How is the coronavirus outbreak affecting China’s relations with India?

A man distributes food to residents living in a slum on the banks of Yamuna river, during an extended nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in New Delhi, India, April 29, 2020. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis
Editor's note:

Many Indians largely blame China for the origin of the coronavirus, and criticize its lack of disclosure, its influence on the WHO, and what are seen as its efforts to take diplomatic or commercial advantage of the crisis, writes Tanvi Madan. This piece originally appeared in ChinaFile.

China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has reinforced the skeptical perception of the country that prevails in many quarters in India.

The Indian state’s rhetoric has been quite measured, reflecting its need to procure medical supplies from China and its desire to keep the relationship stable. Nonetheless, Beijing’s approach has fueled Delhi’s existing strategic and economic concerns. These include overdependence on China for industrial inputs — India’s pharmaceutical sector, for instance, sources a majority of its Advanced Pharmaceutical Ingredients from China. Because of this crisis, the desire to boost domestic production or diversify India’s options will likely intensify.

Another government concern is Chinese entities’ taking advantage of the crisis — and China’s own seeming early recovery — for various objectives: (1) the acquisition of vulnerable Indian companies, (2) increasing its influence in India’s neighborhood, and (3) portraying its system and global and regional leadership role as more effective than others (including the U.S. and India).

Thus, India’s government has announced restrictions on foreign direct investment from countries that share a land boundary with India — a move clearly directed against China. It has also been proactive in its neighborhood with diplomatic outreach, economic aid, technical assistance, and the provision of medical supplies. Delhi’s ability to respond to the competition for influence and over political systems will depend on how India ultimately fares in this crisis, in health, economic, and social terms. Meanwhile, India’s leaders have been very active in engaging their counterparts around the world. To boost its own image — and perceptions of its reliability, in case countries and companies diversify more post-COVID-19 — India has lifted or made exceptions to its export restrictions on certain drugs. Indian officials have highlighted Delhi’s assistance to China, and, while acknowledging Beijing’s facilitation, emphasized that most of the supplies India is getting from China are commercially procured. Finally, India is engaging with other countries in the Indo-Pacific, bilaterally and through a Quad-plus mechanism. It will also likely work with others to blunt or balance China’s future influence in institutions like the World Health Organization.

The Indian establishment beyond the state has been far more vocal in its criticism of China. Recently, retired diplomats have faulted China for its initial response and lack of transparency, with some advocating the use of the term “Wuhan virus.” It was particularly striking to see two former foreign secretaries and China hands unusually pointing to the lack of democracy in China as part of the problem.

Still, others have called for cooperation with China, and cautioned against blame games, lest they damage the broader China-India strategic or economic relationship. Others worry about India deepening its relationship with the United States as a result.

In the public sphere, though, anti-China sentiment has gone mainstream in a way usually reserved for India’s other rival, Pakistan. Prime-time news segments, if not entire shows, detail China’s role, and memes are proliferating on social media. They largely blame China for the origin of the virus, and criticize its lack of disclosure, its influence on the WHO, its sidelining of Taiwan, the quality of its medical supplies, and what are seen as its efforts to take diplomatic or commercial advantage of the crisis. While this outcome is not surprising for a country where only 23% of those surveyed in 2019 had a favorable view of China, there is little doubt that the crisis has intensified concern.