This article has been written Riddhiman Mukherjee and Easaa Roy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had unprecedented casualties to public health since its incidence, manifestations of which include socio-economic malfunctioning of domestic sectors followed by the domino effect of the food crisis, unemployment and labour issues or be it International Trade, or alliances between different Nations and their relations. According to the reports by the World Health Organization (WHO), the COVID-19, the pandemic has been extremely catastrophic. It has also affected various countries with humanitarian crises and emergencies which in turn has led to various changes in the functioning of the domestic contemplation and policies, versus other countries.
This article involves detailed information about what changes have been brought in India’s Foreign policies with different countries like America, China and other countries in times of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Foreign policies of a country are general objectives that guide the activities and relationships of one state in its interactions with other states. The development of foreign policy is determined by the domestic considerations, policies, behaviour of other states, or plans to facilitate specific geopolitical designs and alliances.
In India, this portfolio is handled by the Ministry of Foreign affairs, which is a government agency responsible for the conduct of foreign policy in India. It has the third-largest military expenditure, fifth-largest economy by GDP nominal rates, the third-largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity and has the fourth largest armed forces.
It is a nuclear power, a global power and a potential superpower with a significant say in the global affairs of the World. It is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations due to it being a former British Colony and BRICS which stands as an acronym of major emerging economies of the world including Brazil, Russia, China, South Africa and India. India was the founder of the Non-Aligned movement and is also part of the ‘Neighbourhood first’ policy by SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) and the ‘Look East Policy’ which aims to forge more extensive economic and strategic relationships with other East Asian countries. Under the ‘Vaccine Maitri’ initiative, India earlier exported vaccines to 90 countries and had also received foreign aid from 25 countries. Moreover, India’s regional prevalence was based on previous historical ties, material aid, and political influence.
US delays in vaccine raw material approvals
The U.S and India partnership was initiated on a shared commitment for freedom, democratic principles, equality of all its citizens, and human rights. The United States and India have also shared similar interests in promoting global security, firmness, and economic prosperity, by means of trade, investment, and integration.
But during the second wave of COVID-19 pandemics, there was a delay in the process of approval, on behalf of the United States for exporting raw materials, which was required for the manufacturing of vaccines in India. Moreover, on public request, Mr Adar Poonawala, the CEO of Serum Institute of India, played a crucial role in this outrage against the vehement notion on which the premises of Indian foreign policies were primarily built upon.
Though the US later had rectified its stance on this issue and the entire US leadership promptly started working towards sending medical aids to India. In addition, they also reached out to the Indian leadership, Narendra Modi via phone calls. Internally, New Delhi has learnt the climacteric lesson of pragmatism and is expected to recalibrate its joviality in displaying its penchant towards the United States in the past 4-5 years.
India’s Foreign Minister Jaishankar, has so far revolved around increasing vaccine production and distribution, during his visit to New York and Washington. He had also put an emphasis on an agreement, during the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue leaders, the summit in March. The Foreign Minister also pushed for an intellectual property rights waiver on vaccines, endorsed by Biden, and on other products such as medical devices and personal protective equipment. The foreign minister has met with corporate interrogators, including a new global task force, which further helped in mobilizing donations for India.
India had imposed a ban on Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE for 5G trials in India. This was contrary to what Ravi Shankar Prasad (the Indian minister for electronics and IT) said in December 2019. Back then he said that all the companies would be allowed to take part in the trials for 5G services, including Huawei and ZTE.
The prime reason being, the border standoff in Ladakh wherein almost 20 Indian soldiers lost their life. Moreover, China had also made a lot of attempts to stop WHO from doing their investigation, regarding the emergence of the virus in Wuhan. In addition, even the latest G7 foreign minister’s meeting in London, (where India’s Prime Minister was also invited as a guest), had raised their concerns about the Chinese role in this pandemic.
India has been considering trying to reduce its dependency on China, for which they have the discussion over the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between India and other European Union, after the gap of 8 long years. The Supply Chain Resilience Initiative, launched by Japan, Australia and India recently is yet another way through which India is trying to seek alternative methods of the supply-chains, which currently is fortuitous on China.
On 15th March 2020, Bangladesh prime Minister Sheikh Haseena participated in an online video conference with leaders of SAARC countries at the invitation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in regard of the current scenario of the Covid -19 pandemic. India and Bangladesh share an excellent bilateral relationship due to common languages, heritage, history, and cultures. and since the agenda of this meeting was to stop the spread of the virus, several cooperative measures were discussed. extended three tranches of medical assistance including 30,000 surgical masks, 15,000 headcovers, 50,000 surgical latex gloves, 100,000 Hydroxychloroquine medicine tablets and RT-PCR test kits capable of running 30,000 tests in March- April 2020 to Bangladesh. India’s top health professionals have also given online training to healthcare officials of Bangladesh in light of treating Corona patients.
In 2021, the Government of India had given 2 million Covishield vaccines as a gift to Bangladesh for helping them overcome the pandemic. The Government of Bangladesh, BEXIMCO Pharmaceuticals Limited of Bangladesh and the Serum Institute of India (SII) have signed a trilateral MOU to procure 3 crore doses of COVID-19 vaccine from the SII.
Impact of India’s foreign policy during COVID-19
Now the question that arises here is that how is the foreign policies during the COVID-19 pandemic going to impact India in future. After the second wave of COVID-19, India was reported with almost around 4000 deaths every day, which prompted India to accept foreign aids after a long gap of 17 years.
COVID-19 pandemic leading to the disintegration of India’s Regional Primacy
To begin with, the first policy of neighbourhood first, which focused on improving the relations between India and its neighbouring countries, have gone astray, due to the COVID-19 pandemic which led to the ruination of India’s regional primacy, including the extended neighbourhood. Although India’s relations with its neighbouring countries are good, if we start comparing India with China, we would see that China has gained a lot more ground than India. For example, China’s investment in Sri Lanka as compared to India is huge. And therefore, there is a high possibility that these South Asian countries might start supporting China in future, which will ultimately lead to the downfall of India’s primacy.
Affecting India’s desire to contribute to the Quad
In addition, if we talk about the extended neighbourhood of India, which includes the Indian Ocean region or the Indo pacific region, will also go for a toss. COVID-19 has turned out to be a huge challenge for India. It has brought in a lot of economic slackening, along with a huge rate of unemployability as well. As a result of which there will be a huge impact on India’s ability and inclination to contribute to the Quad (which is a strategic dialogue between the US, Australia, Japan and India), and to the Indo-Pacific region. India is currently so invested and busy with resolving its own internal matters that it cannot focus on increasing its military budget, nor can it focus on coming up with some modernisation plans. Therefore, India’s contribution to the growth of Quad might be a little uncertain or undetermined in the coming years, which in turn might benefit China again.
With the increasing number of deaths and covid cases, India has now become somewhat more dependent on foreign aids and thereby transferring itself from Atmanirbhar Bharat to Vishwa Nirbhar Bharat. This later might as well create an interrogation mark on India’s leadership skills. We now have more than 30 countries helping us, fight against COVID-19, and in return, even India has helped a lot of countries. Now if we are to compare China’s situation with that of India’s we can see that China has somewhat been able to come out of this impact and has emerged to be much stronger as compared to India, in fighting the COVID-19 pandemics.
More specifically if we talk about the impact of the second wave in India, which turned out to be extremely devastating, India to some extent, is forced to be more placatory towards China. This might again be a threat to India’s leading capacity, which in turn would benefit China. China will start gaining more and more importance, not only in South Asia but also in the Indo Pacific Region.
The impact of India’s foreign policy on the US can be another topic for discussion. United States has never been a true partner of India, but ever since 2014, with BJP’s rule at the centre, we have started becoming closer to the US. But now the question that arises here is that, will the US continue to support India at times of adversity? As we have already seen that how China in the long run might gain more power as compared to India, if India doesn’t use this as an opportunity to gain more importance, by implementing better modernization plans and by showing its leadership skills.
But India after the second wave could not increase its global investment and compete with China in reducing the number of deaths and covid cases, due to which chances are that the US might stop supporting India and back off in the longer run. China is currently being a threat to the hegemony of the US, and in order to stop that, the US has no other option but to support India. This is because India is the only country in the south Asian region that can counter China. But if India doesn’t use this as a golden opportunity to gain more importance, by imposing challenges on China, US and China relations might get better in future.
The intrusion of India’s Strategic Space
The second wave of COVID-19 in India has brought in a lot of economic distress. As a result of which there has been a lot of unemployment. Therefore, India’s current focus is entirely on its domestic development. Regardless of covid, Bengal elections were held. Therefore, taking into consideration the domestic economic conditions and the political conditions, India might keep its focus on domestic matters rather than focusing more on foreign matters or policies. In other words, COVID-19 pandemics will definitely impact India’s strategic autonomy in future. It is currently dependent on other countries in order to fight against COVID-19. As a result of which India has become more conciliatory.
Nonetheless, India has this opportunity of showing its leadership skills in the South Asian countries, which can possibly lead to the rejuvenation of SAARC. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (which was established in the year of 1985), is an economic and political organization of eight countries in South Asia, namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India. Later, Afghanistan joined as the 8th member of the SAARC in 2007. It aims to promote economic, social and cultural development within the South Asia region. India can also use this situation as an opportunity to get the collective focus of other countries, on the region’s health multilateralism in order to promote mutual assistance at times of emergencies, like this COVID-19 pandemic.
The post-COVID-19 pandemic scenarios would, to some extent, limit India’s usual course of business in foreign matters. But at the same time, if India can use this situation as an opportunity to challenge China’s strategic autonomy, then it can definitely enjoy or gain more importance in the future as compared to China. If we look back, the Indian Ocean tsunamis in 2004 was a natural catastrophe that devastated Chennai, Tamil Nadu and Andaman Nicobar islands, but India stood firm on its grounds and set a benchmark precedent of recovery and even offering foreign aid to neighbouring countries.
This provides a ray of hope for the dominance of India and a possibility of India’s Coming of help to its allies and strengthens its position among them in this Pandemic scenario as well. India has the capacity of mass manufacturing vaccines and this should be leveraged in a spirit of collaboration. India’s lurking in the mid-space amidst the US-China skirmish is expected to stop and we will have to take sides. Relation with Pakistan is expected to remain the same with terror infiltrations being made even in the Covid scenario, Chinese manufacturing model of go for the cheapest is also expected to remain the same including India’s notion of economic nationalism to take a backseat with the pre-pandemic global supply chain to undergo change. It is expected there will be committees to screen investments from China.
Evin Feigenbaum coined the term ‘Managed enmity’ which can be applied toUS-China strategic competition, India has to wait out for the best opportunities when it comes to taking sides. Even five years ago where the possibility of China taking over was just a possibility, today Nepal is taking on India on a border dispute at the behest of another power i.e China. China’s entrenchment is clearly a challenge to India and until India can come up with realistic alternatives by creating jobs that use the skills and talents of the vast population available at hand.
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