India’s offer of a regional South Asian response to tackle the coronavirus pandemic has been an effective counter to China”s attempts to change the narrative on the deadly disease, according to an American think-tank expert.

Aparna Pande, Director of the India Initiative at the Hudson Institute, made the remarks on Friday during an online discussion on China”s attempts to change the narrative on COVID-19 and how countries in the world are responding to the major health crisis.

“China has pushed a charm offensive in South Asia both through offering medical teams, sending test kits and protective equipment and offering to build hospitals. However, the results have been a mixed bag,” Pande said.

India’s offer of a regional South Asian response has been an effective counter to Beijing”s attempts to change the narrative, she said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 13 proposed formulation of a joint strategy by the SAARC nations to fight the coronavirus, a suggestion promptly backed by all member states, barring Pakistan.

Calling on the SAARC members to set an example for the world, Modi reached out to the eight-member regional grouping and hosted a video conference among the leaders to chalk out a strong strategy to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

According to Pande, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are heavily dependent on Chinese largesse, especially under the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), and have been the most open to and reciprocated Beijing”s charms.

For Pakistan, strategic relations with China take priority over everything else, including the health of its own people, she said.

Pakistan refused to evacuate its citizens, especially students from Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus infection, when the pandemic broke out and, like Iran, did not suspend flights to and from China, she noted.

Further, Pakistani officials including a former ambassador to the UN and the Prime Minister’s Scientific Advisor are “peddling conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus, blaming the US and the UK and absolving China of any responsibility,” Pande said.

Sri Lanka, she noted, “has gone ahead and signed a 10-year loan of USD 500 million with China Development Bank to help the country mitigate the financial impact of the crisis.”

India “while avoiding open criticism of China, has sought to counter any Chinese charm offensive by seeking a coordinated regional response through building quarantine shelters in Maldives and Nepal and the SAARC COVID fund to which India has contributed USD 10 million and other countries offered money and aid as well.

“India also has 2 naval ships ready to be deployed to any country that needs assistance in the region,” she noted.

There is a vast difference between India and China”s responses as would be between a democracy and an autocratic country, the Hudson scholar said.

Lack of proper and detailed planning before imposing a nation-wide lockdown in India have created problems, she added.

“However, it can be blamed on lack of planning, not malevolent intent. The state did not anticipate the migrant crisis and so struggled for a few days to deal with it. However, it is not just India, many countries are facing challenges keeping people under lockdown,” Pande said.

“So, it should be easier to understand the problems facing the world”s largest democracy, a country of 1.3 billion people, as it seeks to keep people indoors, curtail the spread and avoid burdening its weak healthcare infrastructure,” she said.

“For Countries like Sri Lanka & Pakistan that were deep in China’s grasp, Beijing’s grip will be strengthened. For those like Maldives, Nepal, and Bangladesh this will actually strengthen ties with India and wariness of close ties with China or aid from China and I think here India”s offer of a South Asian response, aid and technical assistance has helped strengthen those bonds.

Author: Lalit K. Jha
Editor’s Note: The article reflects the author’s opinion only, and not necessarily the views of editorial opinion of Belt & Road News.