Coronavirus sneaked into South Asia long after it had ravaged parts of China and Europe. In a matter of a few months, it has spread in the region imperiling the lives of a billion people by savaging economies and exposing the iniquitous societies living with an almost non-existent, pathetic and crumbling public health infrastructure.
The pandemic and how it has blitzed economies is rapidly changing the balance of power in the poverty-struck South Asia. And China, which has decisively emerged out of the deathly mire of the pandemic and has successfully managed to keep its economy intact, is trying to hasten this shift-if New Delhi does not retaliate- militarily with India and winning the loyalty of pandemic-damaged South Asian countries by being an earnest medical relief-provider.
Indeed, Nepal and Bangladesh are reportedly succumbing to China’s Corona charm offensive. Nepal and Sri Lanka are also signatories to China’s much vaunted Belt and Road Initiative, which has brought in funds and promises for a brighter tomorrow.
In May, China mobilized its troops at the disputed and problematic Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Northern Ladakh to browbeat India. Why it chose to do it at a time when India as well as the world was struggling with the virus is unclear. This has triggered off wild speculation, but the fact is that the standoff, which resulted in the death of one officer and 19 men of the Indian army and injuries to scores of others, has sent shockwaves in the South Asian region.
Highly placed sources claim that the Bangladeshi army, which is the real power center and which has been largely pro-India, is of the view that China will win if there is even a limited war, till New Delhi proves them wrong. They want to be with the winning side.
Indian government sources unofficially claim that the Chinese lost more of their men, but there’s no information from Beijing about their casualties except probably death of an officer. There is, however, understandable anticipation in the Indian neighborhood about how this bloody faceoff will play out.
In other words, who will win this confrontation?
THIS IS FOR the first time in 45 years that blood has been spilled in the cold, forbidding desert at such high altitude where the two sides are staring at each other. Unlike in the past, China has dispensed its diplomatic coyness and is aggressively trying to wean away India’s neighbors like Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka from the arc of its influence.
The impact of this strategy is visible all around. What’s happening in Nepal has been stated ad nauseum as the prime minister of the land-locked republic, K P Sharma ‘Oli’, goes about snubbing New Delhi repeatedly. Significantly, he got areas that India had claimed as its own for decades, Kalapani and Lipulekh, included in the new map of Nepal and then endorsed by Parliament.
In response to criticism by his detractors in India and his own country, he stated categorically that he had invited New Delhi to discuss the issue, but his offer had been declined in the name of Corona virus. He further claimed that India, during this period, could have discussions with other countries, but had no time to talk with Nepal.
Oli has a point here.
The Nepali PM also endeavored to tweak the citizenship law that has the potential to disrupt the roti-beti ties with India. Now Indian brides will have to wait for 7 years before citizenship is granted to them. Nepal says that it is a mere replication of Indian law.
Later, he also accused New Delhi of conspiring to throw him out as challenge to his position began to gather momentum from his rival in the coalition, former prime minister and Maoist supremo Prachanda, who asked him to resign. Indian government sources allege that Oli’s swagger is due to the tacit support that he is getting from China.
Besides, Indian Army chief, General Manoj Naravane, had injudiciously claimed that China is behind Nepal’s recent utterances against the country. His statement drew trenchant criticism in Kathmandu and contributed more in spreading entrenched and age-old resentment among the Nepalis towards India. It will take more than a change in the government in Kathmandu for India to retrieve its lost position.
The Nepali PM also endeavored to tweak the citizenship law that has the potential to disrupt the roti-beti ties with India. Now Indian brides will need to wait for 7 years before citizenship is granted to them. Nepal says that it is a mere replication of Indian law.
In Bangladesh, the government, army and influencers are watching with great interest the outcome of the Indian and Chinese forces sparring with each other. Bangladesh, which has a non-existent public health infrastructure, is witnessing a late surge in the pandemic. A Chinese medical team visited Dhaka in mid June and they realized to their consternation that not only was the spread of the virus considerable, but Bangladesh, also, did not either have the resources to test in large numbers nor the hospitals to treat the infected.
Informed sources claim that the Chinese are making an offer that the government in Dhaka just cannot refuse. They are offering free testing and building hospitals for free treatment of the infected — the numbers of which are soaring with every passing day.
These sources claim that Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is cognizant of how seeking help with China will resonate with New Delhi, but she is under considerable pressure to accept the compelling offer from Beijing.
The argument is trite, but forceful: “Only if we are alive can we have a relationship with India or anyone.”
Sheikh Hasina, it is learnt, who has been working in isolation from home, got Chinese doctors to visit her in the last fortnight or so. Indeed, she is likely to accept the generous offer made by Beijing.
Highly placed sources claim that the Bangladeshi army, which is the real power center and which has been largely pro-India, is learnt to be of the view that China will win if there is even a limited war, till India proves them otherwise. However, they want to be with the winning side.
Colombo was applauded by Beijing for fighting the virus in the same manner as they had done — using army and intelligence. Rajapakse has flaunted his proximity with the Chinese and also received a personal letter from Xi Jinping that got a lot of publicity.
Sri Lanka, which has been the prime example of Chinese debt-trap diplomacy, is in the sway of Beijing with the return of Mahinda Rajapakse. During his earlier term, the Chinese managed to tweeze out the strategic Hambantota Port from Sri Lanka on a long lease; now they are practically everywhere.
Earlier this year, China came to Sri Lanka’s rescue giving them a loan of $500 million to help fight the Corona virus. Colombo was applauded by the Chinese government for fighting the virus in the same manner as they had done — using army and intelligence. Rajapakse has flaunted his proximity with the Chinese in recent months and the president also received a personal letter from Xi Jinping that got a lot of national publicity.
Sri Lanka is conscious of the implications of the tension between two of its big regional neighbours. It would hate to choose between the two, but its debt and its problems will not allow it to depart from China’s hold in the short term.
Surely and clearly, the tension at Galwan Valley in Ladakh will change equations in the South Asian region in unimaginable ways in the days to come. And all signs in the freezing landscape out there clearly shows that India will have to use all its resources and guile to prevent China from gaining any edge not just stealthily occupy our land, but to disturb our area of influence. (The ends)