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China & India's Covid Crisis

It’s been a difficult few weeks with the COVID-19 pandemic spiralling in cities across India. The situation in India has been among the biggest international stories being covered in Chinese media. We should expect much more coverage of the situation over the next month or two, as the crisis unfolds. For instance, take a look at the image below from Guancha’s homepage today, along with snippets of coverage on other Chinese news sites. Sina, in particular, has a dedicated section for coverage, where the issue of the US’s faltering public diplomacy has been featured too.

A number of countries, including China, have issued statements of support. On Thursday, MoFA’s Wang Wenbin responded to a question by China National Radio, saying that “China takes note of the recent grave situation in India with a temporary shortage of anti-epidemic medical supplies. We stand ready to provide India with necessary support and assistance to get the epidemic under control.” A day later Zhao Lijian added that “China is ready to provide support and help according to India’s need, and is in communication with the Indian side on this.” This is welcome; and I sincerely hope that both governments can work something out with regard to immediate needs of oxygen, medical equipment and vaccines in the long term. For now, this doesn’t seem like this is happening at a government level. Times of India’s source-based report says that India is not looking at China to procure oxygen. Reports, meanwhile, inform that Russia, Germany, France and the UK have offered support when it comes to the oxygen shortage. Cryogenic oxygen tanks were airlifted by the Indian Air Force from Singapore this week and talks are also underway with the UAE.

There are, however, private donations and commercial contracts for oxygen supply from what I understand. For example, Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi has been quick off the blocks among Chinese businesses operating in India to offer support. On Thursday, it announced that it will donate Rs 3 crore to procure more than 1,000 oxygen concentrators for hospitals across states and will also partner with GiveIndia to raise Rs 1 crore for “Covid-19 warriors.” Global Times reports that “a Chinese logistics company plans to donate 300,000 KN95 face masks to India…A Chinese motorcycle company has donated more than 200,000 masks to a hospital in Delhi, and a Chinese company in the textile industry has purchased a ventilator in China and is sending it to a hospital in India.” None of the companies are named in the report. The piece also has Wang Guangfa, a respiratory expert at Peking University First Hospital, saying that “China could help India with testing equipment, testing reagents, construction materials for building makeshift hospitals as well as technical support.”

Anyway, let’s look at some of the commentary around the Chinese government’s offer for support. Niu Haibin, deputy director of the Institute for Foreign Policy Studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, believes that the current situation provides an opportunity for both sides to “mend” bilateral ties. SCMP also quotes Li Hongmei, a research fellow at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, as saying that “China’s statement shows that it does not link the border issue closely with overall relations with India, and that China expects bilateral relations can be improved.”

The other strand of commentary is about the West’s, particularly the US’s failure to come to India’s support. This fits into Beijing’s narrative of the US’ vaccine nationalism and the vaccine divide between the developed and developing world. For instance, on Tuesday, China’s MoFA took a question from Xinhua about Serum Institute of India’s Adar Poonawalla’s comments about US restrictions on raw material exports. Wang Wenbin said that “the widening of the ‘vaccine divide’ will harm the interests of all mankind. When developing countries are struggling with the epidemic, how can the US remain safe and sound?...We also urge the US to shoulder its due international responsibilities.”

If you are interested, the Indian Express has a good explainer on these raw materials and the restrictions imposed by the US government. Now, there have been some conversations between India and the US about the situation. For instance, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar spoke on April 19, But US public diplomacy on this has been abysmal. Ned Price’s comments defending export restrictions have done tremendous damage in terms of Indian public opinion. As I write, Blinken and NSA Jake Sullivan have put out the first statements of support. A day earlier, the US Chamber of Commerce issued a statement asking the Joe Biden administration to release millions of AstraZeneca vaccine doses “in storage” to India, Brazil and other such countries where the pandemic is raging. Let’s see what action is taken tangibly. There’s a lot to do as this thread by Milan Vaishnav demonstrates. But in terms of the popular mood on social media in India at the moment, this tweet below from a WION’s Palki Sharma Upadhyay provides a glimpse. As does this comment by former Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal to Sputnik News:

“The attitude of the Joe Biden administration is very self-centred and selfish. India has been very generous in exporting and donating vaccines to other countries during the COVID pandemic. The US, on the other hand, wants to create a stockpile to buffer itself against the next wave. Millions are being affected in India due to the virus and the US is effectively ignoring the plight of Indians.”
This pandemic shows that the West’s getting closer to India is more in a geopolitical sense. There is actually a gap of people's livelihoods and public interests between them. Their closeness to each other is fragile and superficial. China and India feel more empathy for each other. In terms of fundamental interests, including development and improvement of people's livelihood, the two countries should have been partners in the same camp. But it is a pity that the significance of border disputes is amplified, concealing the true bond of China-India relations and blurring the two countries' huge common interests.”

Here’s Hu Xijin’s Twitter appeal for India to accept Chinese support amid the pandemic. And here’s Hu targeting Blinken after his Twitter statement of solidarity. So much for this not being about geopolitics.

Meanwhile, a few days before all of this, Lan Jianxue from the China Institute of International Studies, wrote a piece arguing that India could “turn to old tricks, such as initiating provocations on its borders with China or Pakistan, fanning nationalist sentiments at home, to distract people's attention” from the pandemic.

This came in the context of Indian ambassador Vikram Misri’s remarks at the 7th ICWA-CPIFA Dialogue. Misri had criticised the “tendency in some quarters to sweep this situation (border tensions) under the carpet and characterize it as just a minor issue and a matter of perspective.” He said this was “inadvisable as it can only take us further away from a sustained solution to present difficulties and deeper into an unfulfilling stalemate. In fact, it would be tantamount to running away from the problem and in a direction opposite to that where the promise of our closer development partnership lies.”

But Lan also added that “against the backdrop of the pandemic deteriorating, New Delhi should open its mind and figure out a way to get Beijing's help to curb the grave spread of the disease. China should respond to India's appeal, maintain high-level communications, and step up exchanges of experience on epidemic prevention and control. It is of great significance to the world for China and India to strengthen solidarity and cooperation to overcome the pandemic as soon as possible.”

Finally, let’s take a look at some other reports around the India-China dynamic. First, Mint’s Elizabeth Roche reports that the Indian Army has issued a Request For Information for procurement of 350 light tanks weighing less than 25 tonnes. This development comes in the backdrop of the India-China stand-off in eastern Ladakh where the Indian Army felt the need for a light tank easily deployable in High Altitude Areas. The Hindu’s Ananth Krishnan reports that China’s Embassy in India has since Friday put in place curbs that have made it harder for its nationals to return to China, amid the surge in COVID-19 cases. The Embassy told Chinese travellers it will no longer issue “health codes” they need to return if they transit either through Nepal or Sri Lanka. Indian citizens and foreigners based in India have been barred from travelling to China since November last year. Third, Times of India reports that India and China are competing to fill the post of the WTO’s deputy director general. New Delhi is pitching for the appointment of former diplomat Mohan Kumar. China has suggested former ambassador to WTO Zhang Xiangchen. From what I understand, this tussle is for the Asian candidate for the post. The candidate will then have to compete with candidates from the US, EU and South America.

This is one section from my weekly Eye on China newsletter. You can read the full newsletter here.


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