China's state-run Sichuan Airlines has suspended all its cargo flights to India for 15 days, causing major disruption to private traders' efforts to procure the much-needed oxygen concentrators and other medical supplies from the country despite Beijing reiterating its readiness to help India to deal with the latest surge of COVID-19 cases.
"China has been following closely the epidemic situation in India and expressed readiness early on to help curb the latest surge," foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a media briefing here on Monday while answering questions, including the suspension of cargo flights by the Sichuan Airlines.
"At present, the two sides are communicating with one another," he said in the official transcript of comments posted on the foreign ministry's website.
He, however, did not confirm a tweet by the Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka stating that China began to supply oxygen concentrators to India.
"800 Oxygen Concentrators have been airlifted today from #HongKong to #Delhi; 10,000 more in a week. #China is keeping in touch with #India for urgent needs,” said a tweet put out by the Chinese Embassy in Colombo.
Asked for his reaction to the tweet, Wang said, "China is ready to provide necessary support and help to India in its fight against the new wave of infections. If India raises any specific demand, we will offer support and help to the best of our capability".
About Chinese manufacturers hiking prices of the medical supplies to India, he said, "As far as I know, that's normal business interaction. We stand ready to offer support and assistance to the best of our capability if the Indian side informs us of its specific needs."
Chinese Ambassador to India Sun Weidong in a tweet said his country "firmly supports" India in fighting against COVID19. "We will encourage and guide Chinese companies to actively participate into the cooperation in facilitating various needed medical supplies for India," he tweeted.
To a question that members of the Quadrilateral alliance consisting of the US, India, Australia and Japan not rushing help to India, Wang said, "on this issue, countries should work together".
"We hope that all countries can stand-in solidarity to fight against the virus, the common enemy of mankind,” he said.
"You mentioned some activities carried out by certain countries within the relevant framework, we hope that they will also follow such principles and spirit, and jointly provide support and assistance to India and those in need within their capabilities," Wang said.
Wang declined to react to China's state-run airline, Sichuan Airlines, decision to suspend its cargo flights to several destinations to India which was expected to seriously cause disruptions to private traders' efforts to procure oxygen concentrators badly needed in India.
"As for the operation of the specific flights of the airlines you mentioned, I suggest you check with the company concerned," he said.
In a letter to the sales agents on Monday, the Sichuan Chuanhang Logistics Co Ltd, the company which is part of the Sichuan Airlines, said the airline has suspended its cargo flights on six routes, including Xian to Delhi, amid hectic efforts by private traders from both sides to procure oxygen concentrators from China.
In the letter, the company said, "In the face of sudden changes in the epidemic situation (in India), in order to reduce the number of imported cases, it is decided" to suspend the flights for the next 15 days.
It also said the company will review the situation after 15 days.
The suspension of cargo flights came as a surprise to agents and freight forwarders who are frantically trying to procure the oxygen concentrators from China.
There are also complaints of Chinese manufacturers jacking up the prices by 35 to 40 per cent. The freight charges have been increased to over 20 per cent, said Siddharth Sinha of Sino Global Logistics, a Shanghai-based freight forwarding company.
He said that the Sichuan Airlines decision to cancel flights has caused severe disruption to attempts by private traders in both the countries to secure quick supplies of the Oxygen concentrators to rush to India in view of the dire situation.
Now it becomes very challenging to rush the supplies as they have to be rerouted through Singapore and other countries through different airlines, which delays the much-needed supplies, he said.
The suspension of the flights owing to the coronavirus situation in India is surprising as there is no crew change in India and the same crew flies the aircraft back, he said.
There are also virtually no Indians travelling to China from India other than diplomats as China has suspended visas for Indians since November and flights remained banned.
India is struggling with a second wave of the pandemic with more than 3,00,000 daily new coronavirus cases being reported in the past few days, and hospitals in several states are reeling under a shortage of medical oxygen and beds.
The Chinese cargo flights besides the shipping services have been operational throughout the pandemic rushing supplies of lucrative mobile phone equipment as well as a lot of other Chinese exports to India.
Sinha said the Chinese suppliers also resorted to "inhuman" practice of heavy jacking up of prices to cash in on the pandemic emergency.
The suspension of cargo flights also came as a surprise to the Indian officials here as it came in the backdrop of official statements offering support and assistance to India.