On February 26, 2020, an Indian plane landed in Wuhan carrying medical supplies for China, which was then the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak. On its return, it evacuated a number of Indian and Bangladeshi nationals, as well as citizens of other countries. On the face of it, this is the kind of cooperative effort that is expected during a global public health crisis, with countries—even competitors—coming together at a time of need. However, the saga of that flight reflected another (prescient) dynamic—that COVID-19 would reinforce and increase rather than alleviate competition between China and India and complicate cooperation, with pandemic response and recovery efforts being seen through a competitive prism.
That flight to Wuhan was not smooth; indeed, it was much delayed. Delhi had announced it a week earlier. It was a way to help China, demonstrate India’s capacity, and assist India’s neighbors by evacuating their citizens. But then Indian officials publicly, albeit anonymously, revealed that Beijing was not clearing the flight. The reason was unclear—China, after all, had been requesting international support. There also did not seem to be a bureaucratic snafu. So, was it the visual of Beijing accepting support from India, which Chinese officials and analysts sometimes dismiss as a less capable, even chaotic, neighbor? Was it the desire not to give India a soft power win, including with its neighbors? Was it because the flight involved a military transport aircraft procured from the U.S.? Was it retaliation for the temporary Indian detention of a Chinese ship bound for Pakistan due to a tip-off of dual-use items on board? Or was the reason Chinese unhappiness about Indian travel restrictions to and from China, or Indian export limits on certain medical products? Whatever the reason, China eventually gave the flight clearance, but only a week later and after much Indian negotiation. It was an early sign that the public health arena would not be immune from the competitive atmosphere prevailing between the two countries, and in the region as a whole. Subsequent events only bore that out.
There has been considerable discussion about how countries’ perceptions of China would change due to the pandemic—at the beginning because of its mishandling, and then because of its recovery. This chapter argues that, rather than change perceptions, Beijing’s handling of COVID-19 increased the largely skeptical views of China that prevail in India, which had at least 29 million cases and over 385,000 deaths in India by mid-June 2021 (the 2nd and 3rd highest in the world respectively). This trend was further bolstered by the worst boundary crisis between the two countries since they fought a war in 1962.
Together, the pandemic and the boundary crisis have ensured that the competitive and conflictual elements of the India-China relationship have been front and center over the last year. They have reinforced and accelerated concerns in India about China’s lack of transparency, its uncertain commitment to the rules-based order, as well as its growing influence in the Indo-Pacific and in international institutions. And they have demonstrated that despite Delhi and Beijing’s efforts to cooperate and to stabilize their relationship over the last two decades, it remains a fundamentally competitive one that can spill over into conflict.
This chapter examines the impact of first the pandemic and then the boundary crisis on perceptions of China among the Indian government, establishment, and public. It proceeds to outline the consequences of these perceptions on Indian domestic policy, its partnerships with like-minded major and middle powers, and its counter-COVID activism. Finally, it considers China’s response, particularly to Indian policy changes.