With the world in turmoil can India seize the historic moment?

India has a pool of talented diplomats but their skills will be expended on putting lipstick on a pig if the government at home promotes narrow, sectarian ideologies that are at variance with accepted international norms, writes  E. D. Mathew for South Asia Monitor

E.D. Mathew May 31, 2020

It was meant to be a landmark 75th birthday for the United Nations this year. Despite a few glaring failures, it could justifiably boast of having played a vital role in preserving world peace, protecting human rights and even preventing a third World War from breaking out. Then came COVID-19 not only raining on its parade and exposing its structural deficiencies but also fomenting severe disruption in bilateral relations between two of the most powerful members of the Security Council – the United States and China.

When ebola struck the West African nations of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea in 2014, the Security Council, led by the US, built a global coalition to fight the deadly disease and promptly declared the crisis a “threat to international peace and security,” the first time a public health emergency was ever classified as such. France, the United Kingdom and the US took individual care of the three nations. China, not to be left behind, even built a 100-bed hospital in the region.  

As the coronavirus began spreading from Wuhan in China to the rest of the world, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres termed the pandemic the UN’s “most grave test” since its founding 75 years ago.  “This is the fight of a generation and the raison dêtre of the United Nations itself,” he said. However, it took 1.5 million infections and some 90,000 deaths in more than 200 countries and territories before the Council finally met on April 9 to discuss a global response to the disease.  

Attempts to declare the pandemic a threat to global peace and security came to nought with the US President Donald Trump insisting on referring to the “Chinese virus” and China arguing against stigmatization and politicization of the virus. Soon the US had the most infections and deaths with New York City, the UN's seat, turning ground zero of the pandemic. Efforts to drum up international consensus to deal with the virus failed and relations between the US and China hit a nadir.

With growing numbers of Americans disapproving Trump’s inept response to the pandemic and with the US presidential elections fast approaching, hawkish Republicans are likely to increasingly scapegoat China and the World Health Organization (WHO) for domestic distraction, vitiating the US-China relations even further.  “We could cut off the whole relationship,” threatened Trump during an interview with Fox News.

The pandemic has, among others, shaken up the UN, the bastion of multilateralism, severely disrupted the world’s most important bilateral relationship, sent the global economy into a tailspin and accelerated deglobalization. With the US threatening to decouple economically from China, a second Cold War between two distinct blocs looks increasingly likely. Some European countries are already rethinking their trade and investment links with Beijing. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced “Project Defend” to end the UK's reliance on Chinese imports. Australia is keen to diversify its export markets and supply chains away from China.

The UN, combined with the disarray in the Council and its spectacular failure to foster global consensus to deal with the deadly virus, will need drastic transformation if it has to remain relevant in the post-pandemic world. International governance will be driven by a diverse set of political values but China looks likely to dominate the scene as America’s global leadership wanes.

Opportunities for India

Amidst all this turmoil, are there opportunities for India to advance its interests within the UN and in geopolitics?"COVID-19 has shown us the limitations of the existing international system,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he addressed a virtual meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement early this month. He stressed the need for a “new template” of globalization. Is New Delhi suitably placed to make any meaningful contribution to this as yet undefined “new template”?  

It’s a truism to say that a country’s global stature will be commensurate with its regional heft. With many players competing for dominance, India today finds itself in an unenviable spot regionally.

“India, Japan, China, Indonesia are all locked into a simmering competition over who shapes the norms and rules of the region and its subregions,” argue Shashi Tharoor and Samir Saran in their book, The New World Disorder and the Indian Imperative. According to the authors, China sees “very little space for multipolarity within Asia even as it demands it in old institutions and within the old order.”

A number of recent developments add to India’s neighbourhood woes. One of them is the Kalapani territorial dispute that drew in Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli himself to assert Nepal’s sovereignty over the region and prompted the country to deploy more armed forces along its border with India. The recent face-off between Indian and Chinese forces in Eastern Ladakh and Northern Sikkim, as well as China teaming up with Pakistan to build the Diamer-Bhasha dam in Gilgit-Baltistan, which India claims as its territory, are also cause for concern.

India's domestic politics a concern

Beyond the immediate neighbourhood, the robust bonds India had nurtured with the Gulf countries for several years, including during Modi’s first term, are at risk due to New Delhi’s domestic policies, including the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act. The recent scapegoating of India’s Muslim communities over the spread of coronavirus and online hate speech from Indians based in the Gulf also have raised concern in several countries in the region, prompting External Affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar to speak to his counterparts in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, and Oman to calm the ruffled feathers.

On the global scene, relying on Washington as an all-weather ally will be foolhardy, at least under a transactional president, whose recent threat of retaliation over Hydroxychloroquine exposed the hollowness of the much-hyped Modi-Trump bromance. Besides, if a Democrat occupies the White House, which looks increasingly likely, New Delhi’s Hindu nationalist policies as well as critical reports such as the one by US Commission on International Religious Freedom that categorised India as a "country of particular concern" will attract stricter scrutiny in Washington. One thing seems certain: for the foreseeable future, India will be forced to walk a fine line between China and the US.

At the UN, a positive development is the endorsement by the Asia-Pacific Group for India's candidature for a non-permanent seat at the Security Council for a two-year term starting January 2021. Also, Syed Akbaruddin, who is credited with some stellar achievements at the multilateral level, has been succeeded by T S Tirumurti, another accomplished diplomat, at India’s UN mission in New York. “When the global order itself may be reshaped, following a devastating pandemic, India has chosen an experienced, charming and upright diplomat to lead the Indian delegation to the UN,” says former ambassador T. P. Sreenivasan, who previously served in the Indian mission.

India has a pool of talented diplomats but their skills will be expended on putting lipstick on a pig if the government at home promotes narrow, sectarian ideologies that are at variance with accepted international norms. Although the current, politically instigated polarisation and majoritarianism will remain a blip in the long run, at the moment they are proving to be major impediments to making friends and influencing countries. As the coronavirus pandemic throws the world into unprecedented turmoil and shakes the foundations of multilateral diplomacy, whether New Delhi will seize this historic moment to advance India’s global interests is anybody's guess. 

(The author is a former spokesperson with the United Nations and a political observer. He can be reached @edmathew on Twitter)

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