Xi’s message on Friday to Prime Minister Narendra Modi extending Beijing’s support to counter the second Covid wave in India is a major step, marking the first direct communication between the two leaders following the Chennai informal summit in 2019.
Interestingly, Xi reached out to the Prime Minister, after US President Joe Biden and the Russian President Vladimir Putin had spoken to Modi, and followed up their conversation with the dispatch of planeloads of essential medical supplies to counter the second vicious wave of Covid-19.
It is likely that China, which now prides itself as a “responsible global power,” did not want to be left out when key members of the UN Security Council, including Britain and France, apart from the US and Russia had reached out to New Delhi.
Yet, Xi’s outreach is significant, as Beijing now would surely be testing an Indian response. For India, the game of smoke and mirrors has already begun. New Delhi’s response must be measured and proportionate and should test out whether, behind Xi’s statement, there is a Chinese intent to dial down the frictions between the two countries.
For starters, does President Xi want to reduce tensions along the borders, which have not abated since the pullbacks from the Pangong Tso in Eastern Ladakh? Further withdrawals are likely to take place once the key strategic concerns of India and China are met. From an Indian perspective, the possibility of a two-front war involving China and Pakistan is a serious security concern.
From a Chinese perspective, India must not pose a threat to Aksai Chin, the area which provides a strategic link between Tibet and Xinjiang. If the Chinese are serious about normalizing, Xi’s message should be followed up with an offer for talks between the Special Representative of the two countries–National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and China’s State Councillor Wang Yi. Only if genuine progress on the borders is made by China, only then may India look at de-hyphenating the security and economic tracks between the two countries, which were fused in June last year, following the bitter Galwan valley clash between the two militaries.
Significantly, the Chinese have been sending feelers of their inclination to reach out to India only this week. After the Americans and Russian had taken to lead to bond with India to counter the second Covid wave. On Wednesday, Chinese ambassador to India, Sun Weidong tweeted that “Chinese medical suppliers are working overtime on orders from India, at least 25000 orders for oxygen concentrators in recent days. Cargo planes are under the plan for medical supplies. Chinese customs will facilitate the relevant process.”
The reference to “cargo planes” was apparently meant to bury the “scandal” of Sichuan Airlines refusing to fly its cargo planes directly to India with essential supplies, citing fears of contracting the virus. On Thursday, Chinese state councilor and foreign minister Wang Yi also got into the act of perception management. In a letter to External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, Wang assured his counterpart that, “anti-pandemic materials produced in China are entering India at a faster pace to help India fight the epidemic”. He further added that “The Chinese side will continue to do its utmost to provide support and help according to the needs of India.”
Earlier on Monday the logistics arm under Sichuan Airlines decided to resume cargo services to India. “We are re-evaluating the original plan of suspending cargo services to India, and actively discussing a new plan to guarantee cargo services to the region,” the company said in a reply sent to the Global Times on Monday.
Ambassador Sun also sought to create the impression that there has been no interruption in Chinese supplies to India. Without mentioning any specific dates, he tweeted on Thursday that, “Since this April, #China has supplied more than 5000 ventilators, 21569 oxygen generators, over 21.48 million masks & around 3800 tons of medicines to #India, according to statistics of the General Administration of Customs of China.” (IANS/JC)