China bashing is the popular sentiment in the time of coronavirus epidemic. From US President Donald Trump to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, all are taking potshots at China over the virus, and rightly so.
But India needs to be smart about how it goes about its relationship with China and not be taken in by the global powers who are currently baying for blood over the social and economic fallout from a pandemic whose geographic origin lies in China.
There have been demands from various quarters in India to boycott Chinese products. Buoyed by countries hitting out at China, many in India now say it is time to box in China and go for a much deeper defence cooperation with other nations. However, this is where the cesspool exists.
And so, India needs to be clever in playing its cards. It will be helped by the fact that in the wake of the world left to fight a deadly virus, Brand China has been further hit. Perhaps this explains China’s lovely business as usual propaganda video showcasing the might of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, put out on Thursday, the 71st anniversary of the PLA Navy, which is the fastest growing navy in the world.
Happy birthday, PLA Navy! Today marks the 71th founding anniversary of the PLA Navy. Founded in Taizhou, E China’s Jiangsu, the naval force has been safeguarding Chinese maritime borders since April 23, 1949. pic.twitter.com/90xNpS4UzV
— People’s Daily, China (@PDChina) April 23, 2020
Indian market counters China’s border advantage
While all the global powers are miles away from China, India has a very long, even disputed, running border with it.
Tanvi Madan, a senior fellow in the foreign policy programme at the Brookings Institution, rightly observes that China has a number of points of leverage, including its ability to pressure India on the boundary. In a recent paper ‘assessing China’s growing role in the world’, she argued that China “can also complicate India’s internal security situation (particularly in India’s northeast as it did in the past), and Delhi’s regional options given Beijing’s expanding ties with India’s territorial and maritime neighbors.”
“Furthermore, China can use its relationship with Pakistan as a tool to pressure — or reassure — India. Beijing can also be helpful or harmful to Indian interests in key international bodies, especially the U.N. Security Council. Finally, while China’s ability to use economic coercion with India is relatively limited because of their still limited investment relationship, there are areas Beijing could target — for instance, India’s pharmaceutical sector, which is fairly dependent on imports of active ingredients from China,” Tanvi wrote.
Not everything is tilted in China’s favour, though. India is a huge market for Chinese goods. And as a brand, India is more dependable than China and is the only power in the region that can actually act as a roadblock, if not stop, the increasing Chinese military aspirations.
Other powers also understand this and are hence increasing defence cooperation with India, especially in the maritime domain, much to the discomfort of China.
India is being cautious and rightly so
One would have noticed India’s cautious stance in dealing with the matter of attacking China over this coronavirus crisis. There is no doubt, though, that had China been transparent and forthcoming in the initial stages of the pandemic, the world at large would have been in a better place right now.
That said, we have to make sure that the ties with China remain strong. India and China are celebrating 70 years of diplomatic relations. India was the first non-Communist state in the region to establish diplomatic ties with China.
While the coronavirus has affected the planned year round celebrations, a number of things could still be tackled in the coming days and one of them is the trade talks.
Thankfully, India’s envoy to China Vikram Misri has said that New Delhi plans to resume discussion on “outstanding trade issues” with Beijing, including those related to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), once the Covid-19 situation stabilises.
He is right because one should not upset the apple cart.
Border disputes and Indian Ocean region is a concern
Another important issue is the border dispute. Since the Doklam crisis, India and China have made huge progress in ensuring that nothing big happens along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
With summer approaching and snow melting, India will have to be on its guard to maintain the status quo at the LAC or risk breaking the fragile peace because every small incident has the potential to snowball into a major crisis, which could also involve foreign players.
Another theatre that India needs to watch out for is the Indian Ocean region. Navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh had said that at any given point of time, at least eight Chinese ships are present in the Indian Ocean region.
Although their presence is legal since it is international waters, the increasing foray remains a concern, as is China’s deepening ties with India’s neighbouring countries, which have traditionally been our area of influence.
This comes at a time when Chinese PLA is busy churning out one destroyer after another besides submarines and aircraft carriers. No wonder that American warships recently sailed into the South China Sea amid growing tensions even as much of the world is in lockdown.
Pandemic fallout could be India’s advantage
While China’s giant production factories have more or less come back into action, there are questions about their credibility. Japan has announced a $2 billion effort to help its country’s firms move production out of China. More countries are likely to take this step.
Several countries, including India, have announced a slew of measures to prevent Chinese companies from poaching on their small and medium sector enterprises through investments while they go through an upheaval.
It’s the hit on Brand China that India should focus on. The Narendra Modi government should identify sectors with potential and present India as a safe alternative to China before a pandemic-hit world.
Views are personal.