Covid-19 has provided the clear subtext to External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s interactions with his US counterpart Anthony J. Blinken for the moment and it tops the agenda for their meeting in the US. It is the first visit by a high-level Indian minister since Democratic President Joe Biden entered office in January this year along with his Indian-origin Vice-President Kamala Harris.
While recent developments in the sphere of international power games and regional politics mean that the US and India find their interests are more aligned than ever, it is the pandemic and India’s urgent need for vaccines that commentators widely agree is the most immediate issue on which New Delhi needs the US to pitch in. PM Narendra Modi and Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump were seen to have got along well and Jaishankar’s visit would serve to set the tone for ties under the new President.
Among the stated objectives of the visit, according to a note on the MEA website, are discussions with senior Biden Cabinet members and officials relating to bilateral ties and “interactions with business forums on economic & Covid-related cooperation between India and the US".
Why Vaccines Are A Pain Point
A little more than a month back Serum Institute CEO Adar Poonawalla urged the US President to release crucial vaccine raw materials that his country was withholding due to emergency regulations during Covid-19. The maker of the Covishield, or Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine that is the primary jab in India’s vaccination drive later clarified that he had sought assistance with the ingredients for the Novavax shot that his firm was making.
The appeal by Poonawalla was not the only one. The Biden administration was also urged by leaders and commentators in the US and India to ship out millions of doses of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, which is not cleared for use in US but that the country has nonetheless stockpiled, to India as its vaccine drive foundered amid an acute supply crunch.
At a time when the US looked to have turned a corner in its fight against Covid, India found itself slipping into a mire of rising cases and crippling shortages of everything from oxygen cylinders to medical ventilators. Though initially seen as being tardy in its response to calls for help, the US sent out help in the form of vaccine raw materials and other items essential to boost India’s response to the resurgent virus.
Vaccines made by US-based Pfizer and Moderna have been the most-spoken-about candidates for entry into India after the country said in mid-April that decks are clear for vaccines approved by selected countries and jurisdictions to be rolled out in India. But legal, regulatory and supply hurdles have seen no headway made since then in procuring either of these two vaccines.
In the meantime, with India having vaccinated less than 3% of its population, a call went around for the US, where the proportion of people who have received two doses is 39%, to share its stocks of the Oxford-AstraZenenca vaccine with India. Washington DC has said it will let India have upto 20 million doses from the stock of vaccines it is going to share with countries that need it, but no timelines for their arrival is clear as yet.
Which means Jaishankar has his task cut out when he meets with US government and pharma bosses to talk about help with tackling Covid-19. The total US Covid aid to India so far stands reportedly at $100 million, but it is the US vaccine pipeline that Jaishankar would seek to nudge into action.
But not just imports, India is also pursuing scope of making more vaccines in India and the US International Development Finance Corp. has already said it would help fund the Hyderabad-based Biological E to make at least one billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines by the end of 2022, including the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The US has also backed the proposal mooted by India and South Africa for the waiver of intellectual property right regulations on manufacturing Covid-19 vaccines.
However, it would help India’s cause to land vaccine doses in the shorter term, and that is where New Delhi would hope that Jaishankar’s visit makes a difference.
Quad, China, the Neighbourhood And the World Stage
Blinken had met Jaishankar on the sidelines of the G7 conference in London earlier this month. At that meeting, held a day before Jaishankar and the rest of the Indian delegation was forced to quarantine and drop out of proceedings after two cases of Covid-19 were reported among its members, the US Secretary of State had also noted India’s role in “the climate crisis and as a leading partner in the Indo-Pacific".
China has been a permanent fixture in US’ engagement with the region and experts agree that like Trump, President Biden too sees India as a key counterweight against the dragon’s international ambitions. The LAC standoff in Ladakh and the recent cozying up of the four members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue are sticking points in Sino-Indian ties and both would figure in Jaishankar’s talks with India.
Other issues of importance for India would be the Afghan peace process, especially in the light of a complete drawdown of US and allied forces from the country. Australia this week announced that it would close its embassy in Afghanistan due to the “increasingly uncertain security environment" in Kabul as foreign troops withdraw. The implications of the changed scenario in the troubled country are of great significance to New Delhi.
At their London meeting, Blinken and Jaishankar had also “discussed ways to deepen cooperation in multilateral fora, including at the UN Security Council". The US has backed India’s claim for a permanent seat on the crucial UN body but China remains the stumbling block in this area. India is currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the 2021-22 term.