Covid-19 Introduces New Tensions in India-China Relations

The year 2020 marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and China. While the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic provides a new backdrop to this milestone in bilateral ties, it does not substantially change the direction in which relations were heading, only the pace.

Bilateral ties have seldom been smooth, even if the default position of the leaderships on both sides has been to portray them as being normal and in reasonable fettle. After the low of the Doklam stand-off in mid-2017, ‘informal’ summits between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping were promoted as a way to put the relationship back on the rails. The Indian government has certainly expended much effort domestically to make it look like the informal summits were some sort of diplomatic breakthrough. Except that problems have cropped up so regularly in the relationship that it fools no one.

Using December 2019—when the novel coronavirus outbreak began in China, but before it was deemed a serious health challenge—as a starting point, India and China conducted the ‘Hand-in-Hand 2019’ counter-terrorism exercise in the Indian state of Meghalaya and the 22nd meeting of the Special Representatives on the boundary dispute. This was followed by an early January visit to China by the Indian Army’s Northern Command head but only a couple of days before, the Chinese PLA had also begun a military exercise in Tibet.

While these events might be viewed as being planned months in advance, and while the signalling is well understood and even expected, there were also a series of actions by each side, which are possibly designed to push the envelope, to needle, or to test the other’s limits.

A case in point is the presence of a Chinese research vessel in the Indian EEZ near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which had to be told to leave by the Indian Navy. This was reported just a few days before the counter-terrorism exercise, with the Indian Navy chief even highlighting the frequency with which Chinese vessels were found in Indian waters. In January, soon after the senior Indian army official had left Beijing, China tried—and failed—for a third time to raise the issue of Kashmir at the UN Security Council on behalf of Pakistan.

Meanwhile, in mid-February, by which time COVID-19 was beginning to make its presence felt globally and China itself was reeling, Beijing both joined other nations at the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) in warning Pakistan about its failure to meet commitments on action against terrorist financing and money laundering and objected to a visit to Arunachal Pradesh by the Indian Home Minister. The minister was visiting on the occasion of 33rdanniversary of the founding of the state.

The spreading epidemic itself occasioned more pique and crossed signals between the two neighbours.

Indian Prime Minister Modi promised China assistance in a written letter to Xi on 8 February. However, it was only on 26 February that the flight—also expected to bring back Indian citizens from Wuhan—landed in Hubei with 15 tonnes of medical equipment. Indian media reports—denied by the Indian foreign ministry—suggested that the Chinese were deliberately delaying India’s evacuation efforts of its citizens.

The Chinese action delaying the evacuation could have been a response to the Indian minister’s visit to the state, but it might also have been because the Indian government had issued advisories on travel to and from China including temporary suspension of e-visas and quarantines for those coming from China after the outbreak of coronavirus there. The Indian foreign ministry called its move necessary “purely to maintain public health” clarifying there was “no ban on travel to China or from China”. The Chinese, however, seemed to have taken the view that the Indian action was a negative comment on China’s handling of the crisis.

Post-Covid one of the issues that has most animated conversation about China in India is the former’s supply of faulty testing kits and apparent price gouging. The Chinese have tried to explain away the problem and accused the Indians of being “unfair”, “irresponsible” and prejudiced.

Amidst the general testiness in the relationship, there are proposals for India and China to work together to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. This, however, is part of a long legacy of talk about the potential offered by bilateral cooperation in science and technology which has seldom, if ever, led to anything concrete.

One could argue that with the COVID-19 pandemic, China has well and truly moved from just an occasional item of envy, derision, or blame in the Indian imagination to a larger object of serious consideration at the popular level. While jokes about the quality of Chinese products and memes about the “Chinese virus” will continue, the Indian government can expect greater attention especially among India’s middle classes both to long-standing issues like the boundary dispute and the China-Pakistan relationship as well as to newer concerns like Chinese investments in India’s technology space, cyber-attacks, dependence on Chinese-manufactured telecom equipment, the robustness of India’s supply chains and the like.

There may be occasions when the Indian government can take advantage of such attention. An instance of this was the amendment to India’s foreign direct investment (FDI) rules introduced towards the end of April mandating compulsory government approval for investments from neighbouring countries. Clearly, it is China that is the target here. However, on other issues such as a resolution of the boundary dispute or the ability to manoeuvre in international organizations, this public attention could well constrain the Indian government’s options.

Hitherto, it has only been Pakistan that attracted public opinion or reaction of any significance for Indian authorities to consider in their foreign policy decisions. Opinions here have also tended to be in the direction of blame and criticism of that country, which the present ruling dispensation in New Delhi, at least, finds politically convenient for domestic reasons. Ironically, the more successful the Modi government is in conveying the message to its domestic constituency that Pakistan has been put in its place, as it were, the greater attention this might draw to how it is doing with respect to China.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the name “Wuhan” has become much better known in India than it ever was for the April 2018 informal summit between Modi and Xi in that city. It remains to be seen which of these two legacies from Wuhan will last in India-China relations.

This article was originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘India-China Relations Post-COVID-19’, China-India Brief#159, Centre on Asia and Globalisation, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, 14-26 May 2020.

Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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