NEWS A direct consequence of the pandemic is that New Delhi’s claim to regional primacy and leadership could take a hit.
- The second wave of COVID-19 and its distressing consequences has prompted the country to accept foreign aid after a gap of 17 years.
- This is bound to have far-reaching strategic implications for India. As a direct consequence of the pandemic, India’s ‘leading power’ aspirations will be dented, and accentuate its domestic political contestations.
- This in turn will impact the content and conduct of India’s foreign policy in the years to come.
IMPACT OF COVID ON INDIA’S REGIONAL PRIMACY
- COVID 2.0 has quickened the demise of India’s regional primacy.
- India’s traditional primacy in the region was built on a mix of material aid, political influence and historical ties.
- But in present times, its political influence is steadily declining, its ability to materially help the neighbourhood will shrink in the wake of COVID-19.
- Hence, its historical ties alone may not do wonders to hold on to a region hungry for development assistance and political autonomy. As a result, South Asian states are likely to board the Chinese bandwagon.
- COVID-19, therefore, comes at a time when India’s standing in the region is already shrinking: the pandemic will only quicken the inevitable.
- While the Indo-Pacific is geopolitically keen and ready to engage with India, the pandemic could adversely impact India’s ability and desire to contribute to the Indo-Pacific and the Quad.
- For instance , COVID-19 will prevent any ambitious military spending or modernisation plans
- It will also limit the country’s attention on global diplomacy and regional geopolitics, be it Afghanistan or Sri Lanka or the Indo-Pacific.
- Thus, with reduced military spending and lesser diplomatic attention to regional geopolitics, New Delhi’s ability to project power and contribute to the growth of the Quad will be uncertain.
IMPLICATIONS OF GLOBAL AID
- The outpouring of global aid to India shows that the world realises India is too important to fail.
- But at the same time, the international community might also reach the conclusion that post-COVID-19 India is too fragile to lead and be a ‘leading power’.
- New Delhi is pivotal to the Indo-Pacific project, but with India’s inability to take a lead role and China wooing smaller states in the region away from the Indo-Pacific with aid and threats, the Indo-Pacific balance of power could eventually turn in Beijing’s favour.
- Domestic political contestations in the wake of the COVID-19 devastation in the country could also limit New Delhi’s strategic ambitions.
- General economic distress, a fall in foreign direct investment and industrial production, and a rise in unemployment have already impacted the country.
- The upcoming elections in the country could further fan communal tensions in the country, triggering more political violence.
- A depressed economy, politically volatile domestic space combined with a lack of elite consensus on strategic matters would hardly inspire confidence in the international system about India.
The strategic consequences of the pandemic are capable of shaping the content and conduct of India’s foreign policy in several important ways.
- One potential impact of return of COVID-19 is that it might force India to be more conciliatory towards China.
- From competing with China’s vaccine diplomacy a few months ago, New Delhi today is forced to seek help from the international community.
- On the contrary, China has emerged stronger in the wake of the pandemic.
- Also the world, notwithstanding its anti-China rhetoric, will continue to do business with Beijing.
- Further, the rise of China and India’s COVID-19-related troubles could prompt the U.S to move closer to Beijing.
Depressed foreign policy:
- Post-COVID-19, with the much reduced political, India’s diplomatic bandwidth for expansive foreign policy goals would be limited.
- Less aggression could potentially translate into more accommodation, reconciliation and cooperation especially in the neighbourhood, with Pakistan on the one hand and within the broader South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) framework on the other.
- Alos, the aftermath of the pandemic may force us to re-imagine, to some extent at least, the friend enemy equations in global geopolitics.
- Finally, the pandemic would, at the very least indirectly, impact India’s policy of maintaining strategic autonomy.
- The strategic consequences of the pandemic are bound to shape and structure New Delhi’s foreign policy choices as well as constrain India’s foreign policy agency.
- For instance, New Delhi cannot say ‘yes’ to just aid and ‘no’ to criticism, thus making it harder for India to resist demands of a closer military relationship with the U.S.
- Every crisis opens up the possibility for change and new thinking.
- Similarly, COVID-19 will also open up new regional opportunities for cooperation especially under the ambit of SAARC.
- India might do well to get the region’s collective focus on ‘regional health multilateralism’ to promote mutual assistance and joint action on health emergencies such as this.
- Classical geopolitics should be brought on a par with health diplomacy, environmental concerns and regional connectivity in South Asia. COVID-19 has opened such an opportunity to the world’s least integrated region.