Daily Editorial Analysis for 5th May 2021

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  5. Daily Editorial Analysis for 5th May 2021

A COVID blot on India’s foreign policy canvas

Why in News

  • 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.
  • 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.

Regional Primacy

  • COVID 2.0 has quickened the demise of India’s regional primacy.
  • The country’s geopolitical decline is likely to begin in the neighborhood itself, a strategic space which New Delhi has been forced to cede to Beijing over the past decade.
  • Its political influence is steadily declining, its ability to materially help the neighborhood 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.
  • This might result in the band wagoning of South Asian states with China which are in dire need of development assistance.
  • 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”.
  • 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 modernization 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, our ability to project power and contribute to the growth of the Quad will be uncertain.
  • The outpouring of global aid shows India is too important but it also puts a question on India’s ability to 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 favors.

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 upcoming elections may fan communal tensions on the country, triggering more 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.

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.
  • 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.
  • It 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.
  • Due to mismanagement of the second wave of COVID-19 India’s ability to stand to China has diminished today, in terms of political will and balance of power.

Depressed Foreign Policy

  • Given the much-reduced political capital within the current 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.
  • This, however, might take the aggressive edge off of India’s foreign policy under the current regime. Less aggression could potentially translate into more accommodation, reconciliation and cooperation especially in the neighborhood, 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. COVID-19 has forced us to reimagine, to some extent at least, the friend enemy equations in global geopolitics.
  • Initially United States seemed hesitant, 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.
  • It is true that these changes will not 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

  • The pandemic would, at the very least indirectly, impact India’s policy of maintaining strategic autonomy.
  • 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 become more susceptible to external criticism for, a post-COVID-19 New Delhi might find it harder to resist demands of a closer military relationship with the U.S.


  • Every crisis opens up the possibility for change and new thinking. COVID-19 will open up new regional opportunities for cooperation especially under the ambit of SAARC.
  • 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.

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