India has the opportunity to engage in multilateral development solutions and share its best practises to strengthen systems worldwide.
Multilateral Institutions need to be reformed
COVID-19 has reinforced the need for a collaborative action plan and redefinition of the role of multilateral agencies. Pandemics do not respect political boundaries. International governance can still redeem itself by a coordinated response and tempering the tensions between geopolitical rivals like the U.S. and China. Better still, with a collaborative approach, we can prepare better for the next pandemic. Remember, pandemics are here to stay.
Action Plan: India can act as a bridge between the North and the South to vitalise multilateral agencies. While India may not be a significant contributor to the budget of multilateral agencies like World Health Organisation WHO, and International Monetary Fund (IMF), its citizens make a significant contribution to the activities of these institutions and over the years have earned considerable goodwill. This is the time to strengthen WHO and IMF, not weaken it and India must put its weight behind like-minded countries to convince the US, the largest contributor, to reconsider its decision to cut funds to WHO. Of course, an impartial inquiry must be conducted in the role of WHO, and it’s DG in this entire episode. India must push for a coordinated and global economic rehabilitation plan, strengthen international institutions and multilateral dialogue and give a boost to globalisation.
China has clearly got the returns on its investments in various multilateral agencies and demonstrated how it has managed to occupy a much larger ambit in world affairs. As China recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic and is on the verge of re-starting it's locked down economy, it finds itself being criticised by the world community. While the fundamental balance of power in the world is unlikely to shift in favour of China in the near term, there is a possibility that the contagion may unsettle Pax Americana especially its dominance over international institutions. In case there are a few more such ‘Black Swan’ events, like massive cyber terrorism and political upheavals within the U.S. this will spiral Chinas influence in the global commons. Another cause of geopolitical tension could be a realignment of global supply chains. Most large trading nations saw the vulnerability of their dependence upon China centred global supply chains and a realignment in this context is on the cards.
Action Plan: As developed economies seek alternate options for their China-centric supply chains, it likely opens a new vista for India to exploit. If it can attract investors based on its rule-based environment backed by infra development and social cohesion, COVID-19 could become India’s opportunity. However, any overt action by India to cut into Chinese economic interests would add to friction between the two Asian giants which will emanate in different forms. India must be prepared for such punitive actions by China, with its all-weather friend Pakistan in tow. India also has to rapidly build up an indigenous source or alternate supply chain for its pharmaceutical industry, which is currently heavily dependent upon Chinese raw material.
U.S. influence over the global commons has been diminishing, and the crippling effect of COVID-19 may further damage its standing. Notwithstanding that, the U.S. is still the most powerful nation in the world and will remain so for some time to come.
Action Plan: India’s strategic partnership with the U.S. remains strong, despite few minor hiccups, and India should endeavour to strengthen it further post COVID-19. Indian gesture to meet the U.S. requirement of Hydroxychloroquine and its formulations was a step in the right direction. A new cold war could be in the offing once the COVID-19 crisis blows away. Could the pandemic trigger resentment and antagonistic sentiments in the West against China which could be turned to India’s advantage is something India has to incorporate in its geostrategic calculations.
Europe will emerge bruised and battered from the COVID-19 having topped the charts in morbidity, mortalities and generally the manner in which the whole crisis has been dealt with. However, it can play a vital role in acting as the bridge between the U.S. and China to bring back globalisation and multilateralism into play in world affairs. President Macron has been playing a leading role by trying to use the G7 and G20 to deal with the economic and geopolitical consequences of COVID-19. This crisis, coming so soon after BREXIT, may trigger a further weakening of the EU with rightist movements within individual states. Propped up by fears of the renewed migrant crisis, these right-wingers may seek stronger border controls, disrupting the freedom of movement so important for the idea of the EU.
Action Plan: India is in a good position to act along with European countries, led by Germany and France, to build up a relationship with South Korea and Japan as part of the post COVID19 “alliance for multilateralism.” A weakened EU would need India’s markets. Europe too may look for alternate supply chains for its industries which afford another opportunity for India. Post BREXIT, bilateral trade, and investment opportunities with the UK are there to be exploited.
Oil-producing countries bore the brunt of the falling demand and lowering oil prices and face an uphill battle to recover from the economic fallout—the standoff between Russia and OPEC has compounded the problem. Oil prices are expected to stabilise between $ 40 and $50 until the global economy starts to recover from COVID-19 shock. Iran has been most severely impacted by COVID-19. A proud nation, Iran has for the first time since 1962, formally approached the IMF for financial assistance. Post-COVID-19, a much weakened and embittered Iran would emerge. It will find itself further isolated in the Middle East.Unable to finance its regional proxies, there is a danger that the regime could try to provoke external crises in the region to deflect domestic political pressures.
Action Plan: It is critical that the falling oil prices do not trigger an economic collapse in the Middle East as millions of Indian ex-pat workers would be ruined and India's remittances would come down when they are most needed. As regards Iran, India must join other influential nations to seek a relaxation of sanctions on Iran to enable import of critical medical supplies and save its population.
Despite its own problems, India took the initiative through the SAARC forum to launch a regional action plan against COVID-19 by pledging U.S. $10 million towards an emergency SAARC fund. Also, an information exchange platform (IEP) to facilitate the exchange of expertise among South Asian health professionals has been created. Inputs from such forums would help India overcome its own public health challenges, as the pandemic stretches its capacity.
Action Plan: India has to take the lead post-COVID-19 to support its immediate neighbours in the economic recovery process and prepare long term health plans for future pandemics which are bound to revisit us. The public health system has to be given top priority and India has the expertise to begin this revolution in the region. Perhaps, public health care should get the same weightage in budget allocation as defence, as an external enemy can be confronted and defeated, not an invisible virus.