New Delhi: India is believed to have already come under pressure from some of its strategic allies and “like-minded democracies” such as Australia and the US to take a “firm stand” against China as it gears up to assume a decisive role at the World Health Organisation (WHO) later this month.
India will be assuming charge of the Geneva-based WHO’s executive board (EB) by May-end. The 34-member executive board, which is elected for a three-year term, will take the final call on India’s nomination at its 147th session, which will be held via video conference on 22 May, a WHO spokesperson told ThePrint.
The main functions of the board are to implement the decisions and policies of the World Health Assembly (WHA), which is the main decision-making body of the WHO, advise it on various matters and generally help facilitate its work.
However, with China coming under the scanner for its alleged role in the spread of the novel coronavirus, it will not be all rosy for New Delhi.
India is being nudged by some of its strategic allies such as the US, Australia, Japan and others to speak against China when it comes at the helm of affairs at the WHO, diplomatic sources told ThePrint.
In a recent phone-call between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison, Australia is believed to have urged India that as a “natural partner and like-minded democracy”, Canberra expects New Delhi to stand with it as it prepares to launch a full-fledged inquiry against China and the origin of novel coronavirus from Wuhan.
The public spat between Canberra and Beijing is an indication of deteriorating diplomatic ties between both the countries, which was brewing for quite some time now.
Sources also said Canberra will directly take up the issue with New Delhi when both Modi and Morrison hold a virtual summit meeting in May-June.
This meeting between the two leaders was expected to take place in January, but got cancelled due to the bushfire crisis.
Sources said Australia wants this to be a larger part of the discourse to be held under the framework of the Indo-Pacific, in which Japan is also a key partner.
“If the pandemic is to have any influence on Australia’s strategy, it will be to accelerate the very trends that brought Australia and India so close together… I believe this crisis will bring Australia and India even closer together as two Indian Ocean democracies with complementary values,” said Barry O’Farrell, High Commissioner-Designate of Australia to India during a speech at the National Defence College on 22 April.
US wants India to push for reforms at WHO
The US, meanwhile, has also activated its diplomatic channels to push India to “come down heavily on China”, according to a top diplomatic source.
The source said Washington wants New Delhi to push for greater reforms and find alternate ways to bring in more transparency, while also urging China to “come up clean” regarding the origin and spread of the virus.
While Trump and Modi had a telephonic conversation in March, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar have spoken several times in the past weeks.
Sources said the issue of India assuming a larger role at the WHO figured several times during the discussions between the two countries.
The Trump administration has called coronavirus a “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” many times to target Beijing even as the relationship between the two nations was worsening with a raging trade war much before the outbreak took place.
On Thursday, Trump said his administration has launched a probe into the role of the WHO with regard to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think that the World Health Organization should be ashamed of themselves because they are like the public relations agency for China,” Trump told reporters at the White House.
He also said the US pays the WHO almost $500 million a year and China pays them $38 million a year.
“Whether it’s a lot more, it doesn’t matter. They shouldn’t be making excuses when people make horrible mistakes, especially mistakes that are causing hundreds of thousands of people around the world to die,” Trump said.
Earlier this month, during a teleconference with south and central Asian journalists, Pompeo had said the WHO has been “unable” to hold China accountable for the pandemic and called for sharing of “information, data and facts” from China.
PM Modi wants to strengthen WHO
Without targeting Beijing directly, Prime Minister Modi had stressed on the need to “strengthen and reform” the WHO during the Extraordinary Virtual G20 Leaders’ Summit held on 26 March.
During the summit, Modi had also said that since initially the WHO did not have the mandate to deal with a pandemic of this scale, therefore, it is critical to empower the organisation, “be it in terms of its capacity of early warning or development of effective vaccines, or capacity-building.”
Experts said India needed to be cautious on how it pressed the WHO leadership with regard to dealing with China and it should avoid a direct confrontation with Beijing.
“India’s new lead role in the WHO will give it an opportunity to wield more influence within a preeminent organisation perceived to be openly siding with China during the recent pandemic. India will need to be cautious in terms of how it presses the WHO leadership on China, given the importance of China’s role in the global response, problematic though it may be and given New Delhi’s own complex relationship with Beijing,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Programme at the Wilson Center in Washington.
“This all flows into the broader question for India of what role it should play in the growing global consensus to take a harder line on China,” he added.
According to former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, it will not be conducive for India to “directly confront” China at a time when Beijing is important to fight the pandemic.
“This is more an election rhetoric by the US. So India should avoid a direct confrontation of any kind with the Chinese. Yes, this is a good opportunity for India to bring about change at the WHO in whichever way it can. We need to work within the organisation to change it and see how it can deal with or prevent future pandemics,” said Sibal.
Sibal also said India should “continue to emphasise on transparency much on the lines that the US has been speaking” without directly naming China.
Besides, Sibal also highlighted that when the powerful G-7 countries had shied away from making a statement against China during a summit meeting held on Covid-19 in March, then India should also act cautiously.
The G-7 nations are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States.