India urgently needed to reach out to world capitals and engage with nations that were looking for an alternative to China. But the pandemic kept MEA occupied

by Seshadri Chari

The second wave of the coronavirus pandemic is seriously affecting the economy and whatever green shoots were appearing seem to have subsided. The lockdown and its debilitating implications seem to have seriously affected India’s foreign policy and international relations strategies too. Going by the subdued Raisina Dialogue event, it is evident that a much greater opportunity to deliberate on the pressing global issues and India’s role in the global rule-making process has remained unfinished.

The Raisina Dialogue happens to be one of the many activities undertaken by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). During the early stages of the pandemic and the lockdown, the ministry had to scout for basic essentials such as PPE kits and masks to fight the health crisis. It was a sad reflection on the state of our medical infrastructure that the country lacked such basic necessities. But the production of vaccines and exchange of technological information on vaccine-related issues put India on a new pedestal much above the rest of the developed world.

When India Failed To Reap Benefits

The interconnectedness of the global trade and supply chain mechanism has been severely challenged by the pandemic and the resultant lockdown. In fact, the multilateral trade architecture has failed to live up to its promise of keeping the economy vibrant at any given situation. Much before the pandemic and during the Donald Trump administration, the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the US-China trade war posed challenges to the way world trade was being conducted.

India was looked upon as a prospective destination for the manufacturing units that would ultimately shift out of China. There was an urgent need to reach out to world capitals and engage with the countries that were interested in looking for an alternative to China, in terms of investment opportunities, transparent judicial system and democratic dispensation. Though India fulfilled the requirements best, not much progress was made in the direction of attracting investments and industries probably due to lack of focussed and coordinated efforts by all the ministries concerned. As a result, we missed the bus.

The UN Secretary General had called for “a general and immediate cessation of hostilities in all situations” last year, keeping in view the seriousness of the pandemic and the need to save human lives. Sadly, the august body took no notice of the “Galwan crisis” nor did the UN take any steps to enforce strict compliance of the Biological Weapons Convention.

Exactly 49 years ago, on 10 April 1972, the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) was opened for signature (which came into effect on 26 March 1975). Ironically, even though there is a view prevalent among a section of the scientific community that the Covid-19 virus could be a product of a laboratory in Wuhan, no progress has been done in either establishing the fact or dismissing it with proof. The World Health Organization (WHO)’s report following an investigation has been vague and ambiguous, to say the least, in locating the origin of the virus, which is no less than a “biological warfare”.

Conclusive evidence to that effect would have given added strength and credence to the efforts of forging a strong coalition against irresponsible states, at least to the extent of taking punitive actions within the ambit of the Biological Weapons Convention. The MEA should reach out to the rest of the world and lead the events to mark the fifty years of the fight against biological weapons.

Converting Challenges Into Opportunities

At the Raisina Dialogue, many heads of governments and foreign ministers of participating countries spoke about the importance of a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. It is one thing to be told how important India is for the Indo-Pacific, but the need of the hour is to work on an ‘Indo-Pacific trade institution’ and lead that architecture as an alternative to the existing ones, which anyway have collapsed under the impact of the pandemic.

The success of foreign policy should be measured by the speed and alacrity with which a country is able to convert challenges into opportunities. There are instances when even stronger nations have floundered on crafting optimally productive international strategy, thus missing opportunities to do more good for the global community. The US, for example, had a golden opportunity to forge a stronger global coalition against terrorism post-9/11 terror attack on its soil. But the US launched unilateral military action, euphemistically calling it ‘global war on terror’. It only lost credibility and gained nothing.

Twenty years later, when US forces are set to withdraw from Afghanistan, is New Delhi prepared for the consequences? While we are busy fighting the second wave of the deadly pandemic, terrorist forces could be regrouping under new leadership to strike with greater force. It is nobody’s argument that we should pay any lesser attention to fight the pandemic. But staying unprepared against possible renewal of terrorism will greatly imperil security and economy equally, and do so more seriously.

The vaccine diplomacy has come as a shot in the arm for the MEA’s efforts in extending India’s soft-power. But the real test for New Delhi’s foreign policy success will be to lead the emerging economies, form strategic partnerships in the region and the extended neighbourhood, and regroup the middle powers as an antidote for the ensuing contest for hegemony.