08.06.2020 Author: Vladimir Terehov

India Faces New Challenges

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As expected, the Indian government announced what will be the fifth phase of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown on the last day of the phase four (18 – 31 May), which is going to last until the end of June. No matter how much people are yearning for India to be unlocked completely, with all restrictions put in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus lifted, the latest statistics suggest that this would be a very unwise move.

The curve plotting the daily rate of infection with the number of new confirmed cases slowed for a few days in mid-May (at approximately 3500 new cases) but jumped up again, with almost 8400 new cases recorded on May 31.  This means that all of the measures to unlock the country and revive its economy will not only be implemented before India has managed to flatten the famous curve, the number of new confirmed cases will in fact even be accelerating.

However, one of India’s most effective weapons to combat the spread of the epidemic was its complete shutdown of public transport, but it is now being reopened. Transport links will now gradually begin operating again, both within states and between them, reconnecting the entire country. Suspending public transport for any longer could bode a systemic disaster in the country.

India is clearly tired of living in fear of SARS-CoV-2. This is evident in a series of tweets by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the first anniversary of his party’s victory in the general elections, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) secured a second term, who have now been in power since 2014. The Indian leader reaffirmed the need to build a “New India” in these tweets, which he emphasized again on May 12 when the guidelines for Lockdown 4.0 were announced. In a tweet on May 30, he shared his vision to boost “four key sectors” in the country, placing them in the following order: agriculture, defense, health and education.

However, India is facing a new threat, swarms of locusts, which is by no means a less serious plague than SARS-CoV-2 that could make it difficult to implement any of these plans, even in the short term. Note that the word “locust” tends to have negative associations with biblical wrath. These associations are particularly conjured up when combined with the other plagues that humanity has been stricken by.

The locusts which thrive after periods of heavy rainfall are believed to have come from the Arabian Peninsula, which received a prolonged bout of exceptionally wet weather including several rare cyclones last spring, allowing them to breed rapidly. So far, they are mainly migrating along the Arabian Peninsula and to the south of it. Reports have highlighted how the locusts have wreaked havoc swarming through parts of East Africa, arriving in Kenya.

The swarm clouds of insects crossed the Arabian sea, spreading east to Asia, and have already caused untold damage to agricultural fields in Pakistan. To the north, the locusts have appeared in the southern provinces of Iran.

As for India, sightings in the northern states on the border with Pakistan were reported back in April, but they did not seem to see much cause for concern. However, by the end of May it was already being described as the “the worst attack in 26 years”, with locusts ravaging India’s crops. Swarms have even been seen in the Mumbai area. And this is far from India’s northern borderlands. Mumbai-based airlines were even warned against resuming flights through locust swarms by the Director General of Civil Aviation.

The situation in the eastern Indian interior is also far from quiet. The greatest concern is still due to another painful blister which is swelling up on the border with China. Let’s not forget that there were a couple of misunderstandings between Indian and Chinese border patrols in two parts of India’s mountainous border region at the beginning of May this year, which also led to a certain amount of additional troops being detached to both sides of the border for support.

What is alarming is that one of these sites is near the Doklam Plateau, where the two Asian giants were on the verge of a direct military confrontation two and a half years ago in a standoff which lasted for almost three months. That previous standoff immediately began resurfacing in comments about the current misunderstandings.

The border standoff was a wake-up call for the leaders of both countries to look for ways to ease tensions and move their bilateral relations in a positive direction. In this context, the informal meeting of leaders Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi in the now infamous city of Wuhan, held six months after the Doklam Plateau standoff, was a milestone.

A second and also informal meeting held between XI Jinping and Narendra Modi in October last year in the Indian resort city of Mamallapuram seemed to offer more hope that the two countries were on course to continue the progress made in Wuhan.

However, the problems in their bilateral relations have not gone away. There are both visible problems and (far more importantly) those that are hidden beneath the surface. The direct reason given for the most recent flare-up in tensions along the Sino-Indian border is only a superficial one, due to the nature of the border itself, which still has no legal or official status. The sum of territorial and border disputes between the two countries amounts to an estimated 120,000 square kilometers.

While the situation may have apparently been quickly and safely resolved at one of these sites of misunderstanding, also in the Himalayan region of the Doklam Plateau, tensions remain at the second site on the Ladakh Plateau, despite the reassurances from both sides. This was made clear when new military units were transferred to the area where conflict could potentially break out (located at an altitude of about 4.5 km).

On May 25, an Indian military source spoke about the threat of the situation escalating into a conflict on a similar scale to that seen on the Doklam Plateau. On the next day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a meeting with National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, Chief of Defense Staff General Bipin Rawat and the three service chiefs.

On the same day, the Chinese Embassy in India issued a press release refuting the “irresponsible speculation” of “some Indian media outlets” about the “voluntary” repatriation operation that it had begun a week earlier to return Chinese citizens who are willing to travel home but are stuck in India due to the country’s nationwide coronavirus lockdown.

US President Donald Trump tweeted an offer to mediate in what he calls their “raging border dispute” on May 27, which goes to show just how serious the situation is. Two comments need to be made on this.

First of all, it would be extremely surprising to hear something like this coming from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is probably one of the most prominent hawks in American politics. It is Mike Pompeo who has recently adopted a fiercely anti-Chinese stance. According to some reports, Pompeo also disagrees with the US President’s policy to reduce America’s military presence abroad, and he was particularly opposed to the recent the US-Taliban deal.

Secondly, the American President’s offer was not only politely refused by Beijing, which was fairly predictable, whose spokesperson for the Ministry of National Defense Senior Colonel Ren Guoqiang said that “the two sides have the ability to communicate and solve relevant issues through the established border-related mechanisms and diplomatic channels,” but the offer was also rather significantly turned down by Delhi. Although India maintains quite a firm pro-American stance in its foreign policy, this response has clearly shown that the country is following its own independent course on the world stage, perhaps more confidently than ever before.

What can be gleaned from the latest reports is that talks are currently underway between India and China “at diplomatic and military levels” to resolve the tense Ladakh border standoff. However, these negotiations are tough if the remarks made by Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh are anything to go by.

Finally, the situation in India should be viewed within the wider context, as it is by no means the only country facing seriously testing times. On the contrary, to paraphrase a line spoken by Marcellus in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “something is rotten in the entire global kingdom.”

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on issues in the Asia-Pacific Region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

 


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