Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai @ 70: Hit by COVID-19, Will it Pass the Test of Time?

 By Dr. Amrita Jash

On 1 April, India and China stepped into the 70th year of their diplomatic ties. In commemoration of the seventy years to the ties, 2020 is also designated as the “Year of India-China Cultural and People to People Exchanges”. In light of which, at the Second Informal Summit in 2019 at Mamallapuram, both the leadership laid the agenda of deepening exchanges at all levels including the exchanges between their respective legislatures, political parties, cultural and youth organisations and militaries- as charted to be held under seventy activities- providing for an opportune time for India and China to strengthen the ties. However, this celebratory agenda has been put to a halt against the undercurrents of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the spirit remains high.

In his congratulatory note, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that “good relations between India and China are conducive not only for our respective countries, but are also important from the perspective of peace, stability and prosperity of our region and the world”.[1] To which, Chinese President Xi Jinping has posited that the relations are “standing at a new starting point and facing new opportunities”.[2] In this pretext, undoubtedly, at 70, the relation stands older, and with time has turned wiser but still struggles to be stronger. What has shaped the diplomatic trajectory? In 1950, India was the first non-socialist country to recognise the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Since then the ties have been defined by the construct of “Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai” to that of now being defined by new jargons under “Wuhan spirit and Chennai connect’ under Modi-Xi dynamics.

With Panchsheel acting as the foundation to the ties, the trajectory of the diplomatic ties has developed with an ebb and flow- existing under a state of constant ‘metamorphosis’. To argue so, from the honeymoon period of the 1950s followed by renewal periods under Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s (1976) and Rajiv Gandhi’s (1988) landmark visits to that of entering a “Strategic and Cooperative Partnership” in 2005. These diplomatic breakthroughs came against the setbacks such as: the 1962 War, India’s nuclear test in 1998 and the 2017 Doklam stand-off- resulting into a stalemate. Furthermore, in the current context, the scope of the ties has also broadened overtime- levelling up from bilateral to that of multilateral as witnessed in terms of BRICS, AIIB, SCO, Climate Change, WTO and others. Truism lies in the fact that despite the setbacks, the relation has only evolved with time. Specifically, to argue, the relation has evolved from good to becoming better, if not best. However, despite the differences, the relations have also not become worst, but continue to remain challenged.

What makes it so, is the critical aspect of ‘trust factor’ between India and China, which has constantly run the test of time. Wherein, ‘trust deficit’ has invariably become a defining aspect of the diplomatic ties over the seven decades. This has resulted into competing interests complemented by mutual suspicion of each other’s intentions- calling for a security dilemma.

The testimony to it lies in the deepening faultlines that have hit the ties to lows overtime. As evident, despite the growing ties, India maintains a strong opposition towards joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in light of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). While China’s reactive response towards India are witnessed in terms of opposition to India’s entry into Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, Beijing’s continuous blanket support to Pakistan and failure to acknowledge Masood Azhar as a terrorist. In addition, China now plays the Kashmir card as witnessed in its voiced opposition against New Delhi’s revoking of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution at the United Nations. These realities bring into perspective the fragility of the 70 years ties, which is burdened by the ‘trust deficit’.  In this pretext, the big question is: Will COVID-19 become a new addition to India-China’s trust dilemma? Will COVID-19 re-shape the ties under the new realities of the changing global landscape?

The rapid outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic is increasingly leading to uncertainties with severe consequences for the globe. It has caused significant distress to the global economy and primarily, brought the healthcare system to a state of emergency as witnessed in countries such as Italy, United States, Spain and others. Under such contingency, countries are forced to relook at their diplomatic ties with China. As noted, United States have already logged its war against China under the blame game of “Chinese virus”. To which, India so far, has refrained from joining the bandwagon.

On the contrary, New Delhi’s approach has been to champion the call for a global fight against the pandemic. Applying this logic to its ties with China, Prime Minister Modi called the COVID-19 pandemic “a reminder to us [India and China] of the interconnected nature of our world today and the need therefore to adopt a truly global response to it”.[3] Arguably, if not immediate effects, but India’s ties with China too will undergo significant change in the aftermath of COVID-19. Wherein, two perspectives come into play- either the relations will take an upswing under a global approach or a downturn under a global action against China for its silence and lack of transparency over the Wuhan epidemic is only a test of time. For the latter, will act as a pressure point for India, if it chooses to act otherwise. Such systemic changes will surely be witnessed after the pandemic comes to a halt. Hence, in the current times, the bigger challenge for India and China is of correct handling of the pandemic.

Given time is of essence, the pragmatism lies in making a joint effort to quell the risks.  With India already experiencing the largest lockdown in the world, the most pressing concern for New Delhi is to prevent the crisis of an overwhelmed health care system. Given a population size of 1.3 billion and with COVID-19 cases on a rise, it remains indisputable that if the curve is not flattened on time, India will face a high fatality rate. To avoid a catastrophe, China with its Wuhan experience can guide India as well as the South Asian neighbourhood in the fight against the virus. In doing so, China can extend support by providing medical equipments and medical staff to maintain stability of the health care system. Most importantly, as India is yet not into the third stage of ‘community transmission’, Beijing can help further slow the process by sharing knowledge of new-age technologies such as robotics, 5G, drones, health codes and others –  a ‘no-contact’ measure practiced in China to reduce the risk of transmission.

Undoubtedly, it is the times of crisis that help test the strength of ties, as rightly said- ‘a friend in need, is a friend indeed’. Therefore, standing older and wiser at 70, a joint fight against COVID-19 provides an opportunity for India and China, which will not only make the ties stronger and but also help stand tall in the test of time.

End Notes”:

[1] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India (2020), “70th Anniversary of the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between India and China”, 01 April 2020, https://mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/32608/70th+Anniversary+of+the+Establishment+of+Diplomatic+Relations+between+India+and+China, accessed online 06 April 2020.

[2] “Xi says China-India relations at new starting point”, Xinhuanet, 01 April 2020, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-04/01/c_138938921.htm, accessed online 06 April 2020.

[3] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India (2020), “70th Anniversary”, n. 1.

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Dr. Amrita Jash is Research Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi. She co-edited the book on COVID-19 & Its Challenges: Is India Future Ready? with Lt Gen (Dr.) VK Ahluwalia (Pentagon Press, 2020). She holds a Ph.D in Chinese Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is the Managing Editor of the CLAWS Journal(KW Publishers).Dr. Jash is a Pavate Fellow and has been a Visiting Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge. She has been an Adjunct Faculty at the School of Global Affairs-Ambedkar University and a Visiting Faculty at the Department of Chinese-Sikkim Central University; a UGC Graduate Fellow (2012-2017); a US-INDIA-CHINA InitiativeFellow SAIS-Johns Hopkins University(2013); a researcher under China’s Ministry of Commerce(2014); a researcher under Harvard-Yenching-Nanching Programme (2015). In 2019, COAS Gen Bipin Rawat awarded her for contributing to the field of Chinese Studies.Dr. Jash’s research has appeared in 13 edited books, Peer-Reviewed Journals such as East Asian Policy, Review of Global Politics, Strategic Analysis, Yonsei Journal, China Report, Maritime Affairs and Strategic Vision. She has published with CSIS, RUSI, RSIS, Pacific Forum, ThinkChina, Huffington Post, E-IR, Asia Times, Munk School, Crawford School, ISDP, China-India Brief, SADF, and others. Her expertise are: China’s foreign policy, strategic and security issues; the PLA, India-China relations, China-Japan relations, and Indo-Pacific.