Covid has brought back Chinese whispers in Sri Lanka, Nepal. Is India listening?

Covid has brought back Chinese whispers in Sri Lanka, Nepal. Is India listening?

This story first appeared in The Print

South Asia has for long witnessed a see-saw diplomatic battle between India and China, but Covid is adding fresh dimensions to this engagement.

The 30th anniversary of the return of Indian Peace-Keeping Force from Sri Lanka has come and gone, without a murmur. As many as 1,200 Indian soldiers were killed and several hundreds more wounded in the 32 months that the IPKF spent in the teardrop island country, in the wake of the 1987 India-Sri Lanka accord signed between former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and then Sri Lankan President Junius Jayewardene, in order to defeat the LTTE.

Thirty years later, the world has changed profoundly. Not just because a virus is wreaking havoc globally, sending thousands to their premature deaths and putting the fear of God into millions of others, but also because Covid is drawing up the faint contours of a post-pandemic world.

India countering Beijing’s Covid diplomacy

At the heart of this Covid story is how China is aggressively fighting accusations of not coming clean on the virus’ antecedents and how it is using this crisis to expand its political presence in large parts of the globe, including in South Asia.

The South Asia example is particularly fascinating. For the last several years, the region has witnessed a see-saw diplomatic battle between India and China, both of which want to expand their sphere of influence. The Covid pandemic has only exacerbated this determination.

Considering India’s economy is one-fifth the size of China, Delhi knows it can never win the numbers game with Beijing. Anything India promises, the Chinese pledge ten times more. So even though Prime Minister Modi promised to set up a SAARC emergency fund with $10 million aid in March, India knew it had to do more.

It was decided that the Indian Army would ready rapid response teams to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan, on the lines of the medical team it sent to the Maldives early in the outbreak. These teams are expected “to help boost (their) capabilities” in dealing with the ongoing health crisis.

This is clearly India’s biggest foreign policy move in recent times and it is taking place right here, in India’s neighbourhood.

Significantly, the Army’s rapid response teams will not go to two countries, Pakistan and Nepal. While the absence of an overture to Pakistan is disappointing, it is not surprising. The Modi government has been tough in its foreign policy towards Islamabad and it shows no signs of relenting.

Nepal’s warming up to China

What is interesting is the apparent cold shoulder to Nepal, especially considering India and Nepal share such an intimate relationship. Former foreign minister Sushma Swaraj had perfectly described the relationship as a “roti-beti ka rishta”. The question as to why Delhi is ignoring Kathmandu has its answers in the growing proximity between Kathmandu and Beijing under the prime ministership of K.P. Sharma Oli.

The China-Nepal axis has been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years, but so far was limited to developmental works like hydroelectric projects. In recent weeks and months, though, the Chinese have been ambitiously trying to influence politics in Kathmandu. Last week, Chinese ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi tried to broker peace between recalcitrant factions of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP). Yanqi held meetings with Oli, along with former Nepali PMs Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda and Madhav Kumar Nepal.

According to Kathmandu Post, Hou Yanqi discussed three issues – the internal crisis in the NCP, China’s assistance to fight Covid-19, and the hope that Nepal will desist from climbing onto anti-Chinese bandwagons. The envoy’s conversations came within days of Chinese President Xi Jinping calling his Nepali counterpart Bidya Devi Bhandari.

It is not clear yet if the Chinese are succeeding in their power gambit, but that has not prevented them from seeking to influence the independent Nepali media.

When the ‘Kathmandu Post’ carried a syndicated piece on Chinese secrecy and the coronavirus, the embassy in Nepal accused the newspaper of “malicious intention, deliberately (smearing) the efforts of the Chinese government and people…and viciously attacked the political system of China.”

The ‘Post’s’ editor, Anup Kaphle, the Chinese embassy went on to add, had always been “biased on China-related issues.” Pointing a finger at India and like-minded democracies, the embassy said Kaphle had become a “parrot of some anti-China forces.”

Sri Lanka a new Chinese ground

Just a few weeks later, a similar story about press freedom and censorship was playing out in Sri Lanka. When Twitter mistakenly suspended the account of the Chinese embassy in Colombo in April, after a Sri Lankan newspaper said China should compensate the world for damage caused by Covid, the Chinese embassy accused Twitter of “double standards” and cried that freedom of speech should be honoured.

The Sri Lankan media was quite amused. “Funny seeing China complain about free speech and censorship,” Sri Lankan journalists told ThePrint’s Regina Mihindukulasuriya.

Within days of this incident, however, reports in the Sri Lankan media about the Indian Army sending the aforesaid Covid crisis teams into the neighbourhood, had begun to create the impression that India was, under cover, sending soldiers back to the teardrop island.

The ministry of external affairs was forced to quickly issue a clarification to stem any possible antipathy. “We have no intention of sending the Army abroad,” the MEA spokesperson said.

It was as if the ghosts of the dead IPKF soldiers were reaching out and reminding both India and Sri Lanka about bitter episode of the past – when the IPKF fought a war against another country’s enemy with one hand tied behind its back, because friends had turned enemies, or because those enemies had other demons to deal with.

The Army is readying rapid response teams to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. But they constitute doctors, both military and civilian, and they are the outreach arm of the Indian state, meant to help people in times of distress.

Perhaps that’s the nature of Covid-19. It brutalises the body, and plays terrible designs with your mind too.

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About Jyoti Malhotra

Jyoti Malhotra is Editor, National & Strategic Affairs of The Print website in Delhi. She has been a journalist for 35 years and has worked for India's major news media, including the Indian Express, the Times of India and Star News. She has reported in both Hindi and English and consulted for several foreign media. She lives in New Delhi. contact email : jomalhotra@gmail.com