As India’s deadly second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic subsides, observers have begun taking stock of the aftermath. A recent article in The Financial Times suggested that the second wave has exposed India as the “weakest link” in the Quad grouping of the US, Japan, Australia, and India, whose collective goal is to counter Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific.
Specifically, the article argued that India’s emergency export ban on vaccines has alienated neighbouring countries and undermined the Quad’s effort to compete with China’s vaccine diplomacy. Moreover, it said the critical flaws of India’s public health infrastructure have allegedly revealed to the world the limits of India’s capabilities as a rising power. The chief casualty overall is India’s reputation as a major global player — especially in pharmaceuticals and vaccine production — which now appears completely out of sync with reality.
These arguments suffer from a few problems. First, although India’s ban on vaccine exports undoubtedly upset countries scheduled to receive them, the resulting reputational damage is short-term in nature. India was exporting vaccines before its second wave and will resume exports once the domestic crisis is under control. Global opinion is neither fixed nor unforgiving, especially in a time when vaccine export bans are entirely unexceptional.
Even if China steps in to fill vaccine orders unmet by India, this does not automatically translate into significant losses for India or the Quad. Smaller countries in the Indo-Pacific are adept at navigating competition between major powers and many would happily accept Chinese vaccines today and support the Quad tomorrow, or vice versa. Geopolitical competition is a long-term game of multiple rounds, and the Quad’s hand is hardly out of cards yet.
Second, India’s state capacity is not uniformly distributed across functional domains. A government’s inability to respond rapidly and effectively to a public health crisis of massive proportions says little about its ability to build roads, collect taxes, or secure the nation. It is no secret that India’s public health expenditure as a share of GDP is well below international standards and showed little sign of increasing over the last decade. A large wave of Covid-19 cases was every Indian’s nightmare precisely because the healthcare system was expected to severely struggle under pressure.
The same cannot be said for India’s defence establishment and broader ability to generate and project military power, and this is what counts when it comes to India’s foreign relations and the Quad in particular. Despite being devastated by the pandemic, the country has nonetheless sustained thousands of troops and equipment at high altitudes in its border confrontation with China for over a year to date.
Finally, on the question of India’s image, there is no doubt that the central government and state governments today should be eating humble pie given their negligence and misplaced triumphalism of early 2021. However, this fact alone says little about whether India’s self-image as a leading power is more hype than reality. Virtually every rising power in history has nurtured a desire for international standing and global recognition well before it could achieve such goals. And, like India, these nations have stumbled many a time on the path to becoming great powers.
India’s strategic partners have always expected its rise to be ‘two steps forward, one step back’, and have factored this into their calculations. Even if the pandemic has ‘exposed’ the Indian state’s weaknesses, the results at best confirm widely held presuppositions instead of revealing some hidden truth. As for vaccine production, only India’s most ardent supporters would imagine that it could turn on a dime and deliver a staggering number of vaccines for national and global distribution — a
tall order for even the most advanced economies.
Ultimately, the impact of Covid-19 on India’s place in the Quad hinges on what India’s post-pandemic economy and military can deliver to countries looking to secure their own interests in the face of China’s rise. Vaccines are a minuscule part of the equation. More important is the human-capital cost of the virus in key Indian government functions and economic sectors. In the short term, India’s foreign policy may be distracted by the imperatives of domestic recovery. Investment in public health may come at the cost of defence, foreign aid, and multilateral commitments. Countering Chinese influence, however, is a long-term project for the Quad; one that far exceeds vaccine diplomacy. There are various reasons why the Quad may fail, and some of them certainly have to do with India’s own interests and priorities. However, India’s Covid-19 calamity is unlikely to be a root cause.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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