NEW DELHI - A "minilateral" decision to manufacture a billion doses of a Covid-19 vaccine in India for South-east Asia and others by 2022 is a shot in the arm for the South Asian nation's soft power diplomacy.
The vaccine initiative by the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad grouping of India, the US, Australia and Japan was announced at the first summit-level leaders' meeting on Friday (March 12).
Each country in this "unique initiative" will leverage its capabilities to ensure South-east Asia, the Pacific Island states and countries in the Indian Ocean get vaccine supplies, said Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla.
Indian vaccine maker Biological E will set up additional manufacturing capacity to produce vaccines, including Johnson & Johnson's Covid-19 vaccine.
The US and Japan will provide financing through the US International Development Finance Corporation and Japan International Cooperation Agency.
Australia will contribute US$77 million (S$103.5 million) to the effort as well as "last-mile" logistics support with a focus on South-east Asia, according to a factsheet on the vaccine initiative.
Australia would also finance cold chain facilities and impart training, said Mr Shringla.
The Quad is an informal security grouping that was conceived in 2007 after the Indian Ocean tsunami, but did not go far due to member concerns about it being an overtly anti-China grouping.
The US has moved to revive the grouping in recent years, with the Quad gaining traction as member nations found common ground regarding China's growing assertiveness.
This vaccine initiative is seen as a counter to China's vaccine diplomacy, which has seen it sending millions of doses of the Sinovac vaccine to countries in the Indo-Pacific.
"This has possibly been the first concrete agenda within the Quad. The first summit meeting of the Quad makes it very clear that even countries like India, which has been the weakest link in Quadrilateral, is looking at it in a strategic way," said Dr Rajeshwari Pillai Rajagopalan, a distinguished fellow at New Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation.
India and China last year were embroiled in the worst border troubles in over four decades. The stand-off on the border is now being resolved with a slow drawback of troops and weaponry but the trust deficit between the two countries is seen to be at its highest.
"India and China border disengagement is still happening. It is difficult to rebuild any amount of trust in the relationship. Therefore, we seem to be much more determined and firmer on a commitment to the Quad, but also to engage in a very concrete and actionable agenda in the coming years," said Dr Rajagopalan.
India has plainly avoided any direct mention of China in relation to the Quad, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying the grouping is "for peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific."
Experts said that there was no doubt the vaccine initiative would boost India's soft power and would draw comparisons with China.
India has been exporting or donating to 71 countries, including those in Africa, and Iran, according to government data. China reportedly has donated or will donate vaccines to 69 developing countries and is exporting to 43 countries.
"The vaccine diplomacy enhances India's credibility as a 'friend'... who responds when there is a need in the Indian Ocean region," said retired naval Commodore Chitrapu Uday Bhaskar, director of the Society for Policy Studies, an independent think-tank.