Covid-19: India has addressed the China factor well
China erred in not containing the coronavirus when it first appeared in Wuhan. But India has avoided the blame game and must now continue its efforts to curb the global health crisis
Few people in India had heard of the Chinese city of Wuhan before the “informal” Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping Summit there in April 2018, which paved the way for a de-escalation of tensions in the Doklam sector of the Sino-Indian border. The Wuhan meeting was different from earlier summits in preceding years, where the entire focus of attention was on ending the tensions, which followed the Chinese military intrusion in Doklam. The two leaders developed a personal rapport in the meeting. A clear message emerged from the summit, indicating that India and China were capable of improving relations, while maintaining peace and tranquility along their borders, by adhering to the terms of border agreements signed in 1993 and 2005.
Serious differences, however, emerged between India China later, over China’s blatantly anti-Indian views on Jammu and Kashmir in international forums and particularly the United Nations, and its unwavering support to Pakistan in this regard. This occurred after Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, according a special status to Jammu and Kashmir, was scrapped in August 2019.
Ardent supporters of China aver that this change in the country’s earlier policies of favouring a bilateral settlement to differences between India and Pakistan was the result of references made to the status of Aksai Chin being a part of India, during the debate in our Parliament. What followed were patently hostile moves by China in supporting Pakistan’s efforts to internationalise the Kashmir issue in international forums, particularly in the UN. In the midst of these developments, 80,298 people in Wuhan were hospitalised and 3,245 of them died, infected by the coronavirus.
Very little is known in India about the importance of Wuhan in contemporary China. Wuhan is located in central China, and is the hub of China’s industrial, technological and educational development for the past four decades. It is a key industrial area located close to the world’s largest hydro-electric power station, the ‘Three Gorges Dam’. It is also crucial to China’s contemporary industrial and technological development. Four massive scientific and technological development parks, 350 research institutes, and over 1,600 high tech parks fuelled largely by investments of Fortune 500 global companies are located in Wuhan. Key high technology, educational and research institutions are also located there.
But Wuhan has seriously sullied China’s reputation following reports in the Western media, averring that the coronavirus infection was evidently passed on to humans by bats, reptiles like snakes, bamboo rats, camels, pigs and hedgehogs. These are available for consumption in the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market in Wuhan. Moreover, China disappointed the world by hiding the facts behind the coronavirus crisis for weeks. The world would have been better prepared to handle the crisis if China had acted more urgently and transparently.
The Wuhan University and the Huazhong University of Science and Technology, both internationally-recognised institutions in the city, are among a large number of educational institutions highly regarded internationally. These institutions do not hesitate in inviting highly-regarded teaching staff from abroad regularly.
India’s connection with Wuhan
The Wuhan University, about which hardly any Indian was aware of until recently, shot into media glare when 324 Indian students studying there were brought back to India in an Air India flight. After being quarantined in India for two weeks, the students — most of whom hailed from Kerala — returned to their homes. This brought to note some interesting facts. The Wuhan University invites foreign students because it offers reasonably high-quality facilities of international standards in english, in subjects ranging from engineering to medicine, for afforable fee which amounts between ₹5-6 lakhs annually for the Indian middle class (including tuition, accommodation and food).
Sending children to the US or Canada for higher education would require parents to incur annual expenses amounting to 8-10 times of what one would incur at the Wuhan University. People in Kerala, which has the highest rate of literacy in the country, send their children to Wuhan only after a careful cost-benefit analysis.
Despite its economic progress and ability to contribute positively to global efforts to deal with the coronavirus crisis, China would have to work very hard to persuade the world that it will contribute positively and generously in dealing with the challenges the world faces today. Moreover, the rather arrogant behaviour of China in underplaying the impact and consequences of what recently transpired in Wuhan is certainly not going to add to its international standing.
At the same time, New Delhi has done well not to irresponsibly criticise China publicly, as US President Donald Trump has done. Trump himself is not really regarded as a responsible leader, not just across the world, but even within the US. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done well by not acting in a partisan manner during the crisis. He has sought national unity in confronting the most serious challenge the world is facing in recent history. Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, unlike some others, has thrown her weight behind what the Prime Minister is undertaking.
The government has also handled foreign policy skillfully, both regionally among the SAARC countries and globally in the G20. India’s role in working quietly and behind the scenes with Saudi Arabia to convene a tele-conference of leaders of the G20 during the crisis merits special mention. It signalled the will of the entire comity of nations to confront the coronavirus challenge in unision.
India is now at the crossroads in dealing with the coronavirus crisis. We have worked hard in our efforts to separate those afflicted with the disease from those who are not. The reality, however, is that we are still woefully underprepared in terms of hospitals and equipment like ventilators and other medical facilities, to deal with a large increase in the numbers of patients. Expanding hospital facilities in collaboration with State governments should now become the country’s foremost priority.
Unfortunately, even the most advanced countries like the US are feeling the shortage of essential equipment like ventilators. But people across ther country have shown substantial courage and resilience in dealing with the challenges faced. This was more than evident when they were required to join a nationwide lockdown.
The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan