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Coronavirus: Could China's bad publicity benefit India?

Saturday May 2 2020

Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping

In this photograph received from the Press Information Bureau (PIB) and taken on July 14, 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the sixth BRICS summit in the Brazilian city of Fortaleza. PHOTO | PIB |AFP 

AGGREY MUTAMBO
By AGGREY MUTAMBO
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Countries across the world have been pointing the finger at China's Covid-19 response, with some accusing Beijing of racist actions and others saying it sat on key information.

Last week, Australia asked for an independent probe into the origin of the novel coronavirus.

Australia imposed a lockdown on public gatherings in a bid to stop the spread and had by Saturday reported 6,783 cases, with 5,789 recoveries and 93 deaths.

In an interview with Sky News, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said Australia will not compromise health for economic outcomes, in a statement largely interpreted to mean refusal to be bullied.

MANY CLAIMS

Yet the call for an independent investigation by a country which depends heavily on China's industrial prowess only furthered accusations that began earlier in April.

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President Donald Trump touched off the spark when he first labelled the virus the "Chinese virus", and later accused the World Health Organization (WHO) of missing a call on the pandemic.

The US accused China of disinformation especially on the origin of the virus as well as the actual number of people infected or killed by the virus.

Beijing furthered a theory that the US military took it into Wuhan but offered no proof.

A Germany newspaper calculated an outrageous figure of €149 billion worth of pandemic “damages” and asked China to pay the bill for mismanaging the crisis (Beijing dismissed the demand).

WHO FUNDING

In the UK, some medical professionals argued China-produced ventilators may actually harm patients for carrying through insufficient oxygen and possibly being unclean.

This week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo clarified that the US will not stop funding the WHO or supporting African countries' health programmes but he did say the global body was under review.

"We want to make sure the money gets to the right places. We are not reducing the amount of money that we were providing for global health assistance," Mr Pompeo said in a teleconference call with African journalists on Monday.

"We need to make sure it is part of a multi-national institution that functions - that can actually deliver good outcomes for the people in some of the poorest countries in the world that are there in Africa."

Beijing officially rejects the accusations and has termed them politically motivated.

But China has also struggled to explain why a number of Africans caught up by pandemic control measures were thrown out of their residential areas, leading to outcry.

Beijing explained it had no racist policy in the controls even after black people were thrown out of the hotels or residences. That dust has since appeared to settle, but the perception twists have not.

INDIA COMEBACK

So, who would benefit if China dropped in popularity? Some experts told the Nation, that India, which has rivalled China's ambitions in Africa but lost the battle, could make a comeback.

“From most indications, India and China, the two leading emerging economies in the world, are competing with each other, as well as Africa's traditional western trading partners, to build a stronger relationship with Africa," Dr Peter Mwencha, the Secretary and CEO of the International Relations Society of Kenya, a professional body of foreign policy researchers, said.

“The reality at the moment is that while India is making inroads on the continent, it is playing catch-up to China," he added, referring to India's trade with Africa, which rose to about $75 billion in 2018 from $5.3 billion in 2001.

This made India the fourth largest trading partner of Africa, dealing mainly in medicines and refined petroleum products.

But Chinas trade was worth about $20 0 billion although it has fluctuated between $140 billion and $220 billion in the past 10 years.

Twenty years ago, Chinas trade with Africa was only $10 billion.

Should China be unable to right the reputational damage, observers argue, India could strengthen its stranglehold of the medical market in Africa as well as eat into Beijing's tuff.

“Nigeria was India's largest trading partner in Africa in terms of the export-import volume, followed by South Africa, while Kenya comes third and Mozambique fourth," Dr Mwencha said.

STRONG HISTORY

India had already established a strong rapport with African countries even before the colonial period.

In Kenya, the Indian coolies from Goa built the Kenya-Uganda Railway, a British colonial project meant to penetrate the hinterlands.

In Africa, India's advantage, argued Dr Mwencha, lies in the fact that it already had connections with some three million people of Indian descent living in Africa.

This strong shared history, cultural affinity and large diaspora can help forge wider and deeper business and trade ties, he said.

“The second factor is that years of diplomatic neglect of the continent is being addressed by [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi’s government, with the top echelons of Indian leadership regularly visiting the continent in the context of South-South relations as it competes with China to build a stronger relationship with Africa.”

A SHIFT

Modi hosted the India-Africa Summit in 2015 to discuss economic ties and travelled to Kenya and other African countries for the first time in 2016.

The Indian Summit was the third such summit by India but it followed Chinas own Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), which has happened tri-annually since 2001.

But India's rise may actually be more about its domestic policy than the foreign.

Premier Modi's administration recently embarked on a marketing promotion that included reducing taxes and easing the cost of doing business to ensure more foreign firms relocated from China to India.

India's Secretary for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade, Guruprasad Mohapatra, told the media last week that his country would take advantage of the fact that most developed countries with firms in China were changing strategy to avoid putting all eggs in one basket.

India is generally considered an attractive destination because of its market size and being a possible hub for exports in the region, he told India's Business Today.

Dr Mwencha told the Nation that India's energy need for a fast-growing economy as well as its relentless search for more markets could naturally spur business ties with the continent.

“This pivot comes at a time when several African countries have been looking eastward for foreign investment and trade relations, shifting attention from their traditional Western economic partners."