Given China’s attempts to hide facts about the current pandemic and attempts to capitalise on the ensuing financial chaos, India must rethink its attitude towards its neighbours
We have entered an extremely crucial phase in the post-COVID-19 condition. Our attitude towards China will have to be calibrated on the basis of India's vital interests. Geopolitics will rule supreme in this world emerging out of a most stressful scenario which shows no clear endgame.
It is quite evident that the primary focus of the pandemic was unleashed on the G7 countries — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK and USA. With the exception of Japan, these economic leaders of the world are facing the greatest devastation. The virus had crossed the Atlantic Ocean and had hit members of NATO. It was as if to cripple the economic powerhouse of the world. Thanks to the Pacific Ocean perhaps, Japan with only 517 deaths so far, had escaped the severity. With this background, countries in Europe and the US are finding it extremely difficult to assuage each other that it was not an act of biowarfare. A crescendo for a transparent neutral probe, therefore, into happenings in China is already being echoed. Australia's call for such a probe evinced hostile retaliation from Chinese diplomats. China is thwarting all attempts asking it to transparently divulge details leading to the outbreak of the pandemic whilst claiming that it has provided supplies to 100 countries battling the pandemic, most of which were found substandard including in India. It is being seen as blatant profiteering from suffering countries.
In the midst of this global uncertainty, China had moved that its currency, the yuan, should replace the US dollar as the world's global currency so that it would give it more control over its economy. That clinches the conclusion that economic imperialism was their eventual objective. As it is, China with its well-honed practices of 'debt diplomacy' has established an economic stranglehold over large parts of Asia and Africa. Pakistan is its foremost victim whilst it has vigorously captured regimes in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Bangladesh. Nepal, too, is being wooed. Sri Lanka is being persuaded to support the Chinese agenda in the post COVID scenario where the current regime was allegedly bought over for financing unviable projects in Hambantota.
As part of a larger design, they had already set up a military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. The top 20 African nations in which China is involved include not only commodity-rich nations such as Nigeria and South Africa, but commodity-poor nations like Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. Government-to-government deals involve infrastructure projects and natural resources. Many Chinese firms that invested in Africa between 1998 and 2012 are in business services. African nations owe China more than $140 billion but are facing an economic disaster as the response to the Coronavirus pandemic forces businesses to close and people to stay at home. The outcry for debt relief is growing in order to help the world's poorest, indebted nations — most of them in Africa — confront the economic havoc wreaked by COVID-19. But there is one big question mark: China. Tanzania has already cancelled its $20 billion contract; terming it as being unfair.
On the other hand, several American and European corporates who were using the Chinese manufacturing potential for its products are furiously planning to exit China and set their hubs elsewhere in Asia. The Chinese regime is resisting these attempts. The most notable point is that the Peoples' Republic of China has no constituency in the global community except for Russia and whose attitude towards China on Corona is hugely ambivalent. On China's own domestic front, there is a visible rise in the level of criticism against the leadership, namely Xi Jinping on handling the pandemic which is being ruthlessly suppressed. But the UN Security Council, on the other hand, is being played around and is resorting to a video conference in the face of challenges of social distancing which is not working out.
There is a unique conglomeration of issues affecting India including an adversarial borders syndrome with China. On the domestic front, India was already in the throes of a severe economic crisis brought about essentially by the demonetisation of 2016 and an equally ill-planned introduction of the Goods and Service Tax. In a nutshell, it had created sizable financial shortfalls in the government's revenue collection and a severe financial impact on the daily wage unorganised sector and thus, small and medium sector industries. In the midst of this situation, the Chinese banks and institutions were caught heavily investing in Indian companies. Fortunately, this activity was nipped in the bud much to dislike of the Chinese regime. But Indian companies withdrawing from China is not being accepted with grace and legal hurdles are being put in place even as Indian companies are being persuaded to set themselves up on Indian soil. But this is no simple task and will not work unless the Central and state governments arrange for monetary support and put their might behind such an endeavour. On that score, there are some indications but none are very clear.
The time has come, perhaps, for India to join with the global community and rally around its partners in South Asia for a joint strategy to deal with China with deftness and firmness.
The writer is a retired Air Commodore and strategic affairs commentator. Views expressed are strictly personal