How COVID Second Wave Marked a ‘Shift’ in Indian Foreign Policy

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As India and the world continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, a significant shift is being witnessed in India’s foreign policy outlook. The last few months have witnessed some incredible turn of events where India, which had earlier exported vaccines under its ‘Vaccine Maitri’ initiative to over 90 countries, has now received foreign aid from over 25 countries, owing to the cataclysmic resurgence of the second wave of COVID- 19 across the country, and now, even in the subcontinent.

With growing chorus in domestic politics against India’s vaccine exports when there was and there is a visible dearth of vaccines in India itself, the notion of ‘Hobbesian realism’ in Indian foreign policy circles as well as in the political sphere is probably stronger than ever before in the recent past.

Also Read: India’s Foreign Policy Amid COVID: Why Govt & Oppn Shouldn’t Spar

US Delays In Vaccine Raw Material Approvals

The initial delay in US approval for exporting raw materials for the manufacturing of vaccines in India, especially even after the public request of Mr Adar Poonawala, CEO of Serum Institute of India, on 16 April, played a crucial role in this outrage against the idealistic notion on which the premises of Indian foreign policy is primarily built upon.

Though the US later rectified its stance on the issue and the entire US leadership promptly worked on not only towards sending medical aid to India but also in reaching out to the Indian leadership, including the phone call from US President Joe Biden to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

It has also given its countenance the export of vaccine raw materials and now endorsed the campaign which was initiated by India and South Africa in October 2020 for a temporary waiver of Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement for COVID-19 vaccines in the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

But internally, New Delhi has learnt the climacteric lesson of realism and is expected to recalibrate its ebullience in displaying its proclivity towards United States in the past 4-5 years.

Also Read: India’s Foreign Policy: Is ‘Politician’ Jaishankar Doing His Best?

The China Factor

Another act in the Indian realist prism was not allowing Chinese companies Huwaei and ZTE for 5G trials in India. This is a substantial shift because in December 2019, India’s minister for for Communications, Electronics & Information Technology, Ravi Shankar Prasad had said ‘all companies, including Huawei and ZTE, would be permitted to participate in the trials for 5G services’. The recent border standoff in Ladakh, where at least 20 Indian soldiers got martyred and concomitant war of words between two countries were prime reasons behind this turnaround. Not to forget the Chinese attempts in preventing any sort of WHO investigations about the origin of the virus in Wuhan, China and the concerns that this virus was ‘probably being built as a biological weapon in a laboratory there where it escaped’.

The recently concluded G7 Foreign Ministers’ meeting in London also expressed concerns over the Chinese role in this pandemic as the G7 resolution casts a shadow of criticism over China over a range of issues.

The first-ever trilateral meeting of Foreign Ministers of India, Australia and France held on the sidelines of G7 meet also becomes highly significant and should be seen in the light of the new QUAD dynamics which India and Australia are already part of.

Aversion to China & Affected Supply Chains

As India continues to display a sense of aversion against China in the past one and half years in all its bilateral and multilateral engagements, along with the prevalence of abhorrence in the general Indian public towards China, the building of a new paradigm in the post-pandemic world can be envisioned.

The historic summit between India and 27 EU countries which took place last Saturday also hints towards a new era of possibilities and evolving coalitions.

Notably, the talks on Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between India and the European Union have now resumed after the gap of 8 years. India continues to look new market avenues and diversify its sources of imports and exports so as to reduce its dependency on China.

With regard to supply chains, the world has indeed learnt its lessons from the pandemic and the way acute supply shortages were witnessed across the globe, primarily due to deliberate Chinese acts. The Supply Chain Resilience Initiative, launched by India, Japan and Australia recently is another testament of countries trying to seek alternative mechanisms of supply-chains, which currently is heavily contingent on Chinese manufacturing. Moreover, this also gets accentuated by the global headwinds of protectionism and economic nationalism, which has proliferated in policies across the world in the past 4-5 years, arguably major inculpation to that goes to the former US President Donald Trump.

Importance of Being ‘Atmanirbhar’

However, from a broader foreign policy perspective, especially considering where India’s real strength lies, that is, in soft power and being an enormous market of over 1.4 billion people, the major contours of Indian Foreign Policy though will appear to remain more or less the same — at least prima facie — but scratch below the surfact and you’ll find significant alterations are bound to occur in the post-pandemic world.

India knows, probably more than ever now, the importance of being self-reliant or ‘atmanirbhar’ — especially in critical sectors like health, food security, electronics etc.

A plethora of actions are required to be taken urgently on the domestic front in various sectors, especially health, food-processing, manufacturing, jobs-generation inter alia, for our resurrection in a post-pandemic world. Much of this however, will hinge on the resources the government will have at hand and the degree of fiscal flexibility it can afford without impinging the fiscal prudence and macro-economic equilibrium. This in turn will largely determine the direction, extent and the pace of the reinvigorated realist reconfiguration of our foreign policy calculus in the coming years and decades.

(The author is an alumnus of the University of Delhi and can be reached out on Twitter @SuyashVerma01 as well as on email: suyash1503@gmail.com. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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