Decisions are seldom made at conferences. Platforms such as the Munich Security Conference or the Shangri-La Dialogue are never used to announce policy – they’re networking events. Which is why a video conference on COVID-19 for SAARC nations was never going to be a meeting where decisions were arrived at. It was more of a grandstanding occasion minus the networking. Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered $10 million to start an emergency fund to fight coronavirus in South Asia. So, what were the positives and negatives?
The upside and Pakistan
From an Indian point of view, there are two positives.
One, India has assumed leadership of the South Asian charge against COVID-19. This is appropriate given the reported infection levels is still surprisingly low and the commensurate mass mobilisation, precautionary measures and mass evacuations that India carried out. This posited India as a natural leader. Given how irrelevant the South Asia block has become of late, the video conference served more as a diplomatic bolster rather than an actual organisational meeting.
The second great benefit was that, as expected, Pakistan came to the table churlish and petty, and ended up confirming two Indian theories. First, Imran Khan is a zero substance, non-serious Ken doll whose only value addition is rhetoric. This was amply demonstrated by his choice of representative to the conference – a junior adviser to the PM on health. In doing so, he proved that Pakistan doesn’t take COVID-19 pandemic seriously, and that he is unworthy of being taken seriously as a leader. It showed that Pakistan doesn’t treat any of the SAARC leaders with respect, given that a snub to the Indian Prime Minister was also a collective snub to all the other heads of government present. Pakistan has no interest in any kind of regional cooperation, its single point agenda being Kashmir, which it raised at the video conference.
This then confirmed India’s contention that its preferred format of SAARC-minus one (the one being Pakistan) is genuine and valid. The irony was that India didn’t even have to make this point verbally, Pakistan hit the shovel on its own foot. While India offered help, and other countries offered useful suggestions, Pakistan neither offered help nor ideas.
The downside and China
The negatives were also on show, if anyone bothered to look. India’s assistance package hasn’t exactly been commensurate with our big power claims. An offer of $10 million is pittance, at best. While I highly appreciate the Modi government focussing its resources, expertise and equipment at home, it doesn’t look very good when one of the world’s major pharmaceutical hubs isn’t offering significant assistance in the form of drugs and masks.
Given the open borders between Nepal, Bhutan and India – borders that were never really policed and consequently, not equipped for such policing – or the highly porous Bangladesh border, it was also a tactical mistake to not offer more aid.
Bangladesh, for example, has a large migrant population in Italy – possibly the worst affected country right now. Any uncontained fallout will almost certainly spread to India and further on to Nepal and Bhutan. Similarly, Afghanistan and Pakistan have a highly porous border with the second-worst affected country in percentage terms – Iran. And COVID-19 can break the temperature borders and infect lakhs in populous South Asia.
India’s protection against a western onslaught of COVID-19 remains its bad relations and closed borders with Pakistan. Given that the novel coronavirus is the first great Information Age pandemic, we must realise that stemming the disease abroad gives us more breathing room at home. While India has banned the export of critical drugs, authorising a limited amount to Israel, China is supplying masks and medicines to both Iran and Italy, even though it is the origin point of this disease and the worst affected in absolute numbers. China incidentally did this for profit and without a video conference.
Perhaps, the measure of this SAARC video conference then lies in the fact that while it showed up Pakistan as a third-rate power with regional delusions, it equally showed up India as a second-rung power with limited capabilities and nowhere in China’s league.
The author is a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He tweets @iyervval. Views are personal.