In India’s Covid-19 challenge, China’s hopes and anxieties
The second wave of Covid-19 in India has been among the biggest international stories being covered across the Chinese media. The coverage reflects a sense of anxiety and opportunity.
In terms of the former, there is concern about the spread of the so-called double mutant, or B.1.617 strain of the virus across the region and into China. A fresh wave of domestic outbreaks would be deeply damaging for the Communist Party, which declared victory against the virus last year, and would take a toll on China’s economic recovery. Likewise, a massive public health crisis across the Indian subcontinent, at the minimum, would hurt Chinese commercial interests and investments. At worst, it could result in a humanitarian catastrophe with the potential to stoke socio-political instability along China’s periphery.
At the same time, the situation in India presents opportunities for Beijing. At the bare minimum, there is a commercial opportunity, given the shortage of emergency supplies, equipment and therapeutics. But, at a deeper level, there are geopolitical opportunities. This is reflected in the Chinese media’s critical coverage of the delayed response by the Joe Biden administration, the emphasis on China’s manufacturing prowess and its centrality to key supply chains, and foreign minister Wang Yi’s summit with his South Asian counterparts, which focused on health supplies and vaccines.
Both these elements of concern and opportunity are driving the substantial outreach by Beijing towards New Delhi over the past two weeks. The first statement of solidarity from the Chinese side came in the form of a comment by the foreign ministry’s Wang Wenbin on April 22. The following day, Wang’s colleague Zhao Lijian added that China was “ready to provide support and help according to India’s need”. Since then, there has been a concerted effort by Beijing to indicate its willingness to aid the Indian government.
During the summit meeting with foreign ministers from South Asia, Wang Yi made it a point to talk about the invitation to India and express solidarity, again offering to assist as per India’s needs. He repeated this in a subsequent letter to his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar. This was followed by President Xi Jinping writing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, expressing sympathies and pledging support. Soon after, Wang called Jaishankar, promising to speed up production of medical supplies, facilitate customs clearance and transportation of goods and organise exchanges between experts on both sides.
In addition, the Chinese embassy in Delhi has been prompt to highlight data about supplies, which are commercial deliveries, being flown from China, and respond to concerns about freight air routes being disrupted. This was evident in the case of Sichuan Airlines suspending flights to India and then retracting the decision, as it was when actor Sonu Sood highlighted consignments from China being blocked.
Chinese public diplomacy indicates that there is a desire to play a greater role in supporting the Indian side to deal with the second wave. The outreach, in fact, suggests that the Chinese leadership would be willing to do much more than just facilitate commercial deals. The repeated emphasis on supporting India as per its needs in official comments indicates that Beijing would like to offer support at the government level. This, if agreed, would flow faster than commercial deliveries.
It is not altruism but interests that animate States, and this willingness by Beijing is driven by self-interest. These range from containing the virus’ threat away from its borders to reshaping perceptions and making deeper inroads into the Indian subcontinent.
None of this should be of primary concern to policymakers today. With the daily caseload in the country hitting record numbers, the crisis India faces is not likely to abate in the near-term. The longer it takes to address the immediate challenges, the higher will be the individual, social, economic and reputational costs, diminishing India’s national power in the long-term. Therefore, any supplies that help in augmenting capacity should be welcomed, irrespective of where they come from. This is in India’s strategic interests.
Manoj Kewalramani is fellow, China Studies, at the Takshashila Institution
The views expressed are personal