Is COVID-19 pushing Indo-Pacific closer to Indian perspectives?

Prof. Swaran Singh
April 5, 2020


India’s Foreign Secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla in late March 2020, joined a teleconference – initiated by US Deputy Secretary of State, Stephen Biegun – to discuss coronavirus pandemic situation in the Indo-Pacific region. Other than India and the US, this teleconference was joined by representatives from Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand, and Vietnam, which is the current Chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Together they decided to continue these meetings on a regular basis to share notes on challenges to their citizens stranded in foreign countries, providing assistance to nations in need, accelerating efforts in the global war on COVID-19 especially in developing its antidote vaccine and planning long-term actions for mitigating negative trends in their economies.

If anything, this series of meetings amongst these seven nations of the Indo-Pacific (and more are expected to join) to “share[d] their assessment of the current situation with respect to COVID-19” and to “synergise their efforts to counter its spread” falls perfectly in line with quintessential Indian perspectives, as also in tune with India’s holistic approach in redressing COVID-19 at home and abroad. This can be seen in Prime Minister Narendra Modi taking several bold decisions, setting new mechanisms, using television, telephone and videoconferencing to stay in close connect with Indian masses, India’s provincial chief ministers, India’s diplomats posted abroad and foreign diplomats posted in India, as also in initiating summit meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit and then participating in the G20 leaders. Each of these are being followed up with subsequent auditing, follow up actions, and meetings at different levels. India joining this teleconferencing amongst the Indo-Pacific nations therefore not just makes a perfect fit for India’s line of thinking, it lends India great advantage in making its value addition in protecting this region from the COVID-19 quagmire. 

The pertinent question, however, is whether COVID-19 is also unleashing a rethink on great powers’ conventional strategies in countering such global threats? More specifically, is COVID-19 pandemic finally forcing the Quad to expand its horizons and membership, thus redefining its remit? Is Quad finally replacing ASEAN to take the driving seat of this redefined Indo-Pacific geopolitics? Will it change the quintessential Indian perspectives on the Indo-Pacific, or will it completely recast India’s role in this region? Most importantly, how is COVID-19 pushing Indo-Pacific geopolitics closer to the quintessential Indian perspectives with a promise of advantage India?

First of all, what gives confidence to this holistic approach of Prime Minister Modi sustaining itself is that it is grounded deeply in India’s civilizational mantra of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, which sees the whole world as one family. This has been the guiding spirit behind India’s advocacy of an inclusive Indo-Pacific region both in terms of whom it engages with what themes it seeks to highlight. India propagates inviting Russia and China to join the Indo-Pacific discourse and for co-opting other aspirant nations into the Quadrilateral or Quad of four democracies, namely, Australia, India, Japan, and the US. There are others who also support India’s vision. The first attempt to build the Quad in 2007 may have dissipated. Nevertheless, from 2013, the Heritage Foundation of the United States, for instance, has been organizing a Track 1.5 dialogue called the “Quad-Plus Dialogue” of officials and experts from the Quad countries along with additional regional partner nations on a rotating basis. These additional nations have included France, Indonesia, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. Although one is not sure if this Quad-Plus Dialogue inspired the revival of the Quad after its decade long hiatus in 2017, this new series of Quad-Plus teleconferencing to counter COVID-19 in the Indo-Pacific promises to inspire future restructuring in this region. 

Second, it always takes a major tragedy to trigger the most potent out-of-box ideas. The 2004 Tsunami crisis, for example, forever redefined US-led hub-and-spokes strategy as the basis of security architecture for this region. Successive White House occupants advocated ‘pivot’ to Asia or ‘rebalancing’ and now Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategies driven increasingly by non-military engagements. This also saw a tectonic shift in security strategies moving from building naval bases to frequent and large scale naval exercises, naval diplomacy with an operational focus on search and rescue, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, etc. The COVID-19 seems all set to provide another major drift not just in expanding their cooperation in health and education sectors but in pushing even their armed forces into becoming significant contributors in efforts in redressing this pandemic as also in their long-term reconstruction and rehabilitation of various industrial and service sectors to redeem rapid economic deceleration. In this piecemeal drift of last half a century witnessing discourses on security and developing first overlapping and then blending together, this may mark the final push to national welfare replacing national security.

What also makes this time ripe for such a revolution is the fact that the state as an institution has itself come under existential crisis. The world has lived for nearly four centuries in the European-invented territorial nation-state systems, which have outstretched way beyond its timeline. Just like nation-states had once delegitimized and replaced an older system of clans, kingdoms, and empires, the recent explosion of unprecedented and instant connectivity worldwide has empowered citizens like never before. This makes ‘human’ as the most potent frame of all opportunities and challenges, which have all become essentially trans-boundary in nature. Nations no longer have a choice of ensuring peace and prosperity by protecting or sealing their territorial boundaries. All initiatives must synergize a mix of multiple stakeholders, with states playing nothing more than a facilitator. The initiative has shifted from State to multiple cultural, religious, educational, non-official groupings grounded in their shared social moorings. 

 This explains why India has sought to make countering Coronavirus a peoples’ movement, which has witnessed an unprecedented flow of charity and philanthropy at various scales and levels, as also in all possible ways and means. Can this be the model for working in the Indo-Pacific region? Will countering COVID-19 prove to be the moment that saw India recasting the Indo-Pacific in hindsight? After pressing the pause button for a decade since 2007, the revival of the Quad since 2017 has seen it moving fast forward to first streamlining senior official’s meetings twice a year then expanding these meetings to include a range of representatives from various streams and then last September, on the sidelines of UN General Assembly, upgrading it to their first ministerial-level meeting of four foreign ministers. India’s changing equations with the US are often cited as an explanation. Today, with the US having become home to the world’s largest Corona virus-infected population and India so far managing to keep figures unbelievably low, New Delhi surely has an unprecedented chance to make its mark by underlining the indivisible nature of our shared future.

*** The author is Chair & Professor at Center for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi ***