The COVID pandemic is threatening governments, economies and societies in ways we are yet to fully comprehend. While controlling its spread is the priority ,
the likely aftermath which could engulf the world in an economic crisis of unprecedented magnitude and have a profound effect on global and regional geopolitics cannot be lost sight of.
In the Indo-Pacific context, China, which should actually be held culpable for letting this virus spread through concealment and disinformation is busy projecting itself as a saviour. Neither the UN Security Council nor the G7 and G20 have castigated China for this, which in itself is a reflection of the shifting global balance of power dynamic. The response in other countries has been mixed. Some of the countries east of Malacca have responded well but none can claim to be out of the woods as yet.
India, with its population of 1.3 billion has understood the enormity of the threat and has adopted a proactive strategy internally and has also engaged with the other SAARC members, in suggesting an inclusive regional approach to defeat this virus. Pakistan, also a SAARC member, has regrettably shown little enthusiasm with its myopic anti-India stance.
India has also participated in a recent multilateral initiative with the other Quad members, Vietnam (ASEAN Chair) , New Zealand and South Korea. As per the MEA press release they “shared their assessments of the current situation with respect to COVID-19, and discussed ways to synergize their efforts to counter its spread.” A weekly interaction is planned to cover issues like “cooperation on vaccine development, challenges of stranded citizens, assistance to countries in need and mitigating the impact on the global economy etc.”
Pandemics such as these can also seriously undermine a country’s internal and external security challenges by providing an opportunity for inimical forces to exploit a country’s vulnerabilities and weaken its socio-economic fabric by festering discontent. Many countries in the Indo-Pacific are economically and politically vulnerable and depend heavily on external assistance which, with countries like China, does not come without strings attached. China is bound to leverage programmes like the Belt-and-Road Initiative to its advantage.
Militarily, the effects of this virus could affect operational preparedness against national and transnational security challenges. The US Navy has already detected positive cases on two of its aircraft carriers and restricted their operations. Media reports indicate that the IN ships on multi-mission deployments will also not enter foreign harbours and will be replenished at sea. While this may not have an immediate impact, sustaining it over the long term may pose a logistic challenge. Coupled with the economic constraints that may follow, this could force militaries to scale down their deployment thus giving rise to security vulnerabilities.
Hence, India as a leading regional power will have to continue being proactive in not only countering the pandemic and its economic fallout but also in securing its strategic interests in the continental and maritime domains.
Author: Commodore Anil Jai Singh
The Author is a strategic analyst and Vice President of the Indian Maritime Foundation