Ambassador of India to Myanmar & GCTC Advisory Board Member
Over the past few weeks, China has been behaving as though the severe damage inflicted on the US and its European allies by the coronavirus has cleared the decks for it to become the sole, unchallenged superpower in the world. Beijing had escaped relatively unscathed after it effectively dealt with challenges the virus posed. It even sought to escape any responsibility being attributed to it.
Fingers were soon pointed across the globe at China, as being responsible for causing severe damage and suffering, globally, by delaying the provision of information about the threat posed by Covid-19 to the world at large. The Ethiopian Director-General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom, who is regarded by some as a Chinese protégé, faced scathing criticism from the Trump administration for the delays of the WHO in acting expeditiously. It is universally acknowledged that the virus emerged either from a laboratory at Wuhan, or from the seafood market there. The Chinese have, however, been less than forthcoming in throwing light on the origins of the virus.
The EU countries led by France and Germany soon put together a formidable grouping to bring the Chinese to book. African countries, outraged by racist attacks on their countrymen, and also by high-interest Chinese loans getting them into debt traps, joined the demand for an investigation. The US supported this effort from the sidelines, while India discreetly mobilised worldwide support. What followed was a resolution sponsored by 130 of the 194 WHO members, calling for an independent probe into the origins of the virus. Moreover, India has become the chair of the WHO Executive Board at its 147th session.
Rattled by the strong world opinion, President Xi Jinping hurriedly addressed the WHO conference, promising $2 billion in aid to the organisation. New Delhi had, meanwhile, moved initially with the US, Australia, Japan and the EU, and then with friends in Asia and Africa to get the end result. China should realise that India can move dexterously and decisively on such issues when required. Beijing’s belief that it could buy its way out of the corner it was pushed into has been shaken. The $2 billion aid offered by Xi was largely aimed at assuaging African countries. Chinese ‘aid’ is, however, now looked at by many developing countries as an instrument of Chinese exploitation.
China has, meanwhile, sought to provoke India by aggressive deployment of its forces in Sikkim and Ladakh and provocative use of force to hinder the movement of Indian forces in Ladakh. India has reciprocated in a measured manner, while keeping the doors for dialogue to settle differences on the border open, like it did in Doklam. Responding to India’s actions in the World Health Assembly, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece Global Times ridiculed India’s economic ‘ambitions’. It noted disparagingly: ‘India has been dreaming of becoming the next world factory, and the Modi government has launched various initiatives to forward that goal, such as the “Make in India” campaign, which has done little to impress the world. Observers have generally attributed India’s manufacturing woes to its failure to conduct pragmatic reforms.” But it was careful not to alienate India beyond a point, also noting: ‘Countries like India haven’t followed the US in jumping on the China-bashing game regarding the pandemic issue. They are seemingly not as hostile to China, as the US and Australia.’
China has now signed an agreement with Pakistan for building a 4,800 MW hydel project, the Diamer-Bhasha Dam, in Gilgit-Baltistan. One can only conclude that this $14 billion project will eventually lead to a physical Chinese presence in commercial and economic activity in Gilgit-Baltistan, together with a military presence there, adjacent to the Kargil sector. China has also pledged to strengthen Pakistan’s navy through the supply of frigates, submarines and missiles, while establishing a physical presence in the Gwadar Port. Interestingly, like Sri Lanka and many African countries, Pakistan is finding it very difficult to repay its accumulated debts to China, for the much-touted CPEC.
Even as these developments were taking place, Nepal’s PM, KP Oli, came out strongly against India, evidently aiming to provoke a diplomatic showdown. Oli displayed new maps of Nepal, claiming a vast amount of India’s territory in Chhattisgarh as being Nepal’s territory. Around 90% of the Indo-Nepal border has been demarcated, with only two areas, Kalapani and Susta, under dispute. These are differences that can be resolved through dialogue, given the goodwill on both sides. Oli has, however, for long been perceived as leading a faction of the Nepal Communist Party, which is bent on provoking India, while cuddling up to China. This has been particularly noticeable after Xi visited Kathmandu last year.
While New Delhi and Beijing are continuing efforts to resolve differences through negotiations, an overly and prematurely overambitious China is constantly resorting to threats and coercion to enforce its territorial claims on its land and maritime borders with countries across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, including India. China believes that the US is going to be seriously weakened by the virus challenge. Beijing thinks it can achieve its territorial and geopolitical ambitions by force.
What happened at the WHO meeting has challenged China’s ambitions. India and others will, however, also have to foster dialogue with an assertive China. India is keen that these issues should not undermine global cooperation to deal with the Covid challenge. But that is easier said than done.