From supply chains to vaccines, China has frequently thrown spanner into works of India's COVID-19 battle

The relations between India and China have hit a rough patch ever since Indian and Chinese soldiers engaged in an "standoff" near the Line of Actual Control in Eastern Ladakh and a violent calsh at Galwan Valley in April 2020.

While the Galwan clash killed 20 Indian soldiers, the Chinese People's Liberation Army later admitted to losing four of its own men.

But despite the heightened animosity at the LAC, the two neighours continued to do business with each other as usual. As per a Times of India report, China was India's top source for import throughout January-December 2020.

A year after the pandemic, the soldiers from both sides along the LAC have gone back to their previous positions, but the ties between the two powerful economies remain frosty. There is animosity in the way business is being done between the two neighbouring countries. And that seems to be hurting India's fight against coronavirus as well.

While at the one end, disruptions in the movement of containers from mainland China have been impacting the supply of essential medical equipment to India, leading to exorbitant price of medical equipment like oxygen concentrators, Chinese companies are reportedly angry over reports that some Indian businessmen are making exorbitant profits on COVID-19 equipment sold at low price on humanitarian ground.

"We understand that some Indian businessmen intend to raise the prices before selling the devices to hospitals or clinics, but there must be a limit or standard to follow," the report in the Chinese government-owned Global Times quoted the owner of a Chinese oxygen concentrator manufacturing company as saying, noting that the "prices of the oxygen concentrators that were exported to India would not have been so low, if not for humanitarian intentions".

India has also been tactfully disallowing Chinese firms from participating in its global tenders be it from procurement of vaccines for its 138 crore population, or the high-profile 5G trials. As per a report in The Indian Express, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation on Wednesday barred China from taking part in its global tender for one crore coronavirus vaccine doses by adding the condition that "bids from companies in countries that share land borders with India will not be considered".

Chinese imports in India's fight against coronavirus

On 26 April, as India continued to report over 3 lakh cases for the sixth consecutive day, Sichuan Airlines suspended all its 11 cargo flights for 15 days, citing the coronavirus situation in India.

The decision by the China-run airline further slowed the arrival of medical goods into India at a time when the country was already struggling with a shortage of COVID-19 essentials.

Oxygen shortages have already lead to deaths of several COVID-19 patients in govt as well as private hospitals as the second wave of COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc across the country.

Currently, the air shipments are being carried by other airlines including India’s Spice Jet and Blue Dart, which runs empty flights from India to bring the medical supplies from China, PTI reported.

The disruptions in supply chains have also impacted Indian manufactures' plan to make oxygen concentrators at home. SS Technomed, which makes oxygen concentrators in India, told BusinessToday late April that it has been unable to continue with plans to manufacture oxygen concentrators in India due to the unavailability of some crucial items.

"There are a few things we need to put into a concentrator, but we are not able to source it. The problem is with supplies. China has stopped container movement from the mainland for the last two days. Now we are moving things from Hong Kong, where charges are high," said Naveen Sharma, owner of SS Technomed.


What the Chinese may want from India

While the ban on Chinese apps post-Galwan clash had all the optics, but its impact is unclear. ByteDance, which owns TikTok app, reported a surge in revenue despite the India ban. What may have impacted the Chinese though is the India keeping Chinese companies out of the 5G trials.

Earlier this month, India's Department of Telecom approved applications of telecom companies Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea and MTNL to conduct 5G trials but none of them will be using technologies of Chinese entities.

The decision kept two Chinese electronic equipment manufacturers Huawei and ZTE out of the 5G trials in India while permitting their Korean and UK rivals. China has unequivocally expressed its dissatisfaction over the decision.

“To exclude Chinese telecommunications companies from the trials will not only harm their legitimate rights and interests, but also hinder the improvement of the Indian business environment, which is not conducive to the innovation and development of related Indian industries,” Wang Xiaojian, a spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in India said.

India is reportedly also planning to keep Chinese companies out of the picture once 5G rollout begins in the country. Besides, as per a Reuters report, since November 2020, the Narendra Modi govt has held up at least 80 applications of import of electronic items with Chinese made WiFi modules, delaying gadget launches in the country.

Is a change in stance near?

From tactfully disallowing Chinese firms to participate in BMC's global vaccine tender to exorbitant pricing of necessary equipment, India's battle against COVID-19 has often run into rough weather with China. However, a change in stance might be on offer.

Faced with shortage and a price rise of much-needed medical supplies, especially oxygen concentrators, India has already launched diplomatic efforts to ensure the import of crucial medical supplies from China are not impacted.

"What I would like to say is that our expectation at this point is that the supply chain should remain open and product prices should remain stable," India's Consul General to Hong Kong Priyanka Chauhan said in an interview with the South China Morning Post on Wednesday, urging the Chinese govt to intervene in the matter.

"Even if there is a little bit of supply-demand pressure, there has to be some stability and predictability to product prices," she told the Hong Kong-based newspaper.

"And there has to be a sense of governmental level support and efforts. I don't have the information as to how much influence the Chinese government can have in this matter but if they can, then it would be welcome," she said.

She said a phone conversation between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar in April had helped with the clearance and approval of cargo flights, but they had not returned to the same frequency as before the second wave.

She suggested that higher-level assurances to officials for flight clearance could help.

“Unreasonable control should be avoided, and transport linkages should be maintained,” she said.

Though the state-run airline said it is reviewing its plans to restore the flights, it is yet to do so. However, freight Forwarders in Shanghai told PTI that Sichuan Airlines has announced plans to restore three of its freight flights from Chongqing and Xian to Delhi from 17 May.

As for India, a review of decision banning Chinese companies from participating in 5G trials is unlikely, however, with the Centre allowing import of all vaccines approved by the WHO and the US FDA, some thawing of India-China relations could be expected in near future. Especially since this would allow Sinopharm, a state-owned Chinese company, to participate in tenders for its WHO-approved vaccine BBIBP-CorV.

Of course, that would be possible only if the Centre or state governments don't add a caveat effectively banning the import of vaccines from countries that share a border with India, as was done by the BMC. It will also depend on public sentiment. So, far there hasn't been any hullabaloo over the import of Chinese oxygen concentrators, but importing a Chinese vaccine would be a different ball game.

With inputs from agencies