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NEW DELHI: China has sent a consignment of 50,000 doses of Sinopharm vaccines to Bhutan to help the country tide over shortages at a time when India has repurposed its covivaccine strategy to meet domestic requirements.

The 50,000 Sinopharm doses come as US and countries like Denmark, Croatia and others have flown in 500,000 doses of Moderna and about 350,000 shots of AstraZeneca vaccines this week, to help Bhutan inoculate its population of more than 7500,000 from the covid-19 pandemic. India had sent 550,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccines in March.

The Chinese move is viewed by some quarters in New Delhi as another attempt by Beijing to co-opt Bhutan which is seen as having very special and close ties with India. Beijing has been trying to open its own embassy in Bhutan for the past several years. Bhutan has diplomatic representation from India, Kuwait and Bangladesh only.

China despatching vaccines to woo Bhutan comes at a time when Beijing has managed to get the support of many South Asian nations for its China-South Asian Countries Poverty Alleviation and Cooperative Development Center. It was inaugurated on 8 July in Chongqing with China’s assistant foreign minister Wu Jianghao and the ambassadors of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in attendance. India, Maldives and Bhutan did not participate in the ceremonies. “The Centre aims to pool strength, integrate resources, and exchange wisdom to support and help the South Asian countries' economic development and livelihood improvement, jointly promoting the cause of poverty reduction," a statement from the Chinese foreign ministry said last week.

Beijing also set up the China-South Asia Emergency Supply Reserve at Chengdu International Railway Port at Chengdu on 9 July. The reserve is a joint stockpile of emergency supplies as part of efforts to tackle the covid-19 pandemic and other crises, according to a report in the South China Morning Post. The centre is part of efforts to foster longer-term cooperation under China’s multi-billion dollar Belt and Road Initiative, according to the news report.

The establishment of the two follows a meeting among the foreign ministers of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh hosted by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in April.

The South Asian nations for its China-South Asian Countries Poverty Alleviation and Cooperative Development Center is being seen as an alternative to the eight-member South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) which has been inactive since 2014 when leaders of the India-led grouping met in Kathmandu for their summit. The 2016 summit was to be hosted by Pakistan but it had to be called off after India, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan cited terrorism emanating from Pakistan as a major threat to the region and announced their boycott.

Officially India has not reacted to the two centres set up by China and its immediate neighbours joining the China-led initiative.

But a line of thinking in New Delhi is that the China-led centres could be seen as substitutes to India’s SAARC initiative. With no let-up in India-Pakistan friction over terrorism, SAARC seems to have lost its momentum. In recent years, New Delhi has been making attempts to revitalize the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). It comprises seven countries in South and Southeast Asia all situated around the Bay of Bengal.

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