The intensifying Covid-19 pandemic in India has caught New Delhi on its back in several ways. While it continues to cope with the fallout from the second wave of the pandemic, its domestic difficulties inevitably have an impact on the dynamics of its foreign policy.
On the one hand, instead of becoming a regional power supplying vaccines to its neighbors, it stopped almost all vaccine exports and had to rely on foreign medical assistance. On the other hand, he imposed an element of normalcy in his relations with China. It’s obvious of President Xi Jinping’s letter to Prime Minister Modi offering his assistance to India to deal with the pandemic. This is the first known communication between the two leaders after the start of the pandemic in early 2020 and the Sino-Indian border crisis from April to May of last year.
Simultaneously there was a phone call between Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The Indian minister spoke to his counterpart about the importance of maintaining China’s transport corridors and cargo flights to facilitate the flow of materials to deal with the surge of COVID in India. As part of the conversation, he mentioned that the disengagement process along the LAC remains “unfinished” and should be “completed at the earliest”.
China in the sweet spot
Meanwhile, China appears to be heading towards an sweet spot. Its relatively intact economy is doing well, and its national mood manifested itself in the launch on April 28 of the core module of its international space station project, which is a major indicator of the return to normalcy in this country. Beijing hopes that its space station will be operational by the end of 2022. And incidentally, China moved to fill the void created by India and pledged vaccines and other supplies to countries like Bangladesh and Nepal. On April 27, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted a video conference with counterparts from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, where Beijing proposed a number of measures to promote anti-pandemic cooperation between them, as well as to promote economic recovery to continue cooperation Belt and Road. India was invited but chose not to attend.
The return to normalcy in China is important, because it is something that has so far escaped the United States and India. This will have an impact on geopolitical dynamics, in particular the revised Indo-Pacific strategy of quadruple nations. China is Australia and Japan’s main trading partner, while the United States is number two. By the way, according to Chinese data, bilateral merchandise trade between India and China reached US $ 27.7 billion in the first quarter of this year, a whopping 42.8 percent year-over-year increase. With Japanese ratification of RCEP, Things are on track for the deal to take effect in January 2022 as the largest trading bloc in history. Beijing is the key foothold in the trade bloc with Northeast Asia, which includes Japan and South Korea, which are three of Asia’s four largest economies.
Elsewhere too, Beijing is on the move. At the end of April, the Chinese Minister of Defense General Wei Fenghe visited the South Asian region, with visits to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. A major feature of the visit was the help China gave Colombo to deal with its Covid-19 crisis which has intensified in recent weeks. Beijing has granted more than $ 2 billion in loans and a currency exchange facility to Colombo to deal with the economic strain of the pandemic. Sri Lanka has over US $ 5 billion in outstanding debt to China. In the remarks During the Dhaka leg of his visit, General Wei spoke of the importance for neighboring countries of resisting “powers outside the region establishing military alliances in South Asia”.
Before coming to South Asia, General Wei visited Vietnam, where he met with Communist Party General Secretary Ngyuyen Phu Trong and President Nguyen Xuan Phuc. In his remarks, President Phuc said Vietnam would oppose “any interference by forces in China’s internal affairs” – a reference to Taiwan. He added that Vietnam “will never follow other countries to oppose China.” The undeclared subtext of the tour appears to be the need to counter the activities of the Quad, which had acted aggressively to declare comprehensive strategic competition with China in the Indo-Pacific region.
The United States Speaks Hard
As for the United States, it continues to maintain a firm stance on China, as the talks in Alaska show. But he is focusing on longer term competition. Speaking at the recent Aspen Security Forum, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the goal of Biden’s policy was to “not contain China.” Indeed, he added, “Quad is not fundamentally about China. It is about this affirmative agenda that these four capable democracies can fix themselves. The Biden team acts along the Interim strategic direction on national security which says, “the basic strategic proposition” is that: to be strong abroad, “obliges the United States to rebuild better at home”. This process has only just begun, and the United States is unlikely to be interested in further destabilizing ties with a key trading partner. A full review of the U.S. China strategy is still in the works, so the policy of the Biden administration may well see great continuity, as well as cooperation, and even accommodation, with China.
A new Indo-Pacific strategy was presented at the Virtual Quad Summit on March 12 by President Biden, who indicated that what the United States was looking for was to achieve stability in this important region, troubled by Chinese actions in Hong Kong and threats to Taiwan. In his remarks, he spoke of the importance of reviving the American economic recovery, although he made the commitment to an Indo-Pacific region “ruled by international law, and committed to upholding universal values. and free from any constraint ”. The purpose of US policy is to manage China’s future behavior, rather than undoing things that have already happened. In his first speech to Congress at the end of April, Biden pledged to maintain a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific. He said China is “moving closer together” and the United States must “develop and dominate the products and technologies of the future.”
Key events for Biden, Jinping
The US economy is also doing well and Biden had proposed an ambitious plan for national rejuvenation. The problem is that the United States remains a politically divided society and making the plans work on the ground will not be easy. Write in the Financial Times, Demetri Sevastopulo pointed out that there are two key events in 2022 that are important for China and the United States. Biden must win the midterm elections in the face of Donald Trump’s ongoing challenge. And Xi Jinping must keep the Chinese Communist Party united as he seeks another five-year term in the National Party Congress scheduled for next year. The two will likely find they have to play hard until then, but that doesn’t mean we’ll see the kind of clashes that have taken place in the Western Pacific in the last year of the Trump administration. Indeed, US officials have signaled that there could also be cautious engagement.
All of this does little to comfort New Delhi, which is negotiating a withdrawal from China in the eastern region of Ladakh. Prime Minister Modi’s remarks at the recent Quad summit were suitably innocuous and low-key, even though New Delhi could be a major beneficiary of America’s new posture. Since then, India has been submerged by the Covid tsunami which reduces the room for maneuver. Given the intensity of the current wave of the pandemic, it will be some time before the government can focus on foreign diplomacy. The current wave has yet to recede and even when it does, New Delhi will need to focus on plugging the dangerous holes that have manifested in its administrative and public health systems and anticipate further waves.
All of this is even as India grapples with China in eastern Ladakh and seeks to persuade Beijing to restore status quo ante the. the Beijing message seems to be that India is better prepared to accept the done. It could mean pressure on New Delhi to worsen the situation there, as in the case of Pangong Tso. This has its own risks.
The writer is a distinguished member of the ORF. He has been a journalist specializing in national and international politics and is a commentator and columnist
The Observer Research Foundation