Sun Weidong, China’s ambassador to India, has been busy on Twitter. As a brutal second wave of Covid-19 ravaged Indian cities, Sun posted a series of messages showing much-needed medical supplies destined for delivery in India. “India is our neighbour and partner. China’s actions speak louder than words,” he posted on May 1, adding that 61 cargo flights full of emergency equipment had left China for India over the previous two weeks.
Yet on Wednesday India’s minister for External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said that relations with China were going through “a very difficult phase” due to a year-long escalation of tensions along stretches of the disputed border.
Speaking at a media event on the sidelines of the G7 Summit in the UK where India was a special invitee, Jaishankar added: “I can’t have friction, coercion, intimidation and bloodshed on the border and then say let’s have a good relationship in other domains. It’s not realistic.”
The Covid crisis offers a moment when the two nations might come together to bridge older disagreements. But it is not happening on any meaningful scale.
Part of the reason is that China is not always seen as being sincere in its offer of support to India: indeed, many Indians suspected it of crowing over their country’s misfortune. And in China, the government in New Delhi is often perceived as being petulant, irresponsible and ungrateful. “Even today when India is in trouble and China is lending it a helping hand, India still holds a grudge and remains narrow-minded,” complained Hu Xijin, the editor of the Global Times, in another of his spiky opinion pieces. “A close neighbour is better than a distant relative in the critical time of a crisis,” he added, taking a swipe at Delhi’s ties with Washington.
What set Hu off was the fact that some of the Indian media was pointing out that the shipments coming from China were commercial exports, not donations (some governments in Europe made similar observations when the Chinese were shipping in masks and other protective gear last year).
Not that Beijing hasn’t offered aid to the Indians as well. But Delhi has refused to take it, preferring donations from traditional allies such as the US, Japan, Germany (and even the Taiwanese government in Taipei – a move that Tencent News described as “brainless”).
“India is falling apart but refuses China’s help! It needs to accept reality, ” the news portal chastised, reminding readers that officials in Washington had waited more than two weeks to free up vital ingredients for vaccine production in Indian factories.
“History teaches us that being over-dependent on the United States always plays out badly,” warned the overseas version of the People’s Daily in a similar rebuke.
Meanwhile, Sina Weibo accounts linked to the Chinese government have posted tasteless comments comparing China and India’s Covid responses. In one post titled “China firing up versus India firing up” from the Party’s Commission for Political and Legal Affairs there was an image of China’s Tianhe rocket being launched on April 28 next to a photo of Indian bodies being burned on funeral pyres.
The post was soon taken down but contributions extolling the supremacy of China’s political system were given freer rein. “It might look as if India’s epidemic situation is out of control because of Prime Minster Narendra Modi’s failures – actually it’s the fault of India’s ‘democratic’ system,” wrote 163.com. “If a country has no powerful central government, if local governments can’t follow the policies and orders of the central government, and if social isolation measures are not implemented strictly then the war against the pandemic will never be won,” a contributor to QQ.com agreed.
Of course, there are lessons that India could learn in how China fought the virus. Leading US expert Anthony Fauci said as much in an interview with the Indian Express last weekend. Aside from the rapid deployment of temporary hospitals in epicentres like Wuhan, Fauci highlighted how lockdowns had been used to slow the spread of infection. “You can shut down temporarily to put an end to the cycle of transmission,” he urged, citing how the Chinese reacted to the initial explosion in the number of Covid cases.
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