The Onset of COVID-19 and the State of India-China Relations

R. Madhumitha
Development Studies at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras.
 The Onset of COVID-19 and the State of India-China Relations

India and China got off to a positive start in 2020 with celebrations of the 70th anniversary of friendship. However, things changed quickly over the next few months with the spread of COVID-19. There have been significant amounts of cooperation between the two countries – with donations, evacuations and diplomatic support. Nevertheless, assistance has been in the backdrop of an increasing perception of aggressive national policies and competition for geo-strategic and economic dominance in the South-East Asian region, translating in rivalrous medical aid offers too. 

After the first death due to the coronavirus in China, India issued its first advisory for travel to and from China, asking people to be careful and take precautions. On January 20th Xi Jinping announced that he would take the COVID-19 outbreak very seriously. True to his word, Wuhan was under lockdown by 23rd January, with hundreds of Indians stranded inside. Wuhan had been turned into a quarantine zone, with severe traffic restrictions, limited stores and travel inaccessible without multiple permissions. Indians began to make frantic calls to the embassy and desperate appeals to New Delhi asking to be evacuated. Over the next few days, the embassy emailed and called each individual with the aid of community groups and even word of mouth. After negotiations between the Foreign Ministries, New Delhi asserted that those Indians that wanted to come back should be evacuated. The embassy contacted University authorities, and a dozen buses brought students staying across Hubei to Wuhan. They were screened at airports by medical experts and flown back to India. 

The second round of evacuations was also smooth, rescuing 300 Indians from 15 different locations in Hubei. However, diplomatic tensions crept into the third round. India had proposed to send a military plane to China, with medical supplies which would bring back  one hundred Indian Nationals still stranded in China. The Chinese embassy response was that ‘China was at a very critical stage in its fight against COVID-19, and air travel would not be advisable.’ It is useful to note that this was happening in the context of export restrictions placed on Personal Protective Equipment from India on January 31st expecting a surge in domestic demand. China had been managing its shortage by adopting quasi-war time rationing. Subsequently, a Chinese spokesperson commented that India should ‘review their stance on export restrictions and resume trade and connection with China’ – especially lifting the export restrictions on medical supplies.

Chinese officials denied any connection between the permission for the third round of evacuation and the lifting of export barriers. However, several Indian journalists interpreted the Chinese comments as a veiled reciprocity demand. On February 8th, India lifted its export restrictions on surgical masks and gloves, retaining its restrictions on N95. On February 26th an Indian Air Force C-17 special flight landed in Wuhan, evacuating 76 Indian Nationals, 36 Foreign Nationals. Thus, 723 Indian nationals and 43 foreign nationals in all were evacuated from Wuhan. In that very flight, India sent China masks, gloves and emergency medical equipment. The medical supplies were worth 2.11 crores and were handed over to the Hubei Charity Federation in Wuhan.

The Secretary-General of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Vladimir Norov said that India has been playing the role of the “pharmacy of the world”. While dealing with the rapid spread of the virus within the nation, India has supplied medicines to 133 countries. After a quick recovery, China has also been prompt in sending medicines across the subcontinent. In April, China sent 24 flights with 390 tonnes of medical relief. The medical supplies included RT-PCR test kits, Rapid Antibody Tests, thermometers and Personal Protection Equipment. By May, China had already supplied 50,000 PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) Kits to Assam. China also donated over 1.7lakhs PPE kits to the country.

Despite offering assistance to each other, India and China seem to be competing for influence in the South East Asian region. Both countries are ploughing ahead with offers of medical supplies, machines, protective gear and medical teams. China has launched the ‘Health Silk Road’ initiative, sending 29 teams of medical experts to 27 countries. India too has increased offers to the SAARC region, sending Air India flights, Naval Ships and teams of experts. In addition to this, India has been intensifying its bilateral relations with other countries through the QUAD-plus mechanism. The QUAD countries consist of India, USA, Japan and Australia, who work together on common issues, with the long term goal of checking Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region. Quad-plus countries (comprising QUAD countries plus New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam) have committed to increasing humanitarian assistance and disaster management. Further, they have proposed to pool technological and scientific resources to tackle emergency areas like vaccines. Building better bilateral relations with other countries has been a priority for the Indian State, especially in consideration of the instability at the border.

India has been cautious and measured towards China. Wary of India’s high trade dependency on China, New Delhi has been careful not to join in the blame-game of the West. Even at the outset, Prime Minister Modi sent a letter to Xi Jinping expressing his solidarity with Chinese efforts to curb the pandemic. The Chinese ambassador even replied that he ‘was touched by the kindness shown by India during the pandemic’. However, diplomats and some scholars have raised critical questions regarding China’s handling of the virus. They believe that China could have been more transparent in the initial stages of the pandemic, leading possibly to better containment of spread. They identify a few aspects of the Chinese State (lacking transparency and pushing for authoritarian control) that they believe exacerbates the crisis – with respect to the virus, the CCP is criticised for silencing whistle-blowers and even the WHO from raising too many concerns. China has also increasingly come under international scrutiny for its aggressive policy towards Hong Kong, and Taiwan and strengthened claims to the Senkaku islandsin the political stand-off with Japan.  

Over this year, it seems like India-China relations have been Janus-faced. There has been a significant level of humanitarian assistance between the two countries. However, border tensions have also flared up. While the State has maintained a strategic position towards China, the general public has adopted a more weary attitude towards China with memes and videos that call for the boycott of Chinese products in wide circulation, especially after the Galwan clashes. The Government also banned 60 Chinese apps, citing security threats. Apps like TikTok have staunchly denied the claims that they may have leaked critical information to Beijing, and Beijing in turn has asked New Delhi to seriously reconsider its decision. The relationship with China is currently fragile and the Indian State will have to choose between a protectionist policy and whole-hearted cooperation. Whether India and China will be friends of foes, only time will tell.

 (Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of IIT Madras China Studies Centre)