India, China avoided open clash over COVID-19 origins

India, China avoided open clash over COVID-19 origins

Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for a transparent investigation at BRICS summit last week.

India and China avoided an open clash over views on the origins of the COVID-19 virus at the BRICS summit last week, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a strong intervention in favour of a “transparent investigation” into the origins of the pandemic, a subject China has been sensitive about.

The two leaders will meet virtually again this week, as part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit hosted by Tajikistan, the MEA announced on September 15, and Mr. Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi will both travel to Dushanbe on September 16 to attend the conference, with the tensions over the virus debate only adding to the 17-month-long India-China impasse at the Line of Actual Control.

“Today global governance needs credibility. There must be a transparent investigation into the origins of the virus under the World Health Organisation’s framework, and this must receive full cooperation from all countries,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his main speech at the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa summit hosted by India and held virtually on September 9.

“If this is done, it will reduce the questions over WHO’s credibility and we would be able to prepare better for future pandemics as well,” Mr. Modi said, in the presence of Mr. Xi, in comments not released publicly but The Hindu accessed a copy of.

According to officials and diplomats present at the BRICS meeting, Mr. Modi spoke ‘emphatically’ and ‘forcefully’ on the subject, reiterating India’s previous statements calling for China to cooperate with WHO team who have visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology twice, but had complained formally about the lack of free access to facilities and data, which led to an inconclusive report with “four pathways” to the origin of the virus that has left nearly 4.7 million people dead worldwide.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, who spoke directly after PM Modi, called on the BRICS countries to “oppose politicisation” in origin tracing.

“We need to promote global solidarity against COVID-19, join forces to tackle the pandemic, uphold a science-based approach to tracing its origins, and oppose politicisation and stigmatisation,” he said. “We need to enhance coordination in COVID prevention and control, and boost the research, production and equitable distribution of vaccines as a global public good.”

Pushing back against criticism from the U.S. and allies of China’s failure to prevent the spread of the virus, Beijing has accused the U.S. of ‘politicising’ the WHO inquiry and for pushing the “lab leak” theory. In addition, China has accused the U.S. government of attempting to divert attention from research on viruses in America and in a letter to WHO chief Tedros Ghebreyesus in August, China’s Permanent Representative to the U.N. office in Geneva called for a transparent investigation “with full access” to the laboratories of the U.S. military at Fort Detrick and the University of North Carolina (UNC).

With U.S.-China tensions over the issue threatening to spill over into the BRICS sphere, diplomats reportedly worked to frame the joint statement issued after the summit, taking the comments by both leaders into account.

According to the statement, all BRICS countries noted “that the cooperation on study of origins of the SARS-CoV-2 is an important aspect of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic”. “We support science-based, inclusive of broad expertise, transparent, and timely processes, free from politicisation or interference, to strengthen international capabilities to better understand the emergence of novel pathogens and to help prevent future pandemics.”

The MEA officials say as per protocol, only the opening statements of the leaders are released publicly, while the remarks on the origin of the virus, which were part of the “closed door” session of the summit, were not, and expressed ‘surprise’ at the decision by some members like China and Brazil to publicise their speeches.

The Chinese Embassy in New Delhi did not respond to a question on Mr. Modi’s intervention and China’s response, and the Brazilian embassy also declined to comment on the proceedings.

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