By Harsh V. Pant
India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s visit to the United States (US) — his official meetings in Washington kick off on May 27— comes at a time when India is grappling with a debilitating second wave of Covid-19. Though the situation on the ground seems to be stabilising gradually, the long-term challenge of vaccinating a huge population still looms large. It’s natural, therefore, that a lot of focus during this visit is on health-related bilateral engagement.
But this is an important visit in its own right, as the first visit at the highest echelons from the Indian side to the US after the election of Joe Biden. It would have happened much earlier, had it not been for Covid-19 first consuming the US and then India. Bilateral ties, however, have continued to deepen with the visits of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and climate envoy John Kerry to India, and the US President himself convening the Quad leaders summit within the first 100 days of the new administration.
Jaishankar’s visit will seek to review the entire gamut issues shaping India-US bilateral relationship, but the realities of the pandemic in India will ensure that issues related to health cooperation will get maximum coverage. After an initial delay, the Biden administration has been very vocal in its support for India in managing the second wave. The US President himself underlined his nation’s resolve in helping India at a critical juncture, reciprocating the help India had provided to the US during its severe first wave. “Just as India sent assistance to the United States as our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic, we are determined to help India in its time of need.”
This has resulted in the US mobilising around $100 million worth of Covid-19 relief assistance, with extensive help from the US corporate sector and the US Congress. This assistance has included oxygen plants, concentrators, critical medicines as well as raw materials for vaccine manufacturer Serum Institute of India (SII).
Given India’s current requirements, the issue of vaccine procurement is likely to hog the limelight as Jaishankar will seek support from various stakeholders, including the US government, for India’s efforts towards procuring and producing these critical vaccines. As India takes these talks forward, it will be hoping to get full support from the Biden administration that has announced it will distribute 80 million vaccines from its stockpile to countries in need. While some of it will come to India, the broader issue for India will be to ensure vaccine production in India.
Domestic political debate in India is heating up and state governments want the Centre to respond fast in ensuring smooth supply of vaccines. India’s ambassador to the US, Taranjit Sandhu, has been engaging leading vaccine manufacturers of the US — Pfizer, Johnson and Johnson and Moderna — to see if local production in India in partnership with Indian entities can be kickstarted.
Jaishankar will be taking this forward during his visit as pharma majors remain reluctant to relinquish their proprietary knowledge and decrease their profit margins. What will be needed is a long-term road map of bilateral cooperation in the health sector as issues emanating from Covid-19 and its aftermath are unlikely to go away anytime soon.
This issue also goes beyond the bilateral. The two nations have to work at the global level. The US has backed India’s proposal for a TRIPS waiver at the World Trade Organisation that New Delhi argues is the only way to ensure enough vaccine production to tackle the challenge of vaccinating the poorest nations of the world. Global supply chains will have to respond to the growing global demand for vaccines and in a global pandemic, the fundamental reality remains that no one is secure until everyone is.
In India’s immediate vicinity, the country’s decision to halt exports of vaccines is also changing health and geopolitical equations. As China steps up its vaccine diplomacy, nations in South Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific will have little choice but to embrace Chinese vaccines despite their questionable track record. India’s partners such as the US will have to pitch in to help nations in managing their responses to Covid-19. Some of this has already begun to happen with Australia, Japan and the US trying to help South Asian nations by providing emergency relief funds and helping with vaccine procurement. But much more will have to be done in the coming months if the pandemic has to be successfully contained.
This was, after all, reflected in the agenda of the Quad leaders summit earlier this year which sought to expand the vaccination capacity of India to produce one billion doses by 2022 with US and Japanese funds and Australian logistics. As Jaishankar engages the US leadership on regional security issues, it will be critical for him to underscore that a robust response to the present crisis by India’s Quad partners will go a long way in shoring up the credibility of the platform.
The debate around vaccines and health today implicates almost all major strands of the India-US partnership – trade and global supply chains, the Indo-Pacific strategic environment as well as the future of multilateralism. In his interactions with officials and diplomats from India to the United Nations, Jaishankar has expressed confidence that the country will continue to shape the “big debates of our times.” He is right but this will need the support of India’s partners. His visit to the US this week can go a long way in shaping the response of one of New Delhi’s key partners.
This commentary originally appeared in The Hindustan Times