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[Asia’s Next Page] India and Japan Must Strengthen Partnership on Health Cooperation

In the face of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the health sector has become even more crucial as India and Japan gear up for more bilateral cooperation and in third-countries.

Jagannath Panda

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Indian students hold placards during an awareness rally for COVID-19 in March, 2020. (AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.)

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Covid-19 has claimed over 3 million deaths worldwide. As the pandemic continues, this tally grows. 

It has highlighted a grim reflection of national health frameworks around the world, while also enunciating failure of global health cooperation. 

Health diplomacy, in the post-pandemic order, has the potential to boost international cooperation in tackling public health catastrophes, improving health systems worldwide and ensuring equitable development. It can also act as a catalyst in driving future public health initiatives. 

The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in March 2020 had emphasized on certain key priorities that nations could adopt post-COVID, such as encouraging developing countries to invest more in the public health infrastructure sector for the betterment of all. 

In this context, what are the scenarios of capacity building in the health sector for Special Strategic and Global Partners India and Japan, and what can be potential areas of investment in a post pandemic world? 

The Value of Japan-India Cooperation

India is currently going through a tricky ordeal in managing its health resources, and Japan’s emergency assistance in the form of 300 oxygen concentrators and 300 ventilators provided much needed aid. 

Japan has always been a massive official development assistance (ODA) provider to India ー across sectors. September 2020 saw the two countries sign an ODA Loan of 50 billion JPY (about $460 million USD) from Japan in the form of a COVID-19 Crisis Emergency Support Loan.

In January 2021, again, Japan provided more relief in the form of another ODA Loan Agreement of 30 billion JPY (nearly $276 million USD) for COVID-19 Crisis Response. These are not just reflective of growing India-Japan bilateral health cooperation, but they also contribute to the strengthening of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically goals 1,3, 5, 8 and 17, among others. 

Japan has emerged as a vital partner in India’s fight against COVID-19 based on both bilateral healthcare collaboration and as part of multilateral avenues, like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) comprising Australia, India, Japan and the US. 

The Quad Leadership Summit (QLS), which all four nations actively participated in, created sub-groups like the Quad Vaccine Experts Group (QVEG) and built a Quad Vaccine Partnership (QVP). Such avenues look to utilize strengths of each of the four Quad powers to achieve global vaccination and containment of the pandemic. As part of the QVP, Tokyo is to provide more ODA to Delhi in order to expand India’s manufacturing power for exports. 

As part of the QVP,  Japan is set to amplify vaccination programs to smaller economies through vaccination acquisitions and cold-chain support via a grant aid of $41 million USD. Additionally, as part of the QLS, such assistance is expected to improve third-country cooperation at a multilateral level. 

Concurrently, the India-Japan-Australia trilateral has launched the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) to improve the sustainability of the existing supply chains in the Indo-Pacific. Australia too has been ‘stepping up’ in the Pacific Island states and the Southeast Asian region, thereby promoting global health diplomacy. Such cooperation is indeed crucial for the maintenance of supply chains, and the SCRI, by ensuring their flow is uninterrupted, resilient, and transparent, is helping to reduce some of the excessive dependency on China. 

High Potential for Both Partners

India’s vaccine manufacturing, with Japan’s technology and financial assistance, can produce larger doses of vaccines for both countries. The two countries share a memorandum of cooperation, signed in 2018, in the field of healthcare and wellness, which focuses on healthcare infrastructure, promoting research and innovation and developing human resources. Reorienting this focus to build a true public health partnership that serves as an example to the region should be a target for the two partners.

Concurrently, India and Japan signed a memorandum of understanding focused on enhancing cooperation in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in January 2021. This should also be built upon to enhance mutually beneficial healthcare cooperation and connectivity via digital health technology and digital healthcare infrastructure. 

For instance, as India looks to implement biometric identification at vaccine distribution sites, Japan is beginning trials of digital health pass plans. Both countries can identify exchanging best practices on public health data norms and setting-up of new information systems as a key area of coordination, drawing upon each other’s experiences. 

India Must Take Initiative

Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Yoshihide Suga in their telephonic summit on April 26 2021 identified “health care and connectivity” as a key area of focus. The healthcare industry in India is ripe for Japanese investments —especially in digital health technologies. 

The Indian government must encourage and attract more Japanese investments to build a better digital healthcare infrastructure that can cope with the demands of the time. A step in this direction is the signing of four pacts between India and Japan in March 2021 under the Grant Assistance for Grassroots Projects (GGP). This is a scheme that has been running since 1989, which supports small-scale ventures by NGO’s via Japanese diplomatic missions. 

India, for its part, can support Japan’s efforts to build a digital health governance system, an area in which India has had considerable success amid the pandemic via national applications like Aarogya Setu.

The health sector has become even more crucial as India and Japan gear up in a drive to work toward cooperation in third-countries as special and global partners, particularly given the unrelenting pandemic. 

The recent signing of the India-Japan Memorandum of Cooperation on Specified Skilled Workers in January 2021 is expected to provide a solid foundation for expert-level collaboration and exchanges on pandemic related practices, such as nursing care. Another field of concern is the diagnostic sector. India requires optimum support now in terms of sustaining its medical and diagnostic industries, while at the same time Japan is mobilizing international diagnostic businesses to provide technical training to India. 

India, on the other hand, can help by sharing its experiences dealing with human-centric diseases. At a time when China is pushing its agenda hard in the form of the Health Silk Road (HSR), a stronger India-Japan public health partnership can also push its own initiatives, like the Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (EPQI) in the Indo Pacific. 

These initiatives would respond to the need for alternatives and quality health care, especially for the developing world, vis-à-vis healthcare infrastructure. 

In brief, India and Japan have considerable room to grow with respect to expanding their special and strategic partnership, if they seriously focus on public health cooperation such as health infrastructure and connectivity. There are learning experiences to share and skill development that can be capitalized on by both countries vis-à-vis COVID-19 cooperation, strengthening the India-Japan partnership further. 

RELATED: Reducing Poverty, Protecting the Planet: Japan, India Partner to Push for Sustainable Development

Author: Dr. Jagannath Panda

Dr. Panda is a Research Fellow and Centre Coordinator for East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Dr. Panda is also the Series Editor for “Routledge Studies on Think Asia”.  The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization with which he is affiliated. Find him on Twitter @jppjagannath1

Dr. Jagannath Panda is a Research Fellow and Centre Coordinator for East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is the Series Editor for “Routledge Studies on Think Asia”. Dr. Panda’s most recent publications include India and China in Asia: Between Equilibrium and Equations (Routledge, 2019) and Scaling India-Japan Cooperation in Indo-Pacific and Beyond 2025: Corridors, Connectivity and Contours (KW Publisher, 2020). He is also the author of India-China Relations: Politics of Resources, Identity and Authority in a Multipolar World (Routledge, 2017) and China’s Path to Power: Party, Military and the Politics of State Transition (Pentagon Security International, 2010). The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization with which he is affiliated. He can be reached on Twitter @jppjagannath1.