Since the onset of COVID -19 about a year and a half ago, China has been active in engaging the rest of the world. Its role has changed, though, from one mainly at the receiving end at the beginning of the pandemic to a major contributor to the global fight against it since May last year, when the virus was largely brought under control in the country. But while its involvement and contribution is appreciated in much of the developing world, its experience with India, its neighbor, and the United States have so far been mixed.
As the second wave of the pandemic began to rage in India in mid-April, China immediately offered its assistance. President Xi Jinping sent a message of condolence to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the country’s COVID-19 crisis deepened. And the Chinese foreign minister called his Indian counterpart to offer assistance.
Almost at once, ventilators and oxygen concentrators began flowing to India by the tens of thousands as Chinese manufacturers worked around the clock and customs officials streamlined procedures to speed the exports.
China believes neighbors should look out for one another and helping each other in a crisis. As a Chinese saying goes, neighbors are more helpful than far-away relatives, especially in times of adversity. It also sees its effort to support India as reciprocity for the goodwill and generosity of the Indian government and people when the pandemic struck China early last year.
In addition, China is convinced that it’s in its own interest to help India to stamp out the virus. The world, China included, can ill-afford to stand by as the crisis engulfs India. Ominously, a variant of the coronavirus that was first detected in India has found its way to China.
So far Chinese-made medical supplies and equipment have been sent to India without the direct involvement of the Indian government. And there are other areas where the two countries can work together to end the deadly virus.
First, they can share their experience and best practices in stopping the spread of the virus and in treating patients. For example, as top U.S. virologist Dr. Anthony Fauci suggests, China’s experience in constructing makeshift hospitals would be useful for India as it tries to relieve its overwhelmed hospitals.
Second, China can help India in speeding up its vaccination drive. China is arguably the only country in the world that is both able and prepared to share its vaccine. It has one of the six vaccines approved by the World Health Organization, with another one likely coming soon. Further, it has an unrivaled productive capacity globally, with Sinopharm alone capable of making 3 billion doses in a single year. With less than 3 percent of the population fully vaccinated so far, India badly needs to speed up its vaccination program.
Cooperation in these areas would undoubtedly contribute to quicker containment of the virus in India. However, the Indian government has so far been unresponsive to its neighbor’s offer. The lack of enthusiasm is attributed by some to the resentment and distrust that arose from border tensions between the two countries in Himalaya region, where Indian and Chinese troops clashed in a deadly confrontation late last year. There is also a suggestion in India that accepting aid from China would be embarrassing.
It is, therefore, essential for the Indian government to take a pragmatic approach if the two countries are to come together at the governmental level in this global war against the pandemic. When the Indian government is ready, the Chinese government will be ready also.
Before U.S. President Joe Biden took office, many in China and elsewhere thought the pandemic would be one of the few areas where the two countries could cooperate. After all, to end the pandemic is a global common need that requires urgent and coordinated action. But cooperation has not materialized. Instead, the two countries have continued to exchange barbs.
With a population less than one-fourth that of China, the U.S. has an infection rate more than 330 times greater and COVID-related casualties more than 120 times greater. The Biden administration cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, deal with China from a position of strength. Working with China in an area in which the U.S. has failed so miserably would run the risk of highlighting China’s success, which is politically untenable. Washington is also concerned that cooperation between the two countries may offer its rival an opportunity to increase its influence in the U.S. and beyond.
Conceivably, though, there are many areas where cooperation between China and the U.S. would benefit both countries and the rest of the world. They include research in viral biology, vaccines and medical treatment, as well as production of personal protective materials and medicines.
One particular area that potentially provides fertile soil for cooperation is the governance of global public health. As the experience of the World Health Organization with COVID-19 amply demonstrates, a more responsive and stronger global system is sorely needed to better cope with viruses that will emerge in the future. To this end, innovative reforms will have to be introduced to the WHO, with adequate funding provided. It’s hard to see this happening, however, without the U.S. and China working together.
Another promising area would be the distribution of vaccines in the developing world. China and the U.S. are the world’s top two vaccine producers. Between them, they have five of the six vaccines approved by the WHO. The two countries are well positioned to ensure that vaccines can be made available to anyone at affordable prices.
Such cooperation seems to be within the realm of possibility. The Biden administration aspires to be a world leader. By contrast, the U.S. under Donald Trump was the odd man out at the WHO. Its return to the world body under Biden, significant as it is, has not helped much with its damaged reputation. The Biden administration’s desire to lead the world in the virus fight — as with climate change — is unlikely to become reality if it refuses to join forces with China. The road to leadership in global public health for the U.S. inevitably runs through Beijing.
Additionally, the Biden administration is under mounting pressure globally to join hands with China. The world is in desperate need of a seamless wall of protection against the plague. Any cracks that result from divisions between countries admit the virus and leave everyone exposed. In this context, the U.S. and China coming together is not seen as business between the two countries but as an issue that concerns all the world.
Biden’s decision to temporarily waive intellectual property rights related to the COVID-19 vaccines hints that the U.S. administration may eventually respond to the calls of the international community. After all, even during the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were able to bury the hatchet and work together to eradicate smallpox and polio worldwide. Let us keep our fingers crossed.