India and China must work togetherCould the ‘Wuhan Spirit’ and ‘Chennai Connect’ be implemented in both letter and spirit to minimise the frequent derailments?
As the impacts of Covid-19 are unabashedly unfurled, the widespread feeling that the communication and information about the pandemic from China have been inadequate, scanty and inaccessible pervaded India and the global world. Many in India justly opined that China could have exchanged firsthand knowledge and specific information on their experiments aimed at combating the virus—at least at the professional, scientific and institutional level. With its prior experience with SARS in 2002-03, the very nature, scale and dreadfulness of Covid-19 should have prompted China to come out of its authoritarian model of information control, communication clamp down and selective knowledge dissemination for the greater global good. This could have provided many countries the time to build required facilities and combat the pandemic in a more organised and effective manner.
Like the selectively dismal sharing of information on hydrological and environmental flows of the Brahmaputra river, trade in pharmaceuticals, borderland management, smuggling of rare wildlife species and huge gene piracy, China adopted the same failing model in the case of Covid-19. China’s action was blatantly contrary to intimate and protracted high-level discussions with India on issues of public health, medical education and traditional medicine. On its own volition, China deeply damaged and dislocated the affirmative impression about its improving relationship with India. Consequently, there has been once again a conspicuous upsurge of outcry against anything Chinese, goods to apps, food to culture and media to technology.
On the one hand, based on the state of warm relations at the highest level, while celebrating the ‘Wuhan Spirit’, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping declared on April 28, 2018 that the two countries ‘agreed to pool together their expertise and resources...and create a global network...for the larger benefit of humanity’. The two had specified that the challenges to tackle and the fields to pool such resources would ‘include combating diseases, coordinating action for disaster risk reduction and mitigation’. On the other, institutions dealing with the onslaught of Covid-19 in South Asia remained in total darkness on critical issues of the very nature of this contagious disease, medicine, treatment, non-medical support, vaccination and even role of traditional medicines. As the situation deteriorated, most of this much-needed information actually started originating from the West or from South Korea.
This unfiltered information had in it massive doses of propaganda of all kinds, mostly targeting China. When the entire Indian sub-continent was placed under lockdown, and fear and nervousness gripped the people at large, the US triggered debate suddenly shifted to whether this was ‘man-made’ virus (specifically from a lab in Wuhan) or ‘natural’ one. The strategy of combat shifted from the medicinal domain to rumour management. An East-West divide solidly emerged. Racial slurs even affected India, where the people coming from the North East and Himalayan regions of India were ignorantly targeted as Corona carriers. For a large population of India that have features that relate to East Asia or the Himalayas, and who have spread themselves across the country for work and study and permanent living, this precipitated into a new level of untouchability and hatred.
A changed world
The way the most affected country, the US, has conducted itself has been directionless, pathetic and simply baffling. It started issuing contradictory signals even in the deeply sensitive issue of medication and treatment, scrambled for excuses to hide its inefficiency and clearly galvanised the pandemic to suit its domestic political compulsion. US President Donald Trump was everywhere when disinfectant and hydroxychloroquine were unabashedly marketed and but nowhere when dead bodies piled up in the refrigerated trucks. By the time a record of 112,205 Americans perished and 1.99 million remained affected—and the Black Lives Matter protests so dangerously engulfed the country—Trump had literally and unsuccessfully tried to uproot a plethora of celebrated multilateral institutions including the World Trade Organisation and World Health Organisation (WHO).
The entire global world realised how under-prepared, ill-equipped, dispersed and disconnected the world has been despite. Per capita income, ease of doing business, academic freedom, human development indices and nuclear arsenals just became meaningless dots and pieces when compared to a country’s handling of Covid-19.
India remains deeply affected economically and socially—across sectors, geographies and communities. At this juncture, it is estimated to have lost over 14 percent of its GDP. The deepening of the US-China disputes and massive relocation of foreign investment-led manufacturing units from China to other Southeast Asian countries could inevitably lead to abrupt disruptions in supply chains, global production networks, technology dislocations and international division of labour. The contraction and deceleration in both income and output are bound to affect India-China relations.
The need for mutual support
In this fragile and uncertain situation, both India and China must focus on issues of convergence only. This is what people expect and want. However, ongoing imbroglios in the mountain borderlands seem to be moving the two Asian giants away from cooperation, peace and development. Besides Modi and Jinping agreeing ‘to adopt a positive, pragmatic and open attitude and to enhance appreciation of each other’s policies and actions’ in their ‘Chennai Connect’ declaration on October 12, 2019, India and China have comprehensive agreements like that of 1996 and 2013 on border management, joint fight against the smuggling of arms, wildlife articles and other contrabands, and natural disasters or infectious diseases. The opening of several border trade routes has revived the historical connections once again. Their partnership in global negotiations such as climate change, fruitful participation in new regional initiatives like Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS), Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM) and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and the establishment of global institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and New Development Bank are fast leading to new narratives that have clearly departed from the hegemonic discourse constructed by the developed market economies.
India started pretty late in building its mountain borderland infrastructure. This is because it mostly concentrated in the plain land borders with Bangladesh in the East and Pakistan in the West. The borderland roads and other infrastructures in the mountain areas are very critical both in the context of national security, scientific studies and steady migration of its population from these regions. These infrastructures will in fact help remove the misconceptions about the borderline. Therefore, a full formal or informal summit should be held to exclusively review why such fracas, intrusions and border imbroglios become a repetitive phenomenon.
There are a number of forces—rumour mongers, war jingoists, intolerant institutions and extra-Asian powers—that are trying to drive a wedge between these two countries. Many cultivated media sources tend to demonstrate baseless and wisdomless belligerence. These negative stakeholders thrive in a situation of instability, conflict and uncertainty. Both India and China have common borders with South Asian countries that remain badly squeezed by Covid-19. Any prolongation of these imbroglios is bound to affect these countries.
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