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Foreign Policy

The Geopolitical Pandemic Triangle: U.S., China and India

May 28, 2021

Over the last several weeks, India’s coronavirus outbreak has ravaged the country, with over 350,000 cases and 3,500 deaths reported on a single day in mid-April. The country, which is reporting an official infection total of more than 18 million cases – a figure still widely believed to be lower than the reality – has requested international aid. 

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken spoke with his counterpart in India when the Serum Institute requested the U.S. lift the ban on exporting vaccine raw materials. The initial response was less than ideal, with Department Spokesperson Ned Price saying to the press that “the United States first and foremost is engaged… to vaccinate the American people… it’s in the interests of the rest of the world to see Americans vaccinated.” Widespread backlash both within the United States and in the international arena led to an about-face in this policy. In late April, U.S. President Joe Biden pledged "America's full support to provide emergency assistance and resources in the fight against Covid-19," during a call with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

One of the United States’ most staunch critics was the Chinese state media outlet the Global Times, which published an article encouraging Indians to consider who their allies were, calling the States out for “casting a cold eye.” The article also cites previous U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat to retaliate against New Delhi if India prevented hydroxychloroquine from being exported, after which “India eased some of these restrictions in April and shipped 50 million tablets of the drug to the U.S. that month.” Another article from the Global Times calls the U.S. response “selfish and indifferent” saying that “..the U.S. that has worked hard to drag India into its gang to contain China, gave no help.” 

This is just one example of the visible tensions between China and the United States, as each country lobbies for Indian allyship as a tool in their fight for dominance in the region and in the global sphere. China Affairs Correspondent Vincent Ni, writing for The Guardian, pointed out that “some in China see India’s crisis as a diplomatic opportunity.” Beijing has played a major role in proactively providing aid to battle the coronavirus around the world, which the CNN refers to as a deliberate effort to “position itself as a global leader”. 

CNN claims New Delhi has “not taken Beijing up” on its offer, and quotes mutual distrust between the two countries as the reason; the Global Times concurs, stating “it is up to India to take the initiative of accepting [the help], but so far, there is no sign of that.” This may be due in large part due to the first fatal border dispute in the Ladakh region in the Himalayas since 1975, which resulted in at least 20 dead. Both India and China accused each other of initiating and escalating the conflict. China and India are similar in many ways: they are both nuclear powers led by strongly nationalist governments, and are the two most populous countries in the world; the potential for large-scale conflict during this time was significant. According to The Guardian, the Ladakh dispute heightened anti-China sentiment in India. “In an August poll, nearly 60% of respondents said India should go to war with China to resolve border tensions, and more than 90% backed banning Chinese apps and denying contracts to Chinese companies.” Despite this, and despite the alleged lack of response or acceptance from the Indian government, Chinese supplies to fight COVID-19 have begun arriving in India. 

Chinese leader Xi Jinping reached out to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in late-April to offer condolences over the COVID-19 outbreak and promise additional support. China had already sent 25,000 oxygen concentrators, along with 5,000 ventilators and 21,000 oxygen generators. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the Chinese people, down to the local government level, as well as international NGOs such as the Chinese Red Cross have all "taken actions and managed to raise much-needed anti-epidemic supplies for the Indian side and send them to the Indian people as soon as possible." Chinese airlines have been running cargo flights to India, aided by authorities accelerating customs clearance and transport for essential supplies like liquid oxygen storage tanks and oxygen generators. The Chinese embassy in Sri Lanka tweeted about the oxygen concentrators airlifted to Delhi, and promised more were on the way. 

It would not be a far stretch to imagine that Beijing’s swift aid to the crisis is in response to India and the United States’ strengthening relationship. Indian officials might view this “charm offensive” as “Beijing’s attempt to drive a wedge between Delhi and Washington,” according to Srikanth Kondapalli, a China expert at Jawaharlal Nehru University. That being said, India’s proximity to China – the two countries share a border & several neighbors - is also a legitimate source of concern for China’s efforts to combat coronavirus and reason enough to join forces against the pandemic. 

With competing reports and accusations coming out from each of the three nations in this geopolitical power triangle, the question on everyone’s mind is the same: will a common sense of humanity overcome geopolitical power squabbles? Will U.S.-China relations, U.S.-India ties, and China-India relationships be able to take a backseat to the 26 million suffering from the coronavirus and nearly 300,000 reported dead in India as of this week? 

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