India’s catastrophic Covid-19 wave has not only battered 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 countering Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
President Joe Biden sees a reinvigorated “Quad”, a diplomatic and security initiative consisting of the US, India, Japan and Australia, as an integral part of his strategy to resist Chinese economic and military aggression.
But India’s coronavirus crisis and subsequent vaccine export ban have overshadowed the quartet’s first attempt to prove it can provide practical help to the region and 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 New Delhi’s Centre for Social and Economic Progress, a think-tank.
Avinash Paliwal at 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 commitments.
“India’s image has been running ahead of itself,” he added. “But the world is coming to realise the limits of India as a rising power. Even Indians misread their own capabilities.”
Washington had spearheaded a Quad vaccine initiative that was meant to entail India producing jabs for south-east Asia with financial and logistical support from Washington, Canberra and Tokyo.
New Delhi hailed the plan, unveiled at a summit in March, as affirmation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s claim 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 pharmaceutical products,” said Harsh Vardhan Shringla, India’s foreign secretary.
Three months later, India’s international standing as a reliable vaccine supplier — and a regional foil to China — is in tatters, a casualty of the Modi government’s failure to secure enough vaccines for its own people.
Confronted with surging Covid-19 cases and a growing clamour for jabs, New Delhi imposed a de facto ban on commercial vaccine exports by the privately owned Serum Institute of India.
Its smaller neighbours Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka — where New Delhi is vying with China for influence — were left without supplies. The World Health Organization-backed Covax scheme, set up to ensure vaccines reached developing countries, was also hit hard.
“The hype outran the reality,” said Ashley Tellis at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The presumption here was that India was this massive pharmaceutical machine that could churn out these vaccines in a heartbeat.”
Xavier said the suspension of vaccine supplies to neighbours that had already paid for the doses was “obviously affecting India’s reputation and reliability”, creating a void that Beijing was moving swiftly to fill.
“China is just coming out much stronger in the perspective of these countries,” he said. “If you are unable to keep your own house in order, you won’t have much legitimacy to tell others how to run their affairs.”
Washington insists that “necessary steps” are being taken to ensure the Quad can meet its target of providing 1bn vaccine doses to Asia by the end of 2022.
“Our discussions with both our partners in the private sector and also in government suggest we are, knock on wood, still on track for 2022,” Kurt Campbell, the White House’s top Asia official, said last week.
Despite setbacks, Campbell said Washington still viewed the Quad as “deeply consequential for the 21st century”, with an in-person summit, and a new infrastructure initiative, likely this year.
In the near term, India’s Covid woes will weigh on the alliance’s ability to tackle other issues of common concern, such as technology supply chains and cyber policy.
“Right now, there won’t be a great deal of focus on what the Quad will do on tech or security because India will be distracted,” said Lisa Curtis at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security. “It is just a hiccup that we have to attribute to the unpredictable nature of the coronavirus.”
Evan Medeiros at Georgetown University said that “among the Quad partners, India is always going to be the biggest challenge” because of its “limited capabilities” and traditional orientation towards “non-alignment”.
But the deaths 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.
“This is a country that has shown the will to shed blood to challenge China,” Paliwal said. “Despite all its problems and dysfunction, that is a very powerful signal.”
India’s allies will undergo “an adjustment of expectations” of New Delhi’s capacities, Paliwal said, but shared interests would ensure continued co-operation.
“The idea of the Quad, the practice of the Quad is not going anywhere,” he said. “Every ally will continue hoping for India to deliver.”
But doubts linger about India’s potential as a regional powerhouse. “’Can India deliver on its promise?” asked Tellis. “That is a question everyone is grappling with.”