By Srikanth Kondapalli*
As India reels under the unprecedented onslaught of a virulent, mutant COVID-19 strain that is leaving death and destruction in its wake, 40 countries have come forward to help with medical supplies. India has officially recorded over 20 million infections (with more than 3 million active cases), and over 2,20,000 deaths, compared to over 150 million cases and three million deaths recorded worldwide.
Chinese Foreign Policy Outreach
Chinese President Xi Jinping, in his letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 30 April, offered “support and help” to overcome the epidemic. This was preceded by the suggestion that the Communist Party’s objective of humanity as a “community with a shared future” requires “solidarity and cooperation.” In February 2020, Modi wrote a letter to Xi offering condolences, and support to fight the coronavirus that killed nearly 900 people in Wuhan. Three Indian flights carried relief materials the city.
Coinciding with Xi’s letter was the follow-up phone conversation between the two foreign ministers, held at China’s behest. Indian External Affairs Minister (EAM) Dr S Jaishankar asked his counterpart, Wang Yi, to keep supply chains open, given the restrictions imposed by China recently.
On 27 April, China organised a foreign ministerial meeting with five South Asian countries, sans India. This is the fourth such meeting between China and countries of the region. The first—with Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan—was held in August 2020, and the second—with Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka—was in November last year.
In the April meeting, Wang floated a “six-country cooperation mechanism” to contain the spread of the virus, among other things. This was a possible reference to further travel or trade curbs on India, but most importantly, to divide South Asian countries and wean them away from New Delhi. He suggested building “green channels” to facilitate travel and movement with these South Asian countries under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Interestingly, Wang also said that China would “resist illegal acts of interfering in other countries’ internal affairs and coercing other countries to choose sides.”
Media Messaging and Geopolitical Drivers
Clearly, the pandemic’s impact on India has provided China an opportunity to impose its will on South Asia by making ground-level preparations to counter the recently formed Quad— with its own version; a ‘Himalayan Quad’. Further, ‘vaccine competition’ with India could become problematic since the Chinese vaccine has proven to be relatively ineffective, which has reportedly unnerved some.
On the same day Xi offered Modi assistance, Guangming Daily, meant for the CPC elite, carried an article that slammed Indian governance failures in addressing the pandemic’s resurgence. This article—or recent Chinese discourse—don’t explain how the virus originated in Wuhan, or how five million people, whether symptomatic or asymptomatic, went abroad, as the then Wuhan mayor stated, before China finally locked the city down on 23 January 2020. China’s claim of having controlled the virus doesn’t hold ground as it willy-nilly let the virus loose on the rest of the world. In fact, the first infections in India can be traced back to three students returning to Kerala from Wuhan in early 2020.
In contradiction to Wang’s proposal of a framework to prevent the spread of the virus in the April meeting, the Chinese discourse regarding the Wuhan outbreak insists that viruses have no borders. More bizarre is the insensitivity in reportage about India in the Chinese press. The appalling western ‘vulture journalism’ has also spread to China, with nationalist tabloids and others carrying pictures of ICUs and crematoria. One Chinese media platform even solicited live reportage from these locations via Chinese living in India. Most Chinese social networking sites have been circulating such visuals around the clock.
Chinese media recently hit the rock-bottom of public decency by lampooning the dead. A day after Xi’s letter to Modi, the Weibo account of the CPC’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission carried a macabre visual titled “Ignition in China vs ignition in India.” It boasted of China’s proactive space missions, alongside an image of Indians cremating those they lost to the pandemic. This is unlikely to have gone viral without the express permission of CPC censors.
Confucian tradition doesn’t allow for personal events to be shared in public, and social control is maintained with strict adherence to norms. No media person was allowed to cover the Wuhan tragedy last year. Three local whistle-blower journalists—Li Zehua, Chen Qiushi, and Fang Bin—were hounded by Chinese authorities. Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary depicting China’s governance failures was suppressed. Freedom of the press in India at least allowed the Chinese media to circulate.
China has made it a point to depict the pandemic’s outcome in India as the worst as in the world. Yet, it has itself not released any credible information on either infections or deaths. Nor has it allowed the already softened World Health Organisation (WHO) access to crucial blood samples or other data.
Chinese media has also criticised India’s health infrastructure, without acknowledging that even the best healthcare systems in the west—or in China, for that matter—failed to save many lives. In fact, China’s ICU beds per 100,000 remain at 3.6, which is marginally higher than India’s at 2.3. Indian casualty rate is lower in comparison to the west, at about 140 per million compared to over 1,500 in several western countries. India has also administered 157 million doses of vaccines out of over a billion vaccinations globally. Still, this is of no solace—India needs to ramp-up its crisis management capacities.
Xi’s offer of support to India came after 40 countries pledged assistance. But there are also bottlenecks. For instance, Sichuan Airlines’ Sichuan Chuanhang Logistics Co Ltd suspended cargo flights to New Delhi, with effect from 26 April, and for more than two weeks. They cited the increase in infections in India. There are also reports about hikes in the pricing of exported items. According to Feng Zijian, deputy director of China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, Beijing has taken measures to “prevent the importation of the disease,” and it is “unlikely to impact China.”
China’s talk of providing assistance to India and expressions of solidarity are largely symbolic gestures with little depth. Ultimately, Beijing’s design is to show New Delhi in poor light—without itself taking responsibility and accountability for the virus’ spread—and use this opportunity to shore up influence in South Asia.
*Srikanth Kondapalli is Professor in Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), & Distinguished Fellow, IPCS.