News Analysis | COVID-19 an opportunity for India’s health diplomacy

A worker in protective suit disinfects the Wuhan No. 7 Hospital, once a designated hospital for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patients, to prepare it for the resumption of its normal service in Wuhan, Hubei province, China March 19, 2020.   | Photo Credit: REUTERS

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has elevated India’s health diplomacy to the next level by participating in a virtual conversation on Thursday among the G-20 leaders to combat the Novel Coronavirus pandemic. This has followed his decision on March 15 to marshal a video conference among SAARC leaders — locking New Delhi’s intent to lead the fight against COVID-19 virus in South Asia. The Prime Minister has also separately reached out to major G-20 leaders. The list includes Russian President Vladimir Putin, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

While India expands its global diplomatic footprint in the post COVID-19 world, the disease is ,in parallel, raising the geopolitical profile of other Eurasian powers — in particular countries like South Korea, Japan, China and Russia — which are exercising leadership in combating the outbreak. In South Korea, active communication and aggressive testing played a big role in combating the pandemic. In Japan, ingrained habits, such as wearing masks helped in containing the virus.

Watch | COVID-19: Dos and don'ts from the Health Ministry

Despite the social media assault on an industrial scale, blaming China’s alleged role in internationally mainstreaming the outbreak, a pragmatic recognition of Beijing's bounce back, and its near pole positioning in staging a global economic recovery, is inescapable. China is stamping its global authority as a major supplier of medical equipment — at a time when Europe —especially Spain and Italy are in dire need of N-95 masks, hazmat coveralls, gloves and ventilators. The death toll in the United States has already topped 1000, with New York becoming the crucible for the spread of the pandemic in North America and beyond.

In an article titled, “From cover-up to global donor: China’s soft power play,” The Financial Times is quoting Louis Kuijs, head of Asia economics at Oxford Economics in Hong Kong, as saying that he expected 8 per cent growth in China in the second quarter from the previous three-month period.

Foreign ownership of sovereign renminbi bonds, spurred by a demand rush in March, has already climbed to a hefty $324 billion.

There are also visible signs that China’s soft power riding on its pandemic diplomacy is on the rise, especially in Europe. China filled the breach in Italy, one of the worst effected country on the planet by the outbreak, when the European Union was caught leaden footed in responding to Rome’s appeal for critical medical supplies.

Beijing, instead dispatched masks, ventilators and 300 intensive care doctors to back hospitals, unable to cope with heavy patient load. Russia quickly followed, sending over a dozen Il-76 heavy lift planes packed with equipment and personnel. Spain and Serbia have also featured prominently on Beijing’s radar.

The visible power shifts exposed by the pandemic demand that India renews its engagement with China in developing the Eurasia-led post-COVID 19 world order. But at the same time riding on its “strategic autonomy” doctrine, New Delhi has to hedge its power asymmetry with Beijing by carefully calibrating a relationship, especially with Japan, which has been seeking a more autonomous regional role for itself, despite its post-war alliance with Washington.

Unsurprisingly, as the wheels of health diplomacy began to turn at top speed, foreign secretary Harsh Shingla, on March 20, went into a conference call with representatives of the Indo-Pacific countries. In the conversation initiated by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, the foreign secretary exchanged notes on countering the COVID-19 pandemic with representatives from Australia, the Republic of Korea, Vietnam, New Zealand, and Japan. According to a statement by the Ministry of External Affairs, the participants are expected to continue the conference call on a weekly basis.

But in an expression of multi-vectored diplomacy, External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, four days later, was also in conversation with China’s state councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi on possible areas of collaboration between the two countries on combating the virus, and for breaking common ground on the G-20 platform.

After the high profile that India has acquired following the Prime Minister’s participation in the G-20 video conference, New Delhi would be under the scanner on whether it was going to lead by example. That would mean not only quickly curtailing COVID-19 infections at home, but by also ramping up surplus capacity of medical equipment and personnel to reinforce its credibility as a reliable and responsible provider of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) in the region.

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Printable version | Oct 19, 2021 12:08:31 AM |

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