Coronavirus pandemic
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
A woman is consoled after her husband died from Covid-19 in Ahmedabad, India. Photo: Reuters

As US and China offer coronavirus aid, India wary of hidden agendas

  • As virus mutations send infections rocketing in India, offers of help have arrived from both Biden and Beijing
  • But the US has soured sentiment by dragging its feet; sceptics say China sees its chance to drive a wedge between Washington and New Delhi
As India continues to battle a raging Covid-19 outbreak, with US President Joe Biden pledging Washington’s help on Monday, New Delhi has remained silent on Beijing’s offer of assistance, while Indian companies have struck their own deals with Chinese firms to import oxygen tanks and personal protective equipment.
Indian analysts said New Delhi’s reticence reflected the prevailing public sentiment that Beijing was not sincerely concerned about India, but instead wanted to highlight Washington’s failure to send vaccine raw materials to India due to export curbs and stockpiled supplies of AstraZeneca vaccines.
Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal said China was “accentuating how [India] is down on its knees begging for help to control its pandemic”. India’s latest surge, thought to be fuelled in part by mutations in the virus, has seen record daily infection numbers resulting in overwhelmed hospitals, desperate calls for oxygen supplies on social media and mass cremations in makeshift facilities. The country now has more than 17 million cases, the second-highest caseload worldwide behind the United States.

“There’s always a hidden agenda behind Beijing’s outreach in such matters. China wants to signal to India that America [which initially refused help to India] is not a reliable partner and drive a wedge between Delhi and Washington who share a good relationship,” said Sibal, whose diplomatic career spanned nearly five decades including two as India’s top diplomat from 2001 to 2002.

Indeed, China’s Communist Party-backed Global Times newspaper has in the past days criticised the US for failing to provide aid to India, suggesting it is not a reliable partner for India, despite both countries forging closer ties in the past year in a bid to counter China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific.
With the Indian public’s disdain for China at a high over an ongoing border dispute, ex-diplomat Ashok Sajjanhar said New Delhi would have to weigh its moves carefully.

“In a democracy, the government has to be mindful of public opinion. India would’ve played right into China’s hands if it had accepted its offer of help considering the latter is always on the lookout for domination on the geopolitical stage. Helping India in such a crisis would have conveyed those optics,” said Sajjanhar, a former ambassador to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia.

Multiple funeral pyres for people who died of Covid-19 burn in New Delhi, India. Photo: AP
India received crates of ventilators and oxygen concentrators from Britain early on Tuesday after oxygen tanks and ventilators from Singapore arrived on the weekend. Germany and Canada have promised support, while France said on Monday it would send eight oxygen production units as well as oxygen containers and respirators to India.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on Monday reiterated Beijing’s offer, first made last week, to provide medical support if New Delhi requested it. In response to queries over whether China’s state-run Sichuan Airlines would suspend cargo flights to India carrying made-in-China medical supplies ordered by Indian firms, Wang said these were private arrangements made by businesses. Sichuan Airlines later said it was discussing a new plan to guarantee cargo services to the region.

China to mobilise private companies to help India fight Covid-19 surge


Sibal though said he saw no harm in India, the world’s largest vaccine-maker, accepting raw materials for vaccine production from China “given the fact we continue to trade with it and buy numerous products including thousands of dollars’ worth of solar panels etc”.

Jerome Kim, the director-general of the Seoul-based International Vaccine Institute, said India should ask China for help to meet a critical shortage of vaccines. India is a global supplier of vaccines and New Delhi has committed more funds to increase production, but national demand far outstrips supply.

India and China should recall how the US and Soviet Union set aside their differences during the Cold War to successfully eradicate small pox and polio, he added.


India's health care system crumbles amid Covid-19 onslaught as countries pledge help

India's health care system crumbles amid Covid-19 onslaught as countries pledge help

“This is an opportunity for neighbour to help neighbour. I think that would be a beneficial thing because not only would it be important for control of the disease, but it would also be important as an opportunity for the two countries to bridge traditional enmity,” said Kim.

Ties between India and China have been fractious over a protracted dispute at their shared border known as the Line of Actual Control. Two months after both sides took a first step towards de-escalation by withdrawing troops from the glacial Pangong Tso lake in the Himalayas, they have not made any progress on disengagement in at least two other points of friction. This has fuelled a growing belief in India that its troops withdrew too early and that a fuller withdrawal is unlikely to happen any time soon.

Was India’s pull-out from lake on disputed China border a mistake?

Close to 9 per cent of India’s 1.3 billion population has received at least one dose of a vaccine, while about 1.6 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated. The jabs on offer are the locally produced Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine or a home-grown one by Bharat Biotech. However, India is running low on vaccines after initially dispatching millions of doses to its neighbours as part of a vaccine diplomacy push.

Under its Vaccine Maitri programme, India exported over 66 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines to 95 countries worldwide. In comparison, China has exported 80 million doses to about 60 countries, but only after addressing the vaccination requirements of its own populace, a health ministry source told This Week in Asia.
In recent weeks, India had appealed to the US to release its stockpile of AstraZeneca vaccines and lift an export ban on the export of 37 critical elements needed for the manufacture of Covid-19 vaccines. The export of these elements is barred under the 1950 US Defense Production Act that authorises the US president to direct firms to prioritise domestic needs, said the source.

But Washington’s initial slowness in coming to India’s aid led to souring sentiment in India towards the US, while the sizeable Indian diaspora – including US tech billionaire Vinod Khosla – in the US took matters into their own hands and began lobbying Washington.

Biden and his Vice-President Kamala Harris, who is of Indian heritage, have in the last two days pledged American help to India including therapeutics, raw materials for vaccines, rapid diagnostic test kits, ventilators, personal protection equipment and financing aid for Covid-19 vaccine production.

Analysts say the US volte-face is a way of salvaging the situation, as Washington is well aware that India is its “only friend who can keep China in check on the volatile Asian geopolitical chessboard”, said a Delhi-based senior bureaucrat, who declined to be named as he was not authorised to speak publicly.

Amid souring sentiment towards the US, social media discussions also pointed out that Washington was not responsible for the latest surge. The Hindu newspaper’s National Editor Suhasini Haider suggested the appeals from Indians on social media for help spoke “to the absence of government of any kind”. 

Sibal pointed out that at the last Quad summit, the group’s four stakeholders (the US, India, Japan and Australia) had pledged to work jointly to fight the pandemic. India had offered to produce one billion Covid-19 vaccines; the US had helped to offer technology for it; Japan was to provide finance and Australia was on board to provide the delivery infrastructure.

“Given this backdrop, the Biden administration’s failure to lend a helping hand to India for vaccine production would have come across as doublespeak and severely dented its credibility as a global leader,” he said.

Additional reporting by Bloomberg, Agence France-Presse