At a time when the whole world is battling the deadly COVID-19 crisis and when the virus has become the biggest story in the world of diplomacy, it has become important to look at how India is playing the game of diplomacy and shaping its foreign policy to meet its own demanding needs. The world witnessed a lot of change in its foreign policy approaches and many established bonds have been broken. It is a time when the world is witnessing heightened tensions among some nations while some transformed this into an opportunity for themselves. India has both hard realities to face and at the same time has ample opportunities to rise as a world leader. It thus becomes important to see how India is dealing with the present crisis and transforms it into an opportunity in the foreign policy domain.
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Major challenges to Indian foreign policy during the pandemic
- Countering China – Although it was assumed that the source of the COVID-19 pandemic was China, the country under the leadership of President Xi Jinping has not refrained from flexing its muscles in the South Asian region and the Indo-Pacific. Not only does it deny the allegations but also is the first nation to come out of the crisis at the earliest. Beijing has been a growing economy during the pandemic with a positive growth rate. The Chinese troops tried to alter the status quo along the Indian border and possibly defied all the peace agreements signed with India. Thus, China is acting as a major challenge to India’s foreign policy during the time of the pandemic.
- The U.S and its foreign policy – The United States of America(USA) under the leadership of Donald Trump also proved to be a challenge to India’s foreign policy as the Trump administration pulled out of various multilateral treaties like the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Paris Agreement. India had major stakes at play as it depends on Iran for building the Chabahar Port and the U.S coming out of the Paris Agreement can prove to be counterproductive for the climate goals aspired to be achieved. Similarly, Trump’s walking out of the World Health Organisation(WHO) weakened the organization and its sour relations with China also affected the Indian foreign policy where India had to play hard to maintain the balance. As Joe Biden reclaims the space vacated by Trump, there is hope for India but still, the U.S will not be a cakewalk for India. It is not clear yet how Joe Biden is going to deal with India and whether the shadow of Trump’s policies will dictate Indo-US relations.
- Afghanistan peace-process and the Taliban – Although India hesitated in recognizing the Taliban as a major legitimate stakeholder in the Afghanistan peace process, India reached out through virtual mode and a senior diplomat in Doha as the U.S tried to finally make peace with the Taliban. New Delhi is finally looking at the Taliban as a political actor and is signaling a long-term commitment to Afghanistan’s future.
- The Middle -East – With Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey competing for leadership in the Islamic world, it has been difficult for India to maintain a fine tune of balance with all of them. India has been successful in managing this situation by cultivating and strengthening ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran but India has to be careful enough so that the balance is not affected by domestic policies of the CAA-NRC or due to domestic politics creating fault-lines among different religious sects.
- Russia-China bonds– Russia’s rising dependence on China and its anti-Quad behavior is cause for concern to India. Russia has always been a close friend of India but its close bonds with China in the contemporary era are not a good sign for India’s foreign policy goals.
- Assertive neighbors– The pandemic has not only shown India grappling with the COVID-19 but also has shown India struggling with the assertive behavior of its neighbors. Countries like Nepal claiming territory in India to Bangladesh asserting its place on CAA-NRC, it was a testing time for India. With Nepal’s domestic politics in turbulence and Myanmar’s military coup, it will be a difficult path for New Delhi to walk. Furthermore, China building its roads in Sri Lanka is also a worry for India.
- India as an aspirational power – Although India did not sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership(RCEP) and appeared to be ‘inward-looking’ and ‘isolationist’, it did supply emergency medicines and medical equipment to a number of countries. Despite doing so, India has not emerged as a global leader and is just a power aspiring to be a major power center of the world.
- India becoming a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the eighth time is a major opportunity for India. India will now have to make decisions on many burning issues which it had carefully avoided in the past like the Tibet issue, the Taiwan issue, the Iran-Saudi rivalry, the refugee issue of Bangladesh and Myanmar, etc. As it is well-known that cross-border terrorism from Pakistan will remain a decisive issue, India has to formulate its diplomatic policies in such a way that it makes the best use of its high-table at the UN.
- Indo-US friendship is another issue that can be seen as an opportunity. As Biden takes the Presidential role, India has the opportunity to resolve the trade and visa issues. India is keenly observing a much-expected US-China trade deal, the US’s approach toward the Indo-Pacific and the Quad grouping. India has the opportunity to strengthen strategic and defense ties with the US. Indo-US favorable relations are favorable for India’s foreign policy needs.
- India will also have to strike a deal with the United Kingdom as Brexit has taken place. India needs to strike a deal with the European Union(EU) as well that is pending for a long time. There is a possibility that the European Union may formulate its Indo-Pacific policy as some of the European nations have done, So, improving and strengthening relations with the European nations and wooing them to act in a way favorable to India is both a challenge and an opportunity for India.
- India will also have to engage with its neighbors as China is expanding its presence in India’s neighborhood. India is doing well by providing medicines, medical equipment, and through “vaccine diplomacy”.
- India also has the opportunity to be a global power rather than being an aspirational one as it is one of the few countries which did not prefer to look inward during the pandemic rather understood the importance of multilateral collaboration to deal with the issue.
- India has achieved a lot through its foreign policy endeavors during the time of pandemic by making use of its diplomatic capability. The first one is making use of the old forums like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation(SAARC) through virtual meetings and setting up an emergency fund for COVID-19 where India pledged to contribute more than half of the fund. Furthermore, India reiterated its commitment towards regional unity which was rarely noticed in any part of the world during the pandemic.
- Similarly, India reached out to its small neighbors at the Non-Aligned Movement(NAM) platform and helped as many as 123 nations with the supply of medical help.
- India as an endeavor to ensure a collective response to the crisis provided a number of countries with anti-malarial drug Hydroxychloroquine to African, Latin American, Central Asia, and even some of the developed countries like France, Russia, the US, and the UK.
- India also provided online training to healthcare professionals in South Asia and sent a number of Indian military doctors to neighboring countries like Nepal, Maldives, and others to fight the pandemic.
- New Delhi has also played an important role in evacuating the stranded Indians and foreigners in various countries indicating its response-projection capability and the capacity to take on the responsibility of regional leadership.
- India’s Vaccine Maitri initiative has been a major landmark in India’s successful foreign policy initiatives during the pandemic. India provided vaccines to a number of its neighbors like Nepal, Bangladesh, Maldives, and other countries through this initiative.
As the pandemic puzzles the whole world, India has been employing a smart approach in dealing with foreign policy issues. This time is a time dedicated to India’s health diplomacy. For the time to come, India has to walk a safe path as the crisis is not over yet and has to handle the Big Powers in a way that its own interests are served. It’s a time when the major powers will be grappling with the pandemic and some middle-powers will rise. Therefore, India has to stay focused on its objectives and not let its domestic issues affect its rise in the international fora.
- Comment on India’s foreign policy initiatives during the COVID-19 pandemic and how it is doing better than other counterparts in the present crisis.