How Covid would impact India’s foreign policy canvass

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much

Mains level : Paper 2- Strategic implications of Covid second wave

Foreign policy consequences

  • The devastation caused by the second Covid wave prompted India 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 claim to regional primacy and leadership will take a major hit.
  • India ‘leading power’ aspirations will be dented, and accentuate its domestic political contestations.
  • These in turn will impact the content and conduct of India’s foreign policy in the years to come.

What would be the strategic implications?

1) Impact on India’s regional primacy

  • COVID 2.0 has quickened the demise of India’s regional primacy.
  • India’s geopolitical decline is likely to begin in the neighbourhood itself.
  • India’s traditional primacy in the region was built on a mix of material aid, political influence and historical ties.
  • Its political influence is steadily declining, its ability to materially help the neighbourhood will shrink in the wake of COVID-19.
  • Its historical ties alone may not do wonders to hold on to a region hungry for development assistance and political autonomy.

2) Impact on India’s great power aspiration

  •  India aspires to be a leading power, rather than just a balancing power.
  • 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.
  • COVID-19, for instance, will prevent any ambitious military spending or modernisation plans.
  • Covid-19 will also limit the country’s attention on global diplomacy and regional geopolitics, be it Afghanistan or Sri Lanka or the Indo-Pacific.
  • 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.

3) Domestic political contestation  and its impact on strategic ambition

  • Domestic political contestations in the wake of the COVID-19 devastation in the country could also limit India’s strategic ambitions.
  • General economic distress, a fall in foreign direct investment and industrial production, and a rise in unemployment have already lowered the mood in the country.
  • 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.

4) Impact on India-China equation

  • From competing with China’s vaccine diplomacy a few months ago, New Delhi today is forced to seek help from the international community.
  • China has, compared to most other countries, emerged stronger in the wake of the pandemic.
  • The world, notwithstanding its anti-China rhetoric, will continue to do business with Beijing — it already has been, and it will only increase.
  • Claims that India could compete with China as a global investment and manufacturing destination would be dented.
  • India’s ability to stand up to China stands vastly diminished today: in material power, in terms of balance of power considerations, and political will.

5) Depressed foreign policy

  • Given the much reduced political capital within the government to pursue ambitious foreign policy goals, the diplomatic bandwidth for expansive foreign policy goals would be limited.
  • This, however, might take the aggressive edge off of India’s foreign policy.
  • 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.
  •  COVID-19 has forced us to reimagine, to some extent at least, the friend enemy equations in global geopolitics.
  • While the United States seemed hesitant, at least initially, Russia was quick to come to India’s aid. 

6) Implications for strategic autonomy

  • The pandemic would, at the very least indirectly, impact India’s policy of maintaining strategic autonomy.
  • As pointed out above, the strategic consequences of the pandemic are bound to shape and structure India’s foreign policy choices as well as constrain India’s foreign policy agency.
  • It could, for instance, become more susceptible to external criticism for, after all, India cannot say ‘yes’ to just aid and ‘no’ to criticism.

Consider the question “Examine the strategic implications of Covid for India.” 

Way forward

  • COVID-19 will also do is 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.

Conclusion

While the outpouring of global aid to India shows that the world realises India is too important to fail, the international community might also reach the conclusion that post-COVID-19 India is too fragile to lead and be a ‘leading power’.

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