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  • Hamsini Hariharan

Balancing act: Accepting aid while rejecting 5G

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on May 10, 2021 and can be accessed here.

In 2004, the Indian government refused aid after a deadly tsunami hit the Indian ocean. For the first time since then, India has accepted foreign assistance that is pouring in from all over the world to deal with the unmitigated disaster, which is the current wave of covid-19. Help is even coming for one country which would have been unfathomable a year ago: China.

In early April, it was slowly becoming apparent that the second wave in India was putting Indian healthcare systems under extreme stress. The Chinese government offered support with the Chairman of the CCP, Xi Jinping, and the foreign minister Wang Yi, sending letters to their Indian counterparts. Xi even said, “The Chinese side stands ready to strengthen cooperation with the Indian side in fighting the pandemic and provide support and help in this regard. I believe that under the leadership of the Indian government, the Indian people will surely prevail over the pandemic.” Indeed, the Chinese ambassador tweeted, “Since this April, #China has supplied more than 5000 ventilators, 21569 oxygen generators, over21.48 million masks & around 3800 tons of medicines to #India, according to statistics of the General Administration of Customs of China.”

Of course, this is part of the Chinese Communist Party’s narrative to project itself as a legitimate, capable government. The crisis in India trended on Weibo even as one official handle compared China’s spaceship launch with India’s cremation pyres – a move that was criticized even by Chinese social media users. Also, we must remember that while many of these are touted as “aid,” they are, in fact, commercial shipments. While governments may claim ownership over these narratives, many of these initiatives are made by businesses or people. The Hindu reports that “Since April, orders for at least 40,000 oxygen concentrators have been placed by Indian companies, of which 21,000 have so far been delivered, along with more than 5,000 ventilators, 21 million face masks and 3,800 tons of medicines, according to official Chinese customs figures.” Volunteer groups within China and the Indian diaspora are also a considerable part of the effort to source supplies to India. According to a report by Sowmiya Ashok in the South China Morning Post, the small expat community has been involved with fundraising and sending essential supplies like oxygen concentrators that are primarily manufactured in China.

The fact that these supplies have been coming in is remarkable considering that the last year, most Chinese businesses have faced tightening restrictions. Since the Galwan crisis, the Indian government has been intent on tying the border issues to economic cooperation. Even within the current relaxation for Chinese aid, the government has not wavered its commitment to security. The Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE were excluded from 5G trials and future rollouts, even as the Indian Ministry of Telecommunications allowed three other companies to run 5G trials.

Perhaps the allowance of Chinese aid will lead to a thaw in relations. But previous experiences with soft power have shown that assistance can be attractive only if its intent and consequences are not seen as overly strategic. Already, with a mistrustful Indian audience, the Chinese government is seen with suspicion. For that suspicions to go away, both governments will have to work harder at building confidence.

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