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China woos South Asia by setting up Covid-19 emergency reserve

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Medical workers in China during the peak of the Covid crisis (Photo: IANS/Xinhua)

China along with five South Asian nations, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka has launched a coronavirus crisis stockpile of medical supplies for emergency use in Chengdu. It also plans to build its soft power heft by extending the initiative into its flagship global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) at a later date.

In a meeting organised in Sichuan province, attended by the ambassadors of the five South Asian nations, Chinese assistant foreign minister Wu Jianghao said the centre would bolster cooperation to combat the coronavirus pandemic and other emergencies. The coronavirus emergency stockpile has been set up at a time when the world is facing an acute shortage of vaccines and the virus is constantly mutating.

According to a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement, Sichuan vice-governor Li Yunze said the Covid-19 reserve was an extension of long-standing ties between the province and South Asia, which reflected “practical cooperation in fields such as economy, trade, tourism, earthquake prevention and disaster reduction, education, health”.

The centre is located at the Chengdu International Railway Port, which is a major BRI gateway to Europe for cargo trains.

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Making use of the opportunity, China also announced plans to set up a China-South Asia poverty alleviation and cooperative development centre. Beijing has promised the five South Asian nations that it can help them reduce poverty and push up economic recovery post-Covid.

According to an expert, "by taking up these initiatives, China is building up influence to ensure that these nations do not join the global bandwagon of countries seeking investigation into the origins of coronavirus. In the last one-and-a-half years since Covid-19 surfaced in Wuhan in China, President Xi Jinping has faced much embarrassment globally. The communist regime has put in lots of efforts to deflect queries and has stonewalled investigations into the origins and global spread of the virus".

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The coronavirus supply reserve and the other initiatives are a result of the online meeting that China had organised with the foreign ministers of South Asian nations in April 2021. India, Maldives and Bhutan did not join it but the other five nations joined. With tensions continuing on the India-China border after China's transgression into Ladakh, India-China relations have nosedived. Indian External Affairs minister Dr S Jaishankar has said in public forums that ties between the two Asian behemoths cannot go back to normal unless China resolves the border issues to India's satisfaction. 

"Majorly, China is attempting to undermine Indian influence in South Asia. The pandemic has provided it with an opportunity to showcase its political and diplomatic influence in the Indian subcontinent with a view to upstaging India. If it can influence more countries on the Indian borders, it can use them to showcase India in a poor light", says the expert. 

The expert added that "by saying that the project will eventually function under the aegis of the BRI, China will ensure that it profits out of it in diplomatic, financial and monetary terms. It will eventually try to foist more projects on these countries. We already know that the BRI works only to China's benefit and puts the participating nations under infrastructure debt".

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