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International relations

China and India vie for clout in Bangladesh with COVID vaccines

Russia also seeks a foothold as powers jockey for geopolitical influence

India, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, pictured at top left, and China under President Xi Jinping, lower right, are seeking to cement closer ties with Bangladesh through delivery of coronavirus vaccines. (Nikkei montage/Source photos by Reuters and AFP/Jiji)

DHAKA -- China and India are competing to deliver coronavirus vaccines to Bangladesh in a diplomatic offensive carefully choreographed to expand their influence in the densely populated South Asian nation.

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 icddr,b will conduct the trial and said Wednesday that a conditional deal is in place for the vaccine to be produced locally.

"If the CoronaVac vaccine is successful, it has been agreed with Sinovac that a local competent vaccine manufacturer in Bangladesh will be selected and enabled through a license from Sinovac to manufacture the vaccine in Bangladesh," icddr,b told the Nikkei Asian Review in a written response to questions.

The Bangladeshi government, however, is making sure not to put all its eggs in one basket. On Aug. 28 it welcomed a tie-up that ensures local company Beximco Pharmaceuticals gets prioritized vaccine supplies from the Serum Institute of India.

"Sheikh Hasina seems to be hedging," Ali Riaz, distinguished professor of political science at Illinois State University in the U.S., told Nikkei in an email, referring to Bangladesh's prime minister. "Both [India and China] are pushing to get further ground."

The battle between the two regional powers highlights the pandemic-induced geopolitical opportunity beyond traditional trade and investment offered by Bangladesh, strategically located with more than 160 million people.

While China and India are its biggest economic partners, the smaller country suffers from a chronic imbalance in trade with them.

For most of the past decade, Dhaka's relations with New Delhi have deepened, reinforced by the historic support the giant neighbor extended during the 1971 war with Pakistan that led to Bangladesh's independence. But that bond has recently become strained over bilateral spats that have angered Bangladesh as well as its growing economic relationship with China.

The larger issue involves India's passage last year of its Citizenship Amendment Act to fast-track naturalization of non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. That was preceded by a program to register nationals in India's northern Assam state, fueling fears of an exodus of Muslims into Bangladesh.

China took advantage of the situation, with its state-backed companies landing big-ticket infrastructure contracts in Bangladesh, outbidding Indian companies. Most recently, a Chinese developer secured an airport terminal contract in the northeastern city of Sylhet bordering India, which caused consternation among policymakers in New Delhi.

The Aug. 18 visit of Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, who met Hasina, was being seen as an attempt to mend ties and lay the ground for the deal between Beximco and the Serum Institute of India.

Serum has already struck deals with British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca -- which has partnered with the University of Oxford in COVID-19 vaccine development -- to produce more than one billion doses. Beximco, which has a secondary listing on the Alternative Investment Market of the London Stock Exchange, was co-founded by Hasina adviser Salman F. Rahman.

The deadly coronavirus has claimed more than 4,300 lives in Bangladesh, with confirmed infections reaching around 320,000.

Analysts say that Bangladesh should have options, but insist that national interests should be protected while getting access to vaccines.

"We're smaller than China and India," A. Mushtaque Chowdhury, a professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York, told Nikkei. "Still, we [have] to play the game, utilize diplomacy," Chowdhury said.

"We [have] to be careful [that] we don't lose the game," he added, urging Bangladesh's Foreign Ministry to be proactive. As well as negotiating vaccine prices, the country should lobby for capacity building and technology transfers so that vaccines can be made locally, he also said.

The partnership with Sinovac Biotech, meanwhile, is expected to start "with the supply of bulk vaccine and transfer of the relevant technology and know-how to meet the needs of the larger population of Bangladesh," icddr,b told Nikkei.

Regarding how much CoronaVac will cost, icddr,b said; "To our knowledge Sinovac has not yet quoted a price for the vaccine."

Faiz Sobhan, senior research director at the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Dhaka, said that Bangladesh's close ties with India and China give it leverage to get either nation to supply a large quantity of vaccines at a low price.

"[It] will go with the country who can supply a large quantity of the vaccine at a low price and in the shortest time possible," Sobhan told Nikkei.

Sobhan poured water on the notion that China's aggressive vaccine diplomacy will weigh on Dhaka's bilateral ties with India, as New Delhi "too has reached out to support Bangladesh in its quest for the vaccine."

But some are wary of potential traps.

"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," said Riaz, also a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.

Meanwhile, Russia has also shown interest in providing its Sputnik V vaccine with Bangladeshi government support for local manufacturing, provided companies are capable of producing it, Health Minister Zahid Maleque recently told reporters.

Columbia University's Chowdhury remains concerned about the quality of potential vaccines, underlining the importance of developing home grown expertise to examine whether they are effective and safe.

"The way corruption has gripped our society it is difficult to keep science unscathed," he warned.

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