India's big 5G call, and the complicated optics of Covid-19 supplies from China

Welcome to today’s issue, where I’ll be looking at India’s announcement on 5G trials and exclusion of Chinese telecom firms; External Affairs Minister Jaishankar’s comments today on both the border and Covid-19 supplies from China; and the somewhat complicated dynamics at the moment on Covid-19 cooperation between the two countries amid the current raging crisis in India.

India’s 5G announcement on Tuesday wasn't much of a surprise, but it made official what was broadly expected:

The Department of Telecommunications (DoT), Government of India, approved today, permissions to Telecom Service Providers (TSPs) for conducting trials for use and applications of 5G technology.  The applicant TSPs include Bharti Airtel Ltd., Reliance JioInfocomm Ltd., Vodafone Idea Ltd. and MTNL.  These TSPs have tied up with original equipment manufacturers and technology providers which are Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung and C-DOT.  In addition, Reliance JioInfocomm Ltd. will also be conducting trials using its own indigenous technology…

The TSPs are encouraged to conduct trials using 5Gi technology in addition to the already known 5G Technology.  It will be recalled that International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has also approved the 5Gi technology, which was advocated by India, as it facilitates much larger reach of the 5G towers and Radio networks.The 5Gi technology has been developed by IIT Madras, Centre of Excellence in Wireless Technology (CEWiT) and IIT Hyderabad.

DoT has specified that the trials will be isolated and not connected with the existing networks of TSPs.  Trials will be on non-commercial basis.  The data generated during the trials shall be stored in India.  TSPs are also expected to facilitate the testing of the indigenously developed use cases and equipment as part of the trials. One hundred applications/ use cases selected by DoT after conducting the recent Hackathon on 5G applications can also be facilitated in these trials.  

The Chinese Embassy in New Delhi reacted with this:

We noted the relevant notification, and express concern and regret that Chinese telecommunications companies have not been permitted to conduct 5G trials with Indian Telecom Service Providers in India.

Relevant Chinese companies have been operating in India for years, providing mass job opportunities and making contribution to India's infrastructure construction in telecommunications. 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.

The Chinese side hopes that India could do more to enhance mutual trust and cooperation between the two countries, and provide an open, fair, just, and non-discriminatory investment and business environment for market entities from all countries, including China, to operate and invest in India.

On Wednesday, External Affairs Minister Jaishankar addressed a dialogue in London and had this to say to a question on China. He didn’t mention 5G but the remarks are pertinent and explain the broader context:

Jaishankar reiterated India’s view on Wednesday that it is “not realistic” to have good relations in other domains when there was tension on the border. Mr. Jaishankar did not specifically mention the 5G issue, but said broadly on India’s view on the relationship, “I can’t have friction, coercion, intimidation, and bloodshed on the border, and then say let us have a good relationship in other domains. It is not realistic”...

Mr. Jaishankar said the relationship was "going through a very difficult phase, because in violation of agreements and understandings of many, many years, the Chinese have deployed a very large part of their military on, and close to, the Line of Actual Control, without explanation, and they continue to be there.”

Mr. Jaishankar noted it had been one year since the LAC crisis began, on May 5, 2020 with reports of tensions then starting in the Galwan Valley and Pangong Lake. He said China’s "actions have disturbed peace and tranquility”, including leading to bloodshed in Galwan last June, and India “has been very clear that peace and tranquility on the border areas is essential for the development of our relations”. The disengagement process was completed in some areas but one year on is still ongoing in others, and both sides had not yet come to the de-escalation part.

On Friday’s phone call with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, the External Affairs Minister said both sides had discussed their mutual interest in cooperating on tackling COVID-19 at a time when Indian companies have placed many orders to source supplies from China amid the current crisis.

He told Mr. Wang that "many of our companies are ordering stuff from China and we are encountering difficulties in logistics, so please take a look at it which is something which we would appreciate.” “After our conversation things did move,” he added. “Some of our airlines got quicker approvals, the logistics chain is flowing, and that is something which is very laudable.”

On that last point, China’s Ambassador to India Sun Weidong spoke of China’s efforts to assist India in an interview to the Global Times:

China will make its utmost efforts to provide help to India in accordance with the demands of the Indian side, and the production of at least 40,000 oxygen generators as the orders placed by India is underway. Chinese companies will soon deliver necessary medical supplies to India, Chinese Ambassador to India Sun Weidong told the Global Times in an exclusive interview.

Sun said China hopes and believes that under the leadership of the Indian government, local people can conquer the pandemic soon. In fact, China was one of the countries proposing help and support at the earliest stage, and quickly took action, he said.

Since this April, China has supplied more than 5,000 ventilators, 21,569 oxygen generators, over 21 million masks and around 3,800 tons of medicine to India, Sun said in a tweet on Thursday.

He also put out a series of tweets to inform the Indian audience about what was happening:

On the question of Chinese assistance, this piece on WeChat has been shared around a bit the last couple of days and I suspect it’s not a lone view (usual disclaimer: rough translation courtesy Google Translate that I cleaned up in places, please don’t take this as a literal translation although it conveys the broad meaning of the original piece faithfully):

China proactively assists India, good intentions may not be rewarded

China is providing India with the most life-saving oxygen, oxygen concentrators, respirators...

According to statistics from the General Administration of Customs of China, since April this year, China has provided India with more than 5,000 ventilators, 21,569 oxygen generators, more than 21.48 million masks, and approximately 3,800 tons of medicines…

An indisputable fact is that India’s most urgently needed medical supplies are continuously being shipped from China to India. At the same time, the United States announced an aid report to India. This aid material involving 100 million U.S. dollars includes 1,000 oxygen cylinders, 15 million N95 masks, and 1 million rapid diagnostic kits.

India is dumbfounded, this is not what India urgently needs. Those 1,000 oxygen cylinders are not as good as a few oxygen generators. Masks and test kits are of no avail to India, and 1 million test kits are a drop in the bucket for the actual number of infections of up to 500 million people.

What a great irony! India urgently needs the United States to provide raw materials and formulas for the production of vaccines!

China has shown goodwill at least 10 times. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China has expressed goodwill to India at the press conference "seven times" in a row, saying that it will do everything possible to assist India. This does not include the Chinese Embassy in India's continuous expression of "aid to India"….

When it comes to this, China's sincerity is impeccable, after all, human life is at stake.

Kindness may not be rewarded… Indian officials have rarely responded positively to China's goodwill, and even showed indifference.

China presided over the meeting of foreign ministers of South Asian countries, but India, which was invited, refused to participate. Modi has not responded to the condolence telegram from the Chinese leadership, and he has not even the minimum etiquette. However, he had a long phone call with US President Biden, who did not provide much assistance, and also with Russian President Putin.

Not only that, just as China was actively assisting India, the Indian military high-level officials went to inspect the China-India border and expressed a high degree of alertness to China.

The only "thank you" came from Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar responding to Foreign Minister Wang Yi's call, but the word "thank you" was not seen his subsequent tweets.

In fact, his focus is on the following passage: "I emphasized the importance of maintaining the smooth flow of supply chains and flights under these circumstances. I welcome Foreign Minister Wang Yi's assurance on this and further open up charter flights to India."

The mainstream Indian media also showed their insensitivity. Many Indian media claimed that China's assistance was not "sincere." There are also Indian netizens who said that we bought it with money and we don’t owe each other. Do we have to thank you? Some people even question the motives of China's aid, believing that China is trying to separate the relationship between India and the United States.

Even at the critical moment of life-threatening, India still cannot let go of grievances and is unwilling to return China's goodwill…

COMMENT: The current crisis is obviously the priority now and all and any help should be welcomed. The continuing crisis in India is indeed being widely covered and followed in China. Of course there’s some schadenfreude (not too dissimilar from what we saw in India last year when Wuhan was reeling) but I want to stress it has also evoked widespread sympathy, concern and empathy in China, and I’d like to believe the latter far outweighs the former. I know more than a couple of social organisations that are fundraising and donating and lots of friends have been in touch these past few days asking how to donate and offering to send supplies.

A different matter that much of the Chinese media is somewhat ambiguously framing the goods coming in from China as aid, even as India is keen to underline these are commercial transactions ordered by private companies… That aside, the way I see it, China keeping the supply chains and freight channels open and committing to speed up deliveries, as they have said they would, is invaluable in this dark hour when we are importing crucial supplies — and when at least one Chinese airline briefly threatened to cut cargo flights. Perhaps we could do with a little less politicising or trying to score points for whatever end. Trust both sides to somehow find a way to make even working together on this awkward - a reflection, I suppose, of the broader state of relations at the moment.


Recommend reading in full this new - and sobering - paper by Arzan Tarapore: THE CRISIS AFTER THE CRISIS: HOW LADAKH WILL SHAPE INDIA’S COMPETITION WITH CHINA

He writes:

Disengagement is not conciliation. Even if it proceeds without incident — a big if — disengagement merely marks a new phase in India’s strategic competition with China. As a matter of policy, New Delhi has now placed the border dispute at the centre of India–China relations. Unless the two sides reach a new modus vivendi, competition will continue unabated. Even with new confidence-building measures, in the absence of a comprehensive boundary settlement, the wider relationship will remain vulnerable to destabilising disruptions. Some analysts insist that a settlement to delineate and demarcate the LAC is now feasible. Working towards that ultimate goal would certainly be worthy of Indian policymakers’ efforts — a verifiable settlement would unshackle the Indian military from at least part of its continental burden and remove the single greatest impediment to more mutually-profitable bilateral relations.

But absent such a breakthrough, the PLA will continue to develop significant new military capabilities within operational reach of the LAC, as it did after the Doklam crisis, and as its policies for national rejuvenation prescribe. And it will continue to expand its military footprint in the Indian Ocean region as part of its long-term plan to project maritime power. The central challenge for India will be balancing these strategic priorities on land and at sea. This will be the subsequent and even more acute crisis in Indian defence policy.

That’s it for this issue. Thank you for reading, and stay well. The newsletter will be back soon.