In his address to the Sixth Roundtable Meeting of the Asean-India Network of Think Tanks, (AINTT), Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar hinted to his audience how the coronavirus and its ramifications, have unimaginably damaged, and also intrigued, the world since the beginning of this year. He compared the pandemic to the Great Depression and said: “The impact of the coronavirus has been beyond our collective imagination. Current estimates put the cumulative loss in the range of $5.8-8.8 trillion or approximately 6.5-9.7 per cent of the global GDP. The contraction of the world economy being predicted will surely be the largest since the Great Depression.”
The Minister spoke to a significant audience—an entire grouping of countries that is opposing the communist country’s hegemony in the South China Sea and is also at the end of the debilitating pandemic that started from China, with the latter washing its hands off the problem. While improving bilateral relations with a number of countries in the region, India also has been in friction with Asean over not joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) over a gnawing feeling that the trade treaty is a one-sided affair for India.
The other important issue that Jaishankar spoke besides the impact of coronavirus on the global economy was the abject failure of multilateralism during a global catastrophe. Indirectly, he was probably referring to the failure of the World Health Organization to provide timely and accurate information to the world and the helplessness of the United Nations Security Council in not being able to discuss a catastrophe of global magnitude.
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Hinting at the failure of the world powers, which he did not name, the Minister said that “the individual behavior of many states,” was intensely competitive and not leader-like. Talking about multilateralism, Jaishanker said: “The irony, however, is that just when multilateralism was most in demand, it did not rise to the occasion. If we saw little leadership, it was not just due to the admittedly anachronistic nature of key international organizations. Equally, it reflected the intensely competitive nature of current international politics.”
Jaishankar did not mince words regarding the damage that the Covid-19 pandemic has wrought on the world. He highlighted the fact that the failure of the world powers and the multilateral organizations actually forces people to “debate on the future directions of global affairs and what kind of world order—or disorder—we are going to live in.”
The Minister said: “As a result, the commodity that is perhaps most valued in international relations today is that of trust. We had already seen in many quarters national security being redefined to include economic security. More recently, this then led to questions and concerns about technology security. The pandemic has now added to that the importance of health security. In fact, the concept of strategic autonomy that was once fashionable in a unipolar world has now assumed relevance once again in terms of global supply chains. Whatever we may profess, the actions of nations during times of crisis determines how the world really perceives them, and they did bring up many of the risks inherent in the current global economy.”
Without naming China, the Indian Foreign Minister sent a clear message to the grouping that the actions of just one country could subvert the world order and give a new dimension to national security. By mentioning international trust and national security, Jaishankar was possibly hinting at the unilateral actions of China, which under the cover of the pandemic was trying to buy out companies and intrude into the shaky economies of other countries.
Around the same time, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had launched attacks on India, was threatening Asean countries in the South China Sea and was violating territories of nations in the East China Sea and there were companies which were suspected of undermining cyber-security—all at a time when a beleaguered world was trying to battle the pandemic.
Towards the end of his speech, Jaishankar underlined the need for India and Asean to come together. He said: “The Asean is one of the crossroads of the global economy. India is the fifth largest economy in the world. We are not only proximate to each other, but together help shape Asia and the world. It is important that at this juncture, we put our heads together. There are conceptual issues to debate including Indo-Pacific. The Indo-Pacific Oceans initiative that we have tabled needs elaboration. As global relationships alter, we too need to take stock. Security, connectivity, economy and politics will jostle for space in your discussions.”
The Minister urged his audience to come with fresh ideas and thinking which are more than welcome today due to the unprecedented crisis the world is facing..