A COVID blot on India’s foreign policy canvas

A COVID blot on India’s foreign policy canvas: The second wave of COVID-19 and its agonizing consequences, prompting the country to accept foreign aid after a gap of 17 years, is bound to have far-reaching strategic implications for India. While the world realizes that India is too important to ignore, which perhaps explains the rush to help, there is little doubt that the country will not be the toast of the western world until it is able to get back on its feet. As a direct consequence of the pandemic, New Delhi’s claim to regional primacy and leadership will take a major hit, its ‘ 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.

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A COVID blot on India’s foreign policy canvas

Regional primacy

COVID 2.0 has quickened the demise of India’s regional primacy. Regrettably, the country’s geopolitical decline is likely to begin in the neighbourhood itself, a strategic space in which New Delhi has been forced to cede to Beijing over the past decade or so, a phenomenon that was intensified by the aggressive regional policies of Modi 1.0. 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, and 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, if they haven’t already. COVID-19, therefore, comes at a time when India’s standing in the region is already shrinking: the pandemic will, unfortunately, quicken the inevitable.

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In July 2015, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, who was then the Foreign Secretary, stated that India aspires to be a “leading power, rather than just a balancing power”. How will COVID-19 impact India’s great power/leading power aspirations? Being boxed in a China-dominated region will provide New Delhi with little space to pursue its regional, let alone global, geopolitical ambitions except in the Indo-Pacific region. 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 (called for in the wake of the stand-off at the Line of Actual Control (LAC)) and 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.

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’. 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 politics

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 lowered the mood in the country. The central political leadership, therefore, is likely to focus on COVID-19 recovery and the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh in 2022. The U.P. election and the run-up to the 2024 general election, both crucial for the Narendra Modi regime, could 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. Domestic political preoccupations will further shrink the political elite’s appetite for foreign policy innovation or initiatives. Post-COVID-19, Indian foreign policy is therefore likely to be a holding operation.

These strategic consequences of the pandemic will shape the content and conduct of India’s foreign policy in several important ways.

India-China equations

One potential impact of COVID-19’s devastating return and the damage it has done would be that India might be forced to be more conciliatory towards China, albeit reluctantly. From competing with China’s vaccine diplomacy a few months ago, New Delhi today is forced to seek help from the international community, if not China, to deal with the worsening COVID-19 situation at home. For one, China has, compared to most other countries, emerged stronger in the wake of the pandemic. Second, the world, notwithstanding its anti-China rhetoric, will continue to do business with Beijing — it already has been, and it will only increase. Third, while one is yet unsure of the nature of China-U.S. relations in the days ahead, the rise of China and India’s COVID-19-related troubles could prompt Washington to hedge its bets on Beijing. Finally, claims that India could compete with China as a global investment and manufacturing destination would remain just that — claims.

Thanks to its monumental mismanagement of the second wave, India’s ability to stand up to China stands vastly diminished today: in material power, in terms of the balance of power considerations, and political will. This might require New Delhi to be more conciliatory towards China. If the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s rather muted response to the LAC stand-off in the summer of 2020 is anything to go by, we are likely to see a conciliatory China policy from here on.

Depressed foreign policy

Post-COVID-19, Indian foreign policy is unlikely to be business as usual. Given the much reduced political capital within the Modi government to pursue ambitious foreign policy goals, the diplomatic bandwidth for expansive foreign policy goals would be limited, leading thereby to a much depressed Indian foreign policy. The remainder of Mr. Modi’s current term is unlikely to emerge unscathed from such acute foreign policy depression. This, however, might take the aggressive edge off of India’s foreign policy under Mr. Modi. 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.

The aftermath of the pandemic may kindle such a conciliatory tone in Indian foreign policy for other reasons as well. For one, 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, to assist India even as the pandemic was wreaking havoc in the country, Moscow was quick to come to New Delhi’s aid. Even though New Delhi did not accept the aid offers from Pakistan and China, these offers sounded more than the usual diplomatic grandstanding that states engage in during natural calamities. The argument here is not that these will lead to fundamental shifts in India’s strategic partnerships, but that they could definitely moderate the sharp edges of India’s pre-existing geopolitical articulations.

Strategic autonomy

Finally, 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 New Delhi’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, New Delhi cannot say ‘yes to just aid and ‘no’ to criticism. A post-COVID-19 New Delhi might find it harder to resist demands of a closer military relationship with the U.S.

And yet, every crisis opens up the possibility for change and new thinking. What COVID-19 will also do is open up new regional opportunities for cooperation especially under the ambit of SAARC, an initiative that already saw some small beginnings during the first wave of the pandemic. New Delhi 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 may have opened precisely such an opportunity to the world’s least integrated region. (A COVID blot on India’s foreign policy canvas).