Furthering Cooperation In The Indo-Pacific: A Response To COVID 19

As the world comes to grips with the realities of COVID 19, there is a pressing need to adjust to a `new normal’. Countries are also trying to achieve a sense of continuity with the older norms of official functioning, through joint action and collective approaches, reinforcing the realities that individual states are facing under the pandemic. States have increased consultative processes across the regional level. This was visible when Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached out to his counterparts within the SAARC to address the spread of the pandemic in South Asia, in March. Other regional initiatives in Europe and Southeast Asia are also examples of this. Collaboration has also been clearly evident in India’s call for a response at the level of the G20.

In light of these developments, the move towards an Indo-Pacific Cooperation to address the COVID 19 is not surprising. While the Indo-Pacific does not represent a “region” in the traditional sense of the word, it is important to understand why the Indo-Pacific identity may be a vital strategy for cooperation with regards to COVID 19. The pandemic represents a nontraditional security threat that does not respect borders and is truly transnational in character. The Indo-Pacific represents an identity that is strategic, geopolitical and normative in character. Using this to address the responses to the pandemic has two parallel – to address health issues and the geopolitical compulsions unleashed by the outbreak of COVID 19.

In this context the significance of the Indian Foreign Secretary’s consultations with his counterparts from the Indo-Pacific region becomes critical. Consultations between Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and his counterparts from Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, United States and Vietnam through weekly phone conversations have been crucial in terms of information sharing and best practices adopted by regional countries. The broad spectrum of countries in these discussions clearly highlight a significant link across the Indo-Pacific – India representing South Asia and the maritime extents around it; Australia and New Zealand representing the Pacific region; Japan and South Korea representing East Asia; Vietnam representing the ASEAN and the United States.

This broad network has a dual advantage in terms of collaboration on the pandemic. Countries such as South Korea, New Zealand and Vietnam have met with credible success in the initial days in `flattening the curve’ on the outbreak. The practices of these countries have revolved around three specific areas – testing; quarantining and contact tracing, with restrictions on movement. While South Korea initially succeeded in its efforts, early relaxation of lockdown has led to an increase in cases. New Zealand has been at the forefront and is as an exemplary case of successful policy initiatives leading to an early lockdown. Similarly, Vietnam too has been hailed for the transparent manner in which it has tackled the pandemic, highlighting the distinctions between China and Vietnam’s model of functioning.

Consultative mechanisms also seek to address the issue of uninterrupted supply of medical and healthcare equipment as well as pharmaceuticals and food supplies. More importantly, the meetings have sought to address consular services for those citizens stranded in these countries due to the cancellation of air services. The consultative processes need to look for avenues for multilateral or pluri-lateral funding to cope with the pandemic, especially as the global economy will face a severe recession in the coming months.

The pandemic is also unleashing the geopolitical realities in the Indo-Pacific. China has recently increased its efforts to assist regional countries with the `Chinese Health Silk Road’, a more nuanced approach to pushing its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Given the increasing global demands for China’s accountability, alternatives to assist smaller states will remain crucial. India’s assistance through its naval diplomacy (INS Kesari) to island countries in the Indian Ocean such as Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles and Comoros are critical efforts to address the challenges in the wider region.

Script: Prof. Shankari Sundararaman, Centre for Indo-Pacific Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University