Event ReportsPublished on May 19, 2020
Post-Covid, nations will look inwards; India should look at neighbourhood: Ex-NSA

“There is a great shift taking place, we are moving from the global order we have known since 1945 to a new global order, an extremely uncertain one,” said former National Security Advisor (NSA) of India M.K. Narayanan, during an online discussion organised jointly by ORF-Chennai Initiative and the Madras Management Association (MMA) on 29 April 2020.

In conversation with Prof. Harsh V Pant, Director (Studies) and Head-Strategic Studies, ORF, on the topic ‘Geo-politics & Geo-economics: Consequences of COVID-19, Narayanan outlined the emerging global order, as he saw it: “The new world order is no longer dominated by the US. China is to some extent in the driving-seat, though nowhere near American power in the post-War period. Most other countries are still licking their wounds from the global recession.”

Globalisation in retreat

Reflecting on the debate on globalisation, Prof Pant wondered whether the world was entering a new, uncharted territory or if Covid-19 was simply accelerating a push-back against globalisation that has been taking place for some time with the rise of economic nationalism across countries. Responding to this, Narayanan said globalisation has undeniably been in retreat for some years now and the coronavirus pandemic is likely to exacerbate this process. “Though there is a lot being said about international cooperation and international community, my own assessment is that one of the devastating impacts of Covid-19 will be that nations are going to look even more inwards.” Rather than look beyond its borders, nations will focus on their narrowly-defined national interests, he said.

“In times of crisis, leadership is key. Unfortunately, across the world we have a leadership vacuum. There is an absence of leaders who can think beyond their immediate problems, well beyond their immediate surroundings,” Narayanan observed.

Normally, the international community would have turned to the US to lead the way. “It is perhaps the only country which has the ability to spend and also has the moral stature to stand up and do something globally, but the US is faltering,” he said. “For a variety of reasons, not only owing to the Trump administration, the US has been retreating from the world stage for some years now.” This has left open a big vacuum that regrettably international organisations haven’t been able to fill, he added.

“There has been a total failure of international organisations, such as the UN and the WHO, to step up to the present challenges. Covid19 is graver than any military threat we have faced since 1945 and yet the UNSC dithered for days and WHO has been charged with grossly underestimating the pandemic,” he pointed out.

Geo-politics & geo-economics

“In some ways, the geo-political situation is far more threatening than geo-economics,” evaluated Narayanan. “The problem we are faced with is this –Who is going to show the way, which country will take charge of restarting international organisations and giving it the status, they deserve? Which country has the material capabilities and the moral authority to produce the leadership we need?” he asked.

Assessing the geo-political landscape, Narayan felt that the European Union is struggling with its own internal problems; Germany without Chancellor Angela Merkel, he believed, would turn insular. The UK, post-Brexit, is not in a position to offer global leadership. West Asia has been in crisis for some time now and the region is set to face further difficulties due to the oil price meltdown. Russia, he felt, will not be severely affected, except in its oil arrangements with West Asia. India, which could have offered some leadership assistance, is disadvantaged by its economic situation, he argued.

Black swan or white swan?

While China is undoubtedly trying to fill the leadership vacuum, Narayanan felt this was a matter of some concern. “China is not a great believer of international rules of conduct,” Mr Narayan argued. According to him, China should have been stigmatised for its negligence and failure to alert the world to the pandemic.  It first identified and detected the virus COVID-19 in Wuhan in December 2019, but only sounded the alarm in January 2020, Narayanan pointed out.

“China, however, seems unfazed by this stigma. Having had an early recovery, China is now trying to exploit the situation by utilising its manufacturing capability into an advantage sending out masks and medical equipment to Asia and Africa. It is attempting to shift from being a Black Swan into a White Swan. This is Sino-Centrism of a particular kind,” warned Narayanan.

An opportunity for India?

In the light of suggestions that Covid-19 should also be seen as an opportunity for India, Prof. Pant put forward the question, “Is India in a position to leverage these opportunities in the immediate aftermath of the crisis?”

Narayanan responded: “It is wishful thinking to believe we can exploit opportunities due to what might seem like China’s diminished economic power due to the pandemic. If there were opportunities to exploit in terms of companies moving out of China due to Covid-19, then countries like Vietnam are more likely to benefit from it than India.” He explained that though India has the resilience to survive the crisis, it is not in a position to exploit it because of its economic downturn. 

“Lockdown has been very important in terms of restricting the spread of the virus but economic capacities have bottomed out,” he said. India will recover faster than the West, yet China will come out of Covid-19 better than most, he assessed. Most countries are still flocking to China, he pointed out. “China holds all the cards, what are the cards India holds?” 

Foreign policy priorities

Looking to the future, Narayanan criticised India’s foreign policy for investing too much in the US. The world is being re-ordered in crucial ways. India’s foreign policy and its diplomatic efforts need to reflect these new changes rather than continuing to focus on the US. “The US was at one time the most important power, today it is in deep trouble and is being referred to as a failing state. To hitch our wagon to the US would be unfortunate,” he said.

As nations across the world turn inwards, India’s focus needs to turn towards its neighbourhood. “We need to strengthen our position in South Asia and SAARC has to be brought back. We need to be seen as the glue that puts SAARC back together,” he recommended.

One of the big challenges for India’s foreign policy will be to answer the question: “How can India make the rest of South Asia see it as a far better friend to have rather than China?” It is imperative for India to strengthen itself in South Asia, only then will the rest of the world see it as a leading power. In this regard, Narayanan said, political clout doesn’t always rely on economic growth.

During the fifties, when Indian economic growth was extremely low and pejoratively referred to as the ‘Hindu rate of growth’, India was still providing leadership to many parts of the world, such as leading the Non-aligned Movement, reaching out to several African countries and even mediating in the case of the Korean War in 1950s. “Of course, if you are stronger economically it makes it easier, but leadership is not entirely dependent on doling out economic aid,” Narayanan remarked. 

China, Pakistan relations

Acknowledging that maintaining relations with China is vital for India despite the problems, Prof Pant asked, “What should be India’s China policy?” Having been a foreign policy practitioner and China expert since the sixties, Narayanan explained that “China will resent India’s efforts to gain influence in South Asia. China will be unhappy to have India on the same table as them. However, China will not look to get into a conflict with India, 1962 was an aberration. The challenge will be in terms of influence. China and India are going to be the two most important countries in the future. China will look to constrict India in its neighbourhood and isolate it from the rest of the world.”

Having said that, he also maintained that China recognises strength. “They have a concern and respect for India and India’s intellectual capabilities. They see that Indians are able to think spatially and in linear fashion which they are not able to do. So, there is a challenge but also there will be opportunities” Narayanan outlined. Therefore, India’s most important equation for the next few decades will be China. Maintaining good relations with China will be India’s biggest foreign policy goal and challenge. “This will throw up challenges as well as opportunities and will require deft handling.” 

Given Pakistan’s refusal to join the SAARC video-conference, Prof Pant asked, “If India and Pakistan cannot get along even during Covid-19, does this relationship have a future?” Narayanan recalled that US-India relations were not always warm. There was a time when the US-India nuclear deal seemed an impossible idea and it was widely scoffed at. “Every relationship has a future. Maintaining relationships are not easy,” he responded.

“India can deal with Pakistan and it has to deal with Pakistan,” Narayanan stated. He further pointed out, “If India and Pakistan are not so hostile to each other, India-China relations will also improve and in turn our smaller neighbours will not play games with us. These are triangular, sometimes quadrangular relationships.”

To conclude, Narayanan said, “India is too important a country to be side-lined in the world.  This is the question Indian foreign policy experts need to think seriously about:”How can India be beacon of light in a world where there are no permanent relations and no permanent structures?”

American power

In his introductory remarks, Peter Rimele, Resident Representative to India, Konrad-Adenaur-Stitftung (KAS), said several questions are being raised about American power, American reliability and trust-worthiness as well as about the stability of the multi-lateral order post Covid19. “East and West Europeans alike have been watching the US response to the Covid19 with alarm,” he lamented. The US’ plans to freeze funding for the World Health Organisation (WHO) has created immense uncertainty, especially for many African and Latin American countries.

Christian Hirte, Member of German Bundestag, who joined the discussion to offer a German and trans-Atlantic perspective on the current crisis, reflected similar sentiments when he said post-pandemic, Germany will look to focus more on domestic production and domestic supply chains. Though Germany’s push for a stronger EU has been its long-time agenda he wondered whether the pandemic will provide an opportunity to re-prioritise this goal.

This report was written by Dr. Vinitha Revi, Independent Researcher, Chennai

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