India is reeling from one of the world's worst Covid-19 outbreaks, which has pushed its health-care infrastructure to the brink. Photo: AFP

India’s tepid response to China’s offer of medical assistance has underscored the level of mistrust between the two neighbors, crucially amid one of the world’s worst-ever Covid-19 catastrophes. 

A spokesperson for Beijing’s embassy in New Delhi has pledged to quickly provide some 10,ooo oxygenators needed for Covid patients. Beijing has also recently committed aid including about 800 China-made ventilators for India, according to a recent tweet by Beijing’s embassy in Sri Lanka. India has not officially acknowledged either offer, however.

That may be because they came after China’s state-owned Sichuan Airlines decided to scale back Delhi-bound cargo services from its hubs of Chengdu and Xian in western China, with a plan to halt soon all flights to India. Several other nations have stopped flights to and from India as the nation sets new daily records of new infections via a highly contagious new strain.

When asked by Indian reporters about flight cancellations as well as soaring shipping prices, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin recapped Beijing’s official position on Monday and Tuesday – that China stands ready to render assistance and coordinate logistical arrangements.

However, Wang suggested reporters contact the airline for more details.

Chinese airlines are halting flights to India. Photo: AFP

Sichuan Airlines, China’s fifth-largest carrier by fleet and network size, said in a statement on Tuesday that its overarching priority was the health and safety of its crews and that it had adjusted schedules in response to fast-evolving pandemic situations in all foreign destinations.

The sudden flight cancellations have reportedly further slowed the speed of deliveries of not only possible donations by China, but more worryingly normal batches of increasingly vital medical supplies sourced from Chinese manufacturers by Indian importers. 

The Paper, a Shanghai-based news portal, noted that Sichuan Airlines would resume flying goods to India once more stringent Covid protocols and inspection guidelines could be worked out, a process they said could take about 15 days.

An employee with the carrier wrote in an anonymous post on a forum popular among Chinese pilots that a “go-slow” request by crewmembers assigned to operate Indian routes had forced the carrier to suspend flights.

“With the prospects of facing 21 days of quarantine when returning from India as Beijing is imposing stricter rules on arrivals, no one wants to operate flights to that country, nor will the carrier make any profits,” he said. 

India has logged more than 300,000 new infections nationwide for six days running, smashing previous world records of single-day new case tallies. 

An Indian man wears a medical mask produced in China. Photo: AFP

Five cargo flights originating from China went to India every day between April 1 and 25.

With Sichuan Airlines pulling out, Chinese courier giant SF Express is now the only one continuing to fly to the country, though its departures will soon be reduced as well. SF Express said pallets on scheduled flights are being filled quicker than ever and it had stopped accepting new orders. 

But there were signs that Beijing was readying charter flights operated by Air China and China Eastern to ship 10,000 hospital oxygenators by the end of next week. These were promised on Wednesday by Sun Weidong, Beijing’s ambassador in New Delhi, who at the same time announced the embassy compound would be closed indefinitely to all visitors including Chinese expats. 

But even if Beijing can scramble jets and pilots for emergency deliveries, there is no guarantee New Delhi is ready to receive the shipments.

Despite the geographic proximity and China being the world’s largest supplier of medical products and equipment sorely needed in India, China is glaringly missing on Narendra Modi’s list of countries from which his government plans to mass purchase emergency goods, according to reports by the India Times. 

The Indian prime minister has contacted United States President Joe Biden to discuss deliveries of vaccine ingredients and other support, apparently not deterred by comments – including those in Chinese state media like the Global Times – about India being left in the lurch by the US during its hour of need.

The two leaders met last month during a virtual summit pooling American, Indian, Australian and Japanese officials for a Quad regional security dialogue with a thinly-veiled theme of countering China. 

But no Indian officials showed up when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Tuesday hosted a videoconference on vaccine supply and distribution attended by counterparts from five of India’s neighbors, namely Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

While India’s Covid-19 wave-cum-tsunami is threatening to spill over to its neighbors, Wang offered, among other things, to build warehousing capacities for drugs and emergency supplies for the five countries to better cope with natural disasters and medical crises. 

Xinhua noted in an op-ed dispatched by its New Delhi bureau that India should not question Chinese help when Beijing has not sought to attach any geopolitical strings or hidden agendas.

The Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party-run publication, went so far as to suggest that Chinese troops deployed along the Tibetan border highlands, the scene of deadly skirmishes between Chinese and Indian troops in a simmering border row since 2019, may deliver medical supplies and vaccines “if Indian soldiers can cast aside disputes and take them to save their compatriots.” 

“It’s a question Modi has to answer when people perish on his watch: whether Indian people’s lives are less important than securing India’s de facto alliance with America from which Modi hasn’t benefited too much, when help from China is on India’s doorstep,” read the paper’s editorial. 

Last year India received a big shipment of Chinese medical products, mostly fast Covid-19 test kits, but New Delhi’s abrupt order to stop their use over quality and false-negative result concerns irked Beijing.

An Indian Air Force Hercules military transport plane prepares to land at an airbase in Leh, bordering China, on September 8, 2020. – Photo: AFP/Mohd Arhaan Archer

Skepticism over Chinese drugs is widespread across India amid reports of Chinese vaccines’ lagging efficacy rates. The sentiment has been compounded by the prevalence of anti-China sentiment stoked by border tensions, China’s projects to harness the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra and the two giants’ broader strategic rivalry. 

Zhang Jiadong, director of Shanghai Fudan University’s Center for South Asian Studies, told reporters that Beijing had not expected any gratitude from New Delhi when offering help in a time of need.

He said that Wang’s summit with the foreign ministers of five South Asian countries could be perceived as a bid to isolate India as the meeting discussed India’s Covid-19 situation and ways to prevent the disease’s spread across its borders. 

He said hosting such a high-profile meeting was proof of Beijing’s obvious ambition to exploit an opening left by a Covid-plagued India to lure other nations to its side, but also aimed genuinely to swap ideas and plans to stop the backflow of the virus into Tibet and other southeastern Chinese provinces like Yunnan, where local infections are flaring up again.