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China to help set up South Asia Covid-19 emergency supplies reserve

REPORT-1 (1)-1
Funeral pyres are lit for Covid-19 victims at a temporary crematorium in New Delhi. Photo: AP

China pledged to set up a reserve of “emergency supplies” with South Asian nations on Tuesday during talks with five countries in the region on combating Covid-19 – discussions from which India was notably absent.

In an online conference call, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his counterparts from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh discussed ways to “strengthen consensus on solidarity against Covid-19”.

“China and South Asia will set up an emergency material reserve,” the Chinese foreign ministry quoted Wang as saying, without giving details.

India is battling a resurgence in Covid-19 cases, with 323,144 new patients reported on Monday - the sixth day in a row that the total has been above 300,000.

But New Delhi was not represented at Tuesday’s meeting, with border tensions continuing to cast a shadow over relations with Beijing.

Wang said China was concerned with the situation in India, and Chinese companies were working to supply material to India with the help of the Chinese government.

Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the meeting was a continuation of China’s joint efforts with South Asian countries to combat Covid-19, and that China welcomed the participation of India and other South Asian countries.

“We are also now working to coordinate Chinese businesses to actively meet India’s needs for oxygen concentrators and other medical supplies,” Wang said. “The Chinese side is willing to engage with India in various forms of cooperation on Covid-10 to provide support for India’s fight against the virus.”

New Delhi has not responded to Beijing’s offers, but the United States, Britain and the European Union are set to provide assistance.

Analysts said ongoing tensions between China and India at their disputed border in eastern Ladakh prevented cooperation on Covid-19, and opened the way for Beijing to deepen its ties via aid and supplies with smaller nations in the region that have traditionally been closer to India.

Relations between China and India plunged in June last year after a bloody clash in Galwan Valley along their disputed Himalayan border. Troops from both sides have since pulled back but there is still no resolution in sight, despite months of talks.

Amit Ranjan, a specialist in South Asian politics at the National University of Singapore, said New Delhi had reservations about Beijing’s offers of help given the ongoing political tensions and China’s efforts to expand its influence in the region.

“This border tension in Ladakh has not subsided,” he said, adding that both countries had engaged in vaccine diplomacy.

“When the situation in India was not as bad as it is today, India supplied vaccines to other countries [in South Asia], and before that ventilators and other infrastructure.

 “It’s a form of vaccine diplomacy ... China and India also, both are racing to supply more and more vaccines and infrastructure.”

China has held various meetings with South Asian countries during the pandemic, including one in July with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nepal, one in November with Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, as well as a meeting in January with the participants in Tuesday’s call. But none of the meetings has involved India.

Liu Zongyi, associate research fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, said China had wanted to work with India during previous meetings but relations between the two countries were too tense.

“It’s not that we do not want to work with India - we have already shown goodwill, but relations are just too bad,” Liu said.

“But now, the situation in India is very, very dangerous, and there are risks that it will spread into neighbouring countries. India has an open border with Nepal so that presents a huge safety risk to Nepal, and we are already seeing elites in India fleeing to Western countries.”

Ejaz Hussain, associate professor at Iqra University in Islamabad, said the meeting was a Chinese initiative, and came not only during a surge of cases in India but also outbreaks in Pakistan and Bangladesh. While China had offered aid to India, the US – a key partner for New Delhi in the strategic Quad grouping - had as well, he said.

On Sunday, Washington said the US would provide assistance to India, following a call between US national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval. The US also lifted its ban on the export of raw materials for Covid-19 vaccines.

Zhang Jiadong, a professor at Fudan University and former Chinese diplomat in India, said the meeting of the foreign ministers was more about each country exchanging their positions on Covid-19, rather than dealing with specifics on health-related cooperation or on economic recovery efforts.

“India’s neighbours are most likely to feel the impact of Covid-19 in India, especially Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan since they all share a long border with India and will inevitably be affected even with stricter border controls,” Zhang said.

“China is very willing to help India and others in South Asia because we have the means to do so, with the supply chains and production capacity for things like masks and ventilators. At the same time, it also helps improve relations with those countries, but even if there were no strategic interests, it’s also a matter of basic humanity.”