India-US Ties | Before Sending Aid, India Got to Hear Joe Biden’s Rendition Of America First
US President Joe Biden
India is seen as the pharmaceutical capital of the world. A few months back, in February, India was leveraging its scientific know-how in pharmaceutical manufacturing and distributing vaccines to close to 100 countries, many of them in the Global South. This initiative was dubbed ‘Vaccine Maitri’ (vaccine friendship), and was fulfilling its COVAX obligations, commercial sales and vaccine grants. For a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government often accused of being nationalist, this was very globalist.
India in May tells a different story. On May 1, there was a clarion call for help as its vaccine altruism soon manifested into other countries rushing in aid and essential supplies (oxygen cylinders and medications) as COVID-19 cases spiked and along with it the number of fatalities.
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India’s geopolitical adversaries in China and Pakistan were quick to promise essential supplies along with the rest of the global community, but one countries silence was deafening — the United States hadn’t pledged its support.
In the summer of 2020, India sent a large consignment of hydroxychloroquine drug to the US. The anti-malarial drug, in a pre-vaccine era, was being hailed as an essential against COVID-19. India is the largest producer of this drug and agreed to lift its ban on the export of the drug to the US, at the behest of former US President Donald Trump.
But when Pune-based Serum Institute of India’s CEO Adar Poonawala appealed to US President Joe Biden to lift the US embargo on exporting raw materials to help ramp up the production of COVID-19 vaccines, there was radio silence for some time.
This didn’t make sense! Incredulity was mixed with bewilderment and angst by the Indian diaspora. Washington had cajoled and ingratiated to New Delhi for close to three decades. A key partner on the war on terrorism, an important player in the Quad and its Indo-Pacific strategy, an economic partner in trade, and, most importantly, its brethren in arms for shared democratic ideals.
Surely, with Vice President Kamala Harris, whose own extended family lives in India, the administration would be amenable to aid, which is a very Washingtonian policy from days of yore.
However, Biden and his predecessor Trump invoked the war-time Defence Production Act (DPA), which essentially allows US companies with limited option to prioritise vaccine production and other essentials such as personal protective equipment (PPEs) for domestic production and fighting the virus at home.
This made no sense; the US voted out the last guy who kept bellowing ‘America First’. The Biden administration was a return to status quo establishment politics. A liberal administration was seen as the antidote to putrid politics. Biden was seen as the affable septuagenarian, a compassionate individual, who is an internationalist, and will increase global engagement, eschewing Trump’s isolationism. Surely, a humanitarian concern with one of US’ closest strategic partners is a concern for Washington.
Instead, the liberal administration stated that it was ‘Americans First’ in the vaccine priority and that ‘it is not only in the US interest to see Americans vaccinated, but it is in the interests of the rest of the world to see Americans vaccinated.’ Call it political séance, but that was Donald Trump speaking, wasn’t it?
The US might have the most COVID-19 infections in the world, but in terms of vaccine rollout, the US has managed to vaccinate nearly half its population with at least one dose, while India hovering at close to 10 percent, given the sheer volume and logistic hassles.
Furthermore, the US approved vaccines include Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson, while millions of doses of the UK-based AstraZeneca vaccine remains in cold storage, and that’s one of the two vaccines approved and in use in India.
The US-India strategic partnership has long resided on its synergy on defence, foreign policy, economic interests, and a strong diaspora link further strengthened by shared democratic values.
It was the collective outrage of the Indian diaspora that cajoled the US administration to come forth and assist with aid on oxygen supplies, raw materials for COVID-19 vaccines, critical life-saving drugs, etc.
The end result is a win-win for India-US strategic partnership, but the means to get to this affirmation are troubling. The liberal administration was supposed to be anti-Trumpian.
However, geopolitics 101 reminds us that nation’s act in self-interest. There is no economic altruism if it goes against national self-interest, no matter how dire the consequences.
Akshobh Giridharadas is a Washington DC-based former journalist. Views are personal.
Originally published at https://www.moneycontrol.com.