As coronavirus rages across India, its neighbour China has made repeated offers of help. Some are asking whether this could be an occasion to ease the tense relations between the world’s two most populous countries following last year’s border skirmishes.
China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, said this week that Beijing was “ready to provide support and assistance to the Indian people at any time according to the needs of India”. A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Delhi said it would “encourage and instruct Chinese companies to actively cooperate”.
On Sunday the Chinese embassy in Sri Lanka tweeted: “800 oxygen concentrators have been airlifted today from #HongKong to #Delhi; 10,000 more in a week.” A related hashtag on China’s social media site Weibo had been viewed more than 23m times as of Wednesday.
Beijing has been watching the developments closely in part because of India’s proximity. In the last few days, medical experts on state media have been explaining to the public why China should be concerned.
Some analysts, however, see the crisis as an opportunity. “China’s statement shows that it does not link the border issue closely with overall relations with India, and that China expects bilateral relations can be improved,” Dr Li Hongmei, a researcher at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, told the South China Morning Post.
China’s nationalist tabloid Global Times, meanwhile, seized on the US’s short-lived export ban on vaccine materials to attack Washington’s “selfishness”. “The US’s indifferent response ignited a wave of anti-US sentiment on social media in and out of India,” the paper wrote. “The US is not a world leader as it claims but a selfish, irresponsible and unreliable country that plays geopolitics to serve its own interests.”
This interpretation was echoed by some critics in India. A former minister, Milind Deora, tweeted on Saturday that the US’s initial reluctance to help India was “undermining the strategic Indo-US partnership”. The tweet was accompanied by a quote from John F Kennedy: “You cannot negotiate with people who say what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable.”
But Beijing’s intervention has had little impact among foreign policy elites in Delhi, according to Srikanth Kondapalli, a China expert at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He said many of India’s policymakers instead saw the charm offensive as Beijing’s attempt to drive a wedge between Delhi and Washington.
“The bilateral relationship is heavily clouded by the existing Sino-India border issue,” he said. “The current situation [on the border] is not normal, and it is at the top of the mind of India’s policymakers.”
Tension along the border is not new historically. Last year it exploded into hand-to-hand battle with clubs, rocks and fists on 15 June last year. Twenty Indian soldiers were confirmed to have died; China’s People’s Liberation Army said four of its soldiers were killed. In February both countries agreed to disengage in disputed areas, but the latest round of talks this month failed to ease tensions.
The dispute intensified anti-China sentiment in India. In an August poll, nearly 60% of respondents said India should go to war with China to resolve border tensions, and more than 90% backed banning Chinese apps and denying contracts to Chinese companies.
“The perception in India of last year’s conflict is that the Chinese army took advantage of Covid to launch its incursions,” said Tanvi Madan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, who is also the author of the book Fateful Triangle: How China Shaped US-India Relations During the Cold War.
Beijing has consistently rejected this charge. In recent weeks, Chinese diplomats have said the border issue does not represent the whole of China-India relations. China’s ambassador to India has urged both sides to “adhere to equal dialogue, manage and control differences, and resolve them through consultation, so as not to turn differences into disputes”.
Madan said: “This whole saga shows that even in times when countries might have come together in normal times, in a competitive era, geopolitics doesn’t just stay in the geopolitics box. We have seen this with the US-China relations, and now we are seeing this also in China-India relations.”
Additional reporting by Hannah Ellis-Petersen in Delhi