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When US dragged its feet, China offered Covid aid to India, but Delhi isn't that keen

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When US dragged its feet, China offered Covid aid to India, but Delhi isn't that keen

2021-04-28 05:41:24

By Dwaipayan

When India asked the United States this month to lift a ban on exporting vaccine raw materials to help with the South Asian country's Covid crisis, Washington appeared to drag its feet, citing the need to "vaccinate the American people" first.

This tepid response disappointed and angered many in India, which is grappling with the world's worst outbreak: daily infection numbers are hitting new records, hospitals and cremation sites are overflowing and patients are dying due to shortage in medical supplies.

A backlash at home, as well as widespread international criticism, quickly led the US to reverse course, promising to provide aid to India.

Outside of India itself, the loudest and harshest critic was China: over the past week, state media has published a flurry of articles lashing out at Washington, claiming the initial response "fully exposed its selfishness" and accusing it of "obstructing global efforts" to distribute vaccines to developing countries in dire need.

Since containing its own domestic coronavirus outbreak, Beijing has positioned itself as a global leader in fighting the pandemic, often contrasting its eagerness to help other countries with the "America first" approach of the US under former President Donald Trump.

And as the crisis has rapidly spiraled out of control in India, Chinese leaders have repeatedly expressed a desire to help, pledging to "offer support and assistance to the best of our capability if the Indian side informs us of its specific needs."

New Delhi, however, has so far not taken Beijing up on this offer, symptomatic perhaps of what has become a deep and oftentimes mutual distrust between the two Asian powers.

This reticence is all the more remarkable considering India was one of the first nations to send medical supplies to the Chinese city of Wuhan after the initial coronavirus outbreak there in late 2019.

But since then, bilateral relations have deteriorated rapidly, due in large part to tensions along a shared border high in the Himalayas. In June, the two countries saw their deadliest border clash in more than 40 years, with at least 20 casualties on the Indian side (China later said four Chinese soldiers died during the brawl).

Meanwhile, New Delhi has forged closer ties with Washington, which sees India as a key partner in dealing with China's growing presence and ambition in the region, redoubling India's commitment to the Quad, an informal alliance with the US, Australia and Japan.

After castigating India for moving closer to the US, the failure of Washington to come to its ally's assistance at a time of need has been a major line in Chinese state media, with one paper describing the US as an unreliable partner that treats India like a "pawn," to be "discarded like used tissue" when no longer useful.

While some in India may well agree with this assessment, many are nevertheless disinclined after the last year to believe that Beijing has their best interests at heart either, and a perception that China is attempting to take advantage of the crisis to drive a wedge between Delhi and Washington could ultimately backfire.

Under domestic and international pressure, US President Joe Biden on Sunday pledged "America's full support to provide emergency assistance and resources in the fight against Covid-19," during a call with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Beijing said Tuesday it would establish a Covid-19 "emergency supplies reserve" for South Asian countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. India was invited to attend the online meeting, but it did not join, according to Chinese state media.

"It is hoped that our meeting today can also assist India in the fight against the pandemic," said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

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