Sunday, February 5, 2023
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Covid has brought back Chinese whispers in Sri Lanka, Nepal. Is India listening?

South Asia has for long witnessed a see-saw diplomatic battle between India and China, but Covid is adding fresh dimensions to this engagement.

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The 30th anniversary of the return of Indian Peace-Keeping Force from Sri Lanka has come and gone, without a murmur. As many as 1,200 Indian soldiers were killed and several hundreds more wounded in the 32 months that the IPKF spent in the teardrop island country, in the wake of the 1987 India-Sri Lanka accord signed between former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and then Sri Lankan President Junius Jayewardene, in order to defeat the LTTE.

Thirty years later, the world has changed profoundly. Not just because a virus is wreaking havoc globally, sending thousands to their premature deaths and putting the fear of God into millions of others, but also because Covid is drawing up the faint contours of a post-pandemic world.

Also read: Why Modi’s India won’t join US, France and other nations in blaming China for Covid just yet

India countering Beijing’s Covid diplomacy

At the heart of this Covid story is how China is aggressively fighting accusations of not coming clean on the virus’ antecedents and how it is using this crisis to expand its political presence in large parts of the globe, including in South Asia.

The South Asia example is particularly fascinating. For the last several years, the region has witnessed a see-saw diplomatic battle between India and China, both of which want to expand their sphere of influence. The Covid pandemic has only exacerbated this determination.

Considering India’s economy is one-fifth the size of China, Delhi knows it can never win the numbers game with Beijing. Anything India promises, the Chinese pledge ten times more. So even though Prime Minister Modi promised to set up a SAARC emergency fund with $10 million aid in March, India knew it had to do more.

It was decided that the Indian Army would ready rapid response teams to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan, on the lines of the medical team it sent to the Maldives early in the outbreak. These teams are expected “to help boost (their) capabilities” in dealing with the ongoing health crisis.

This is clearly India’s biggest foreign policy move in recent times and it is taking place right here, in India’s neighbourhood.

Significantly, the Army’s rapid response teams will not go to two countries, Pakistan and Nepal. While the absence of an overture to Pakistan is disappointing, it is not surprising. The Modi government has been tough in its foreign policy towards Islamabad and it shows no signs of relenting.

Also read: China is feeling the heat over Covid-19 — from Japan to Australia. But India’s hands are full

Nepal’s warming up to China

What is interesting is the apparent cold shoulder to Nepal, especially considering India and Nepal share such an intimate relationship. Former foreign minister Sushma Swaraj had perfectly described the relationship as a “roti-beti ka rishta”. The question as to why Delhi is ignoring Kathmandu has its answers in the growing proximity between Kathmandu and Beijing under the prime ministership of K.P. Sharma Oli.

The China-Nepal axis has been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years, but so far was limited to developmental works like hydroelectric projects. In recent weeks and months, though, the Chinese have been ambitiously trying to influence politics in Kathmandu. Last week, Chinese ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi tried to broker peace between recalcitrant factions of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP). Yanqi held meetings with Oli, along with former Nepali PMs Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda and Madhav Kumar Nepal.

According to Kathmandu Post, Hou Yanqi discussed three issues – the internal crisis in the NCP, China’s assistance to fight Covid-19, and the hope that Nepal will desist from climbing onto anti-Chinese bandwagons. The envoy’s conversations came within days of Chinese President Xi Jinping calling his Nepali counterpart Bidya Devi Bhandari.

It is not clear yet if the Chinese are succeeding in their power gambit, but that has not prevented them from seeking to influence the independent Nepali media.

When the ‘Kathmandu Post’ carried a syndicated piece on Chinese secrecy and the coronavirus, the embassy in Nepal accused the newspaper of “malicious intention, deliberately (smearing) the efforts of the Chinese government and people…and viciously attacked the political system of China.”

The ‘Post’s’ editor, Anup Kaphle, the Chinese embassy went on to add, had always been “biased on China-related issues.” Pointing a finger at India and like-minded democracies, the embassy said Kaphle had become a “parrot of some anti-China forces.”

Also read: China hasn’t just won its war on coronavirus. It’s also beating US in global diplomacy

Sri Lanka a new Chinese ground

Just a few weeks later, a similar story about press freedom and censorship was playing out in Sri Lanka. When Twitter mistakenly suspended the account of the Chinese embassy in Colombo in April, after a Sri Lankan newspaper said China should compensate the world for damage caused by Covid, the Chinese embassy accused Twitter of “double standards” and cried that freedom of speech should be honoured.

The Sri Lankan media was quite amused. “Funny seeing China complain about free speech and censorship,” Sri Lankan journalists told ThePrint’s Regina Mihindukulasuriya.

Within days of this incident, however, reports in the Sri Lankan media about the Indian Army sending the aforesaid Covid crisis teams into the neighbourhood, had begun to create the impression that India was, under cover, sending soldiers back to the teardrop island.

The ministry of external affairs was forced to quickly issue a clarification to stem any possible antipathy. “We have no intention of sending the Army abroad,” the MEA spokesperson said.

It was as if the ghosts of the dead IPKF soldiers were reaching out and reminding both India and Sri Lanka about bitter episode of the past – when the IPKF fought a war against another country’s enemy with one hand tied behind its back, because friends had turned enemies, or because those enemies had other demons to deal with.

The Army is readying rapid response teams to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. But they constitute doctors, both military and civilian, and they are the outreach arm of the Indian state, meant to help people in times of distress.

Perhaps that’s the nature of Covid-19. It brutalises the body, and plays terrible designs with your mind too.

Views are personal.

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  1. The global anti china wl prevail to a max of 6 to 12 months. China wl find a way of patching up with Usa with their money power n mfg power. The ending wl be lika a Hindi film. Both hugging each other.
    The others in the world wl be left twiddling their thumbs

  2. There is an ineluctable logic to a 5 : 1 asymmetry in size of economy and per capita income. ( Virtually equal populations ). PM Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China was historic, opened up an era of engagement despite the boundary dispute remaining unresolved. Former NSA S S Menon spoke recently of the need for a new modus vivendi that can steady the relationship for the future. What he was alluding to was that the two countries are now in two different leagues in a way that could not have been foreseen when that visit took place. Unless this power differential is gracefully acknowledged, a more pragmatic and realistic view taken, there will be disappointments and difficulties on the way ahead. 2. China is slowing down, as all high growth economies before it have. India too is slowing down, but on the cusp of what should have been another two to three decades of high growth. It is for MEA to think deeply about India’s relationships with China. In many ways, the one that is most important to us, one we cannot afford not to get right.

  3. Yes, though 1/5 th Chinese economy, India should use all tools tom defeat this Chinese monster.
    Previous governments’ follies, vis a vis India’s neighbours need to be addressed. Nepal has to be brought in, as Sri Lanka, Bangla desh and Afghanistan.
    Pakistan and its master China has to be defeated by Shaurya and Budhhi.

  4. Shri Lanka is the obode of the descendants of Ravana ans his demon race. India has to enter that cursed land and vanquish those modern day demons like Lord Rama did in the past.

  5. Nepal politely declined India’s offer due to: lack of confidence in India’s expertise on this particular matter, and Nepal’s experience with Indian assistance during the earthquake in 2015 when Indian army medical team that flew to Kathmandu basically didn’t add any value to the work back then. Further, this being a global pandemic India will have its own hands full should there be an outbreak. Stay safe, wherever you are.

  6. Isn’t it great that Jyoti (who charges Rs 50 per paragraph) and The Print constantly remind us of China’s machinations and that India is no match to China?
    Jyoti also likes to reminds us that the Honorable PM and his team are asleep at the wheel.
    Jyoti, you should write for Filmfare – your talent is better suited for that publication.

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