As India battles the coronavirus crisis, China bids to assert influence in regionBeijing attempts to fill the void as the rival, a country dubbed the vaccine powerhouse, continues to report record high new Covid-19 cases and is in dire need of international support.
Earlier this week, the world responded to India’s distress call as a second wave of the coronavirus raged across the country of 1.3 billion people. India was clocking new global records of new infections–crossing well over the 350,000 mark a day. It was in a dire need of vaccine raw materials, oxygen, drugs, beds and other medical amenities.
Under increasing pressure, US President Joe Biden said his administration had removed controls on exports of raw materials for vaccines and would also supply India with therapeutics, rapid diagnostic kits, ventilators and personal protective gear. The United Kingdom, Singapore and Germany, among others, have also come together to lend a hand. India’s arch-rival Pakistan too stood in line with a promise of help.
As the health system buckled under the rising caseload, India, in a major policy departure in over a decade and a half, started accepting gifts, donations and aid from over 40 countries.
The international community woke up to the fact that the catastrophic situation in India brought upon by the coronavirus poses a great risk to the world. India’s sudden coronavirus wave is not a far-away problem, the Washington Post said in its editorial earlier this week.
China, which too has offered its help, said on Thursday it shares empathy for challenges facing India.
“The Chinese side firmly supports the Indian government and people in fighting the pandemic,” said Wang Yi, Chinese foreign minister, in a statement. “Anti-pandemic materials produced in China are entering India at a faster pace to help India fight the epidemic.”
The statement follows Wang’s virtual meeting with foreign ministers of South Asian countries. India was not present.
On Tuesday, Wang held talks with his counterparts from Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
According to a statement issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, the meeting agreed to push forward practical cooperation in relevant fields including Covid-19, poverty reduction, food security and other non-traditional security fields. Similarly, China announced its decision to establish a China-South Asian Countries Emergency Supplies Reserve, set up a China-South Asian Countries Poverty Alleviation and Cooperative Development Center, and hold a China-South Asian Countries E-commerce Cooperation Forum on Poverty Alleviation in Rural Areas.
The participating countries expressed support, according to the statement.
“The foreign ministers agreed to make these mechanisms inclusive, transparent, sustainable and demand-driven,” added the statement.
Analysts say major shifts are being seen geopolitically in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. International efforts though are underway to support each other, powerful countries are also trying to showcase their political and economic heft.
According to foreign policy observers and experts, that China wants to be more assertive in the region is a known fact, but it had, and continues to have, its own limitations. And when India is forced to swallow national pride, pleading for support from the world, China wants to be seen not only as the good Samaritan but also as a major power player, they say.
“Without becoming the leader of Asia, China’s ambitions to become a global power will not be fulfilled,” said Ramesh Nath Pandey, a former foreign minister. “India tried to create a South Asia minus Pakistan; now China seems to be trying to create a group minus India.”
Pandey was referring to India’s constant focus on BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) of late rather than on SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation). Pakistan is not a member of BIMSTEC.
Tuesday’s was the first–and the largest–such interaction initiated by China with the South Asian nations together in recent history. Three South Asian nations–India, the Maldives and Bhutan–were either not invited or they did not participate.
According to Wang, the statement said, India was invited.
There has been no official statement from India on why it did not participate.
When India reported a steady decline in the number of new coronavirus cases, it acted smugly, its leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, gleefully announced that with “made-in-India solutions” they have controlled the spread of the coronavirus.
It was natural for many countries like Nepal and other South Asian countries to bank on India as it was portrayed as the pharmacy of the world. India was comfortably placed to consolidate its position as the leader of the region. As cases started to shoot up from March, however, it descended into chaos–people started to die in their thousands and new infections hit record highs.
Analysts say China appears to have made a move when India is battling its coronavirus crisis of unprecedented proportions.
Beijing has for long been watching closely the growing bonhomie between India and the United States, according to Pramod Jaisawal, a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, a think tank based in New Delhi.
Jaiswal, who was previously associated with China Foreign Affairs University and Fudan University, among others, said it would be wrong to assume that Tuesday’s virtual meeting at the initiative of the Chinese foreign minister happened overnight.
“India's aggressive Covid-19 vaccine diplomacy, the growing proximity between the US and India and activities of Quad nations could have also prompted Beijing to enter the fray and assert its influence in the region,” Jaiswal told the Post.
Ahead of the foreign minister-level virtual meeting, foreign secretaries from the same five countries had held a virtual meeting on Monday with senior Chinese Foreign Ministry officials. Besides, according to official records, China has held over a dozen virtual engagements with regional countries at different levels ever since the Covid-19 pandemic restricted mobility. Also, Chinese Foreign Ministry officials, senior officials from the International Department of Chinese Communist Party also held several engagements with political parties of Nepal and other regional countries.
Many wonder if China is in a bid to create a bloc under its leadership in the region in response to the Washington-led grouping–Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, dubbed Quad, comprising the US, Australia, Japan and India.
For Nepal, nestled between India and China, maintaining a fine balance has always been tricky. Both are big economies and both have for long jockeyed for influence in Nepal. Nepali politicians too have on a number of occasions played the two countries against each other.
China’s interest to sneak into the region is not a new story, say experts.
“China’s interest to become a member of SAARC is an open secret. It could not happen purely because of India’s resistance,” said Arjun Bahadur Thapa, a former foreign secretary who also served as the secretary general of the regional bloc from 2014 to 2017. “China has been trying to create a different grouping [in the region].”
According to Thapa, during his tenure as the SAARC secretary general, China’s interest had grown to become a SAARC member. The originally seven-member bloc, which now has eight with the inclusion of Afghanistan, needs to have the collective nod of all member states to include a new member.
China, however, was given observer’s status in SAARC at the initiative of then king Gyanendra Shah, one of the reasons Delhi was unhappy with the former monarch.
Thapa said Beijing indeed is attempting to create a forum that could be minus India.
“China may not want to form a military or security alliance, but it can bring upon challenges for us as being part of any grouping led by Beijing could draw huge international attention,” said Thapa. “China’s all attempts, including the recent one, may not be construed wholly as a bid to contain others.”
Thapa believes the changing geopolitical dynamics can, however, certainly put Nepal in a fix.
“We cannot say no to China if they ask for participation because it is not a military or security alliance. But it should not be at the cost of our ties with India or the US,” said Thapa.
With its weak and inconsistent foreign policy, maneuverings by power centres put Nepal into a more difficult situation. As the Covid-19 crisis continues to deepen in Nepal, as the country’s healthcare system is on the verge of breaking down, it is left with no option than to maintain good ties with its neighbours as well as major power centres, like the United States.
Nepal on Friday reported 5,657 new cases with 33 deaths. The country’s death toll stands at 3,279.
Government officials have projected the daily count to hit 11,000 by the end of July.
“Whether we like it or not, India is our priority. But we have failed to develop channels other than official ones and maintain ‘off-the-record’ relations with India for our continuous engagement,” said Pandey, the former foreign minister. “There is no doubt that China's engagement in South Asia has increased, but we have to be clear whether we want to go with China [if there is a bloc] if it is minus India. Will it be in our interest in the long run?”
After the coronavirus-hit Nepal last year, both India and China generously came forward to support, providing supplies of various kinds to help it in its fight against the pandemic.
But as the virus crisis unfolded, so did politics in Nepal. Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli made an about-turn last year, turning suddenly towards the south, much to Beijing’s chagrin.
As India’s vaccine diplomacy was in full swing, it was quick to offer 1 million doses of Covishield under grant assistance, thereby helping Nepal become one of the first countries in the world to launch its vaccination drive. China followed suit and offered its own vaccine in grant. However, it took about three months for the Chinese vaccines to arrive in Kathmandu.
According to Prof Shridhar Khatri, who once headed Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, a regional think tank, China has definitely ramped up its engagement in the region.
“China engages different South Asian nations in different ways, per its interest. When it comes to Nepal, China seems to be confused at present, especially after the split in the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), which was subsequently invalidated by the court,” said Khatri. “And the internal dynamics in the CPN-UML too makes it more complicated for China when it comes to expanding its engagement in Nepal.”
Beijing is said to have hugely invested in bringing together Nepal’s two communist forces–UML and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre)–in 2017-18. Things, however, have changed over the last three years and most of the political developments, including the House dissolution, had caught Beijing by surprise.
“It’s natural for any big power to try to expand their influence in the region,” said Khatri. “But Beijing has its limitations when it comes to South Asia. Even the US has its own limitations. The timing Beijing has chosen to make some moves of late is certainly something to ponder upon.”