high speed railway project, under the BRI scheme. The lucrative enterprise which has been languishing has been previously awarded to a Chinese company.

But like Bangladesh and Nepal, Indonesia is not interested in giving China monopoly rights for bulk manufacturing the vaccine. Jakarta is currently engaged in the developing its own Merah Putih vaccine, engaging its Research and Technology Ministry and the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology. The second vaccine is being developed jointly by the state-owned PT Bio Farma and Sinovac Biotech of China. The United Arab Emirates' Group 42 (G42) Healthcare is developing the third vaccine, earmarked for Indonesia.

Despite their calculated bid to weaponize the Covid-19 vaccine, the Chinese are also encountering spirited resistance from the Indo-Pacific Quad-plus countries. This coalition was formed in the heat of the pandemic. Apart from the core members—India, Australia, Japan and the United States, it also includes New Zealand, Vietnam and Israel as participants. Apart from India, whose three-track Covid-19 vaccine development is swiftly advancing, Australia’s pharmaceutical company CSL Ltd said on Monday it had agreed to manufacture a Covid-19 vaccine being developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University if trials prove successful, with doses for Australia expected by early 2021, <em>Reuters</em> reported.

The company also said it had agreed with the Australian government to manufacture an alternative potential vaccine it is developing with the University of Queensland (UQ), with first doses of that vaccine expected by mid-2021. The jockeying for geopolitical one-upmanship over a Covid-19 vaccine is now heating up, but China is not the only one in town..