India is aggressively stepping up engagement in its neighbourhood to counter China’s renewed bid to expand its strategic footprint by taking advantage of the Covid-19 crisis. With China moving swiftly to help countries reeling under the pandemic as part of its “Health Silk Road” initiative, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been busy working the phones.
New Delhi is said to be wary of China’s new initiative, which it suspects to be an offshoot or extension of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – China’s ambitious but controversial connectivity programme that India refused to join.
On Friday, Modi rang up Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha, one of the several South and South-east Asia leaders the PM has spoken to in recent days.
On Thursday, he spoke to Myanmar’s state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and conveyed India’s willingness to provide all possible support to Myanmar for mitigating the health and economic impact of the pandemic.
The Prime Minister called up Suu Kyi days after China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sent a military medical team to Nay Pyi Daw to help the South-east Asian nation to deal with the pandemic. This was the second medical team Beijing sent to help Nay Pyi Daw to deal with the Covid-19 outbreak in Myanmar.
China has sent its military medical teams to Laos and Pakistan as well.
New Delhi is also extending currency swap facility to its neighbours to help them mitigate the impact of the crisis on their economies, in addition to providing them with paracetamol and hydroxychloroquine tablets as well as protective gears for healthcare professionals, face masks and other medical equipment.
India recently activated a currency swap facility of $ 150 million for Maldives.
The Reserve Bank of India is also working with the Central Bank of Sri Lanka to finalise a $ 400 million currency swap agreement for the neighbouring island nation. China already provided a preliminary $ 500 million concessional loan to Sri Lanka to help it cushion the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Earlier, Modi discussed the outbreak with Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc of Vietnam, President Joco Widodo of Indonesia and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore.
He has also separately called up leaders of Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives. He is also likely to speak to Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Afghan President M Ashraf Ghani soon.