Friday, March 31, 2023
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With new WHO leadership role, India can’t fool partners with balancing acts

Intensifying power conflicts over Covid-19 will manifest themselves in new forms. It will become difficult for New Delhi to sidestep them without suffering some costs.

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India is set to take over the Chair of the Executive Board of the World Health Organization after its annual meeting later this month. This should be welcome to New Delhi, because it has always sought a greater role in multilateral agencies that ‘govern’ the world. Moreover, India, like many other countries, swears by multilateralism. Such roles do bring with them prestige and a measure of influence.

But for New Delhi, they also bring along a more unwelcome companion: pressure to take sides in important international disagreements. India’s partners will expect India to support them diplomatically in such tussles. As important as it is to support India’s partners, it is also in New Delhi’s interest to ensure that China does not gain disproportionate influence over such bodies because that has consequences for India’s interests too.

India will take over the leadership role in the WHO at a time the world is riven by the coronavirus pandemic and is angry at China’s incompetence or worse. Indeed, the WHO’s unusual deference to Beijing, especially in the initial weeks of the Covid-19 outbreak when the health body’s director-general was reportedly “almost directly quoting (from) the Chinese government’s statements” to the press, has caused controversy. India’s traditional reluctance to take sides, especially against China, will be tested again and the cost of such balancing acts will continue to rise. 

Intensifying international power conflicts, not least because of the coronavirus pandemic, will manifest themselves in different but interlinked forms. It will become increasingly difficult for New Delhi to sidestep them all without suffering some costs. 

Also read: Don’t suffer alone — India and the world need to act against China’s intimidation tactics

Creatures of power politics

But an important part of the upcoming power politics will be centred not so much on direct military confrontation with China – though that cannot be ruled out – but in a contest over control of multilateral agencies.

Multilateral agencies are creatures of international power politics, something that is well recognised but often overlooked. International power politics was already gathering pace as a consequence of China’s rise because the closer China comes to the US in relative power, the more intense the competition. The coronavirus pandemic has only sharpened this competition. 

The US-China clash has made it difficult even to reach an agreement on a UN Security Council resolution calling for a worldwide ceasefire of all hostilities so everybody can focus on dealing with the pandemic. China insists on inserting language supporting the WHO in the resolution, which the US opposes, leading to the deadlock.

In this tense circumstance, it is not surprising that India will face pressure from its partners in the international community to take a strong stand in favour of an open investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic and the WHO’s role in it. ThePrint reported last week that both the US and Australia have asked India to push for reforms within the WHO and support an inquiry into the origins of the pandemic. They have particularly good reasons for their anger at China.

The US is inching towards one lakh deaths as a consequence of the pandemic and unemployment rate could possibly cross what was seen in the Great Depression, 80 years ago. On top of this, it is a presidential election year and neither candidate wants to be seen as soft on China. Australia, on the other hand, has been subject to intimidation by China because of its calls for an open investigation into the origins of the pandemic.

Also read: Xi contained Covid-19, but suppressing rising chorus against China won’t be easy

Position on Taiwan

For New Delhi, both the US and Australia are increasingly important partners as China’s pressure increases all around the Indian periphery. India’s reluctance to take a stand will come under growing strain because India needs these partners, and Indian credibility as a partner will be tested. Washington’s undependability is a common trope in Indian foreign policy debates but by the same token, Indian dependability will be as much a concern to New Delhi’s partners. This is not a concern that should be dismissed lightly because such questions have never been far from the surface.

And it is not just Australia and the US. Taiwan, which was prompt in supplying India medical equipment to deal with the Covid-19 crisis, also wants to participate in the World Health Assembly next week, and wants India to support it. China, which considers Taiwan a part of its territory, opposes Taiwan’s attendance. India has usually been reluctant to cross Beijing on the Taiwan issue, but Taipei has been garnering increasing global support. President Donald Trump even signed a US legislation that seeks to support Taiwan diplomatically amid growing Chinese pressure. India is unlikely to change its policy on Taiwan anytime soon, but this is one more indication of the pressures India faces.

Also read: Modi govt’s domestic politics hurting India’s ties abroad. But not as badly as critics say

Shifting sands

India has come a long way in the last decade and is now much more comfortable in seeking to enhance its own capabilities by building security partnerships with various powers in the Indo-Pacific. And it has taken a stand on issues like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) when it directly transgresses Indian territorial claims. 

But New Delhi’s response in the current scenario appears to be once again to split the difference. Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi supported strengthening and reforming the WHO in his remarks at the G-20 virtual summit in late March, there appears to have been a rethink more recently. According to “people familiar with developments” in the Indian government, New Delhi now says that reforming WHO can wait until after the pandemic crisis is resolved. This sidesteps the issue, which is about supporting India’s partners, and is unlikely to fool anyone.

The author is a professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Views are personal.

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  1. While geopolitical imperatives of this new responsibility are highlighted in this essay, as a developing country India can draw attention to the revised scope, cost and accountability of public health. Or now it is global health. (When a China sneezes, rest of us also catch the flu)
    Big Pharma and Health Insurance have skewed the human health narrative. India by virtue of its position to innovate in drugs manufacturing, doctor talent and unique health tech solutions must consider its opportunity to impact the world health positively. An aspect of Vasudeva Kutumbham that must prevail!

  2. India must support to tiwan reason. Chaina has all redy to surround india through pakistan and Nepali. May be chaina create some issue in border but now never forget presently chaina has occupied the half part of kashmir and thay are violation of disputed area kashmir to made a road as a cepc this is best for india to what is correct suport . This is the good time to start bylateral relation start between Taiwan and India and matter discussed with Russia
    Because of the Russia alwase help in bad time to India with truth friends

  3. India must support to tiwan reason. Chaina capture to india through pakistan and Nepali. May be chaina create some issue in border but now presently chaina occupied half part of the kashmir even though dispute area kashmir he made a road as a cpec. Where China lived to India. This is the good start bylateral relation start Taiwan and India but this is truth don’t forget Russia. Because of the Russia alwase help in bad time to India

  4. India supported China entry at world forum and sacrificed own permanent membership in UNO . It allowed Tibbet succession at the cost huge immigration from Tibbet.China captured Indian territory in 62 and made physical assets in POK.
    List is long but China must negotiate Indian concerns first ,So that India carry out the burden of One China policy at least on Tiwan issue.

  5. This article assumes that the only opinions that matter are others and not India’s own. Based on recent foreign policy decisions it is more likely that India will act according to how it perceives things should be, without worrying about what others think that much.

  6. I think that Russia has a bigger role as it is a friend of India, China and off late, potentially budding with USA. I have always said that Russia cannot be forgotten especially, with China using so much ammunition from Russia. Russia is also India’s best friend….

    India will have to learn to live up to consequences of taking a stand and also gets into priorities straight. It’s existence is a primary priority and every stand it takes should en-circle around it. As for next priority, comes thy neighbors… When your neighbor is happy, you are happy. It creates peace and tranquility on the border. Again neighbor at peace must also be linked to India’s existence and rightfully so. Next comes India’s responsibility to the role and in this case, WTO… When its in business, it does business and how can you do business when you are ethical. This is where existence of India in the belief of Vasudev Kutumbukum comes into picture. The decisions to the role that India plays in the role is important. This does not mean India must be naive or become pressurized but it has to tactfully create an environment where everything falls in its line… Next comes the outer periphery of its influence like Pakistan and Middle east and Africa and Europe etc… It has to differentiate its relationship with these countries on a case by case basis and take a stand by doing balancing acts. India must learn to be an adult and take stance like an adult.

    Vasudeva kutumbukum ….Period.

  7. Will India declare on WHO stage that Homeopathy is actually not fake, that Gobar, Cow Urine cure cancer and Tulsi, Turmeric protect against Covid-19 and that our studies prove all this?

    As much as I want India to be out there, I don’t like us being laughed at and the world seeing us for the fools we are. Our government is the biggest approver of quack degrees in medicine in the world. In what way are we prepared for WHO responsibilities?

  8. If India is serious in persuading its own interest, it should welcome Taiwan’s membership in WHO. Appeasing China is not going to help India viz Kashmir. GOI must take a stand, fast.

  9. There is no way that India can avoid taking positions either in the reform proposals for WHO or the international ramifications of Chinas role in a post Covid world.Given the new situation India should not be hindered by the infrequent border squabbles on the China-India LAC.Any full fledged flare-up can be discounted.In the present circumstances ,it is not easy to overwhelm any nation militarily especially with the Nuclear deterrent.In fact India should use all the diplomatic advantage vis-a-vis China in the pursuit of our National Interest.This is an opportunity to gain some significant economic and political advantage.

  10. India will have to face this problem, and work out a plan to overcome it with increase of influence for itself. WHO will be only the first of many such situations. And China unabashedly pressures the countries under its debt for support. The situation will become more confrontational, as we also share a contentious border, which that country ups the military pressure at its will. However India has the experience of its past dealings, and will come up winners. Now may be the time for some smart risk taking plans

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