Whither ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’: Examining India’s diplomacy in Covid times


India’s foreign policy mandarins know more than anyone else that altruism does not exist in international relations and diplomacy must be conducted on the basis of realpolitik acting only in pursuit of their self-interest, writes Lt Gen Yash Malhotra (retd) for the South Asia Monitor

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the 15th G20 summit via video conferencing in New Delhi. Photo courtesy PIB

‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ is a phrase found in Sanskrit texts such as the Maha Upanishad, which means the world is one family. Some thinkers believe that India through the ages has developed a civilization whose attributes are what today’s Covid world order really requires— the innate syncretism, it’s easy embrace of vast diversity and plurality—a deep conviction that to achieve greatness a nation must stand for something more than itself.

A knock at the proverbial sounding board with echoes reflected from the US, China and Russia could make a good test for the concept.

U.S. foot-dragging and indiscretions

The US first. When the world was reeling under the first onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic, this is what seems to have been the underlying philosophy behind India sharing and exporting (as on 4 May, 2021) nearly 66.37 million Made in India doses of vaccine to some 95 countries even when its own citizens had not been fully vaccinated. Now that India is beset with the second Covid wave, much more severe than the first, and finds itself deficient of the vaccine, its “global strategic partner” US has been dragging its feet on sharing even the surplus that it was sitting on — stockpile of vaccines that it no longer needed.

Further, India being one of the vaccine manufacturing hubs of the world, has been severely impacted by the US Defense Production Act — a wartime measure, which prevented exports of crucial ingredients, disrupting the vaccine supply chain. This is the new dispensation under President Joe Biden!

The US has belatedly lifted its embargo (which began on 5 February, 2021) with President Biden tweeting: “help to India in its time of need” on 25 April, 2021. This 72 hour-silence, from the time India began to breach the record infections of 3 00,000-plus, has indeed proved very costly!

The 7 April, 2021 indiscreet statement by the US 7th Fleet on freedom of navigation, following cavalier action by its guided missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones in a Quad partner’s (India’s) waters when the Quad is just beginning to emerge as the strategic fulcrum of like-minded nations, is yet fresh in the strategic discourse,

China’s contradictory stands

China next. Now well established and slammed in the US House of Representatives too, China has used distraction of the Coronavirus, which some term as the “Wuhan virus”, for expansion and aggression in and around disputed territories such as the Line of Actual Control (LAC) along India’s Northern Borders, the South China Sea (SCS) and the Senkaku Islands in East China Sea.

While the belligerence is palpable, contradictions in their utterances seeking negotiated solutions to differences through dialogue and consultation are indeed disturbing, almost reminiscent of 5th century BCE Greece, when during the Peloponnesian War, mighty Athens demanding the surrender of tiny island state of Melos, delivered this ultimatum: “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”

The sheer lack of any forward movement in the 9 April, 2021, 11th Round of the Corps Commanders’ level talks after India had vacated the dominating heights, including the ones which overlooked the Chinese garrison at Moldo—India’s bargaining lever – seems to have China digging its heels on disengagement at the remaining friction points of Gogra, Hot Springs and Demchok, not to talk of the Depsang plains. So much for its desire to seek negotiated solutions! India has done well to tell China in unambiguous terms that India is not prepared to resume ‘business as usual’ isolating border friction from the larger relationship.

China has offered to help India battle the Covid-19 outbreak after the initial US hesitance; the olive branch coming as tensions between India and China continue to run high along the disputed Northern Borders. Ironically, having offered help, it suspended all cargo flights to India, which could have carried the medical supplies. Some neighbourly behaviour, this! Not to mention China’s policy of offering loans to poorer countries to buy the Chinese vaccine with unproven results.

Further, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi on 27 April, 2021 offered Chinese vaccines to countries in South Asia to ensure “a more diversified and stable” regional supply, and said Beijing was also “ready to provide support and assistance” to India. A dig at India, perhaps for its vaccine deficiency, coupled with political capital being extracted to dilute India’s goodwill in the SAARC? When reports last came in, China had commenced despatch of some Covid-19 related medical material.

Russia’s balancing act

Lastly Russia. As remarked by some writers, it will be naïve to overlook the fact that “Russians are realists”. President Vladimir Putin, a prime practitioner of realpolitik, has struck a virtual alliance with China to counter Euro-American hostility. In Russia’s recent new orientation, Pakistan, as China’s ‘Iron Brother’, is increasingly being seen by Moscow, not just as a weapons client amongst other things, but also as a useful counter-poise to armtwist India if required!

During a recent visit of India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla to Moscow, Russian authorities assured India that its relationship with Pakistan will not impinge at all on ties with India or be detrimental to India’s security interests. India, on the other hand, has sought to allay some of Russia’s apprehensions about the Indo-Pacific by emphasising that it’s a free, open, transparent and inclusive initiative with ASEAN at its centre and that it does not exclude any country.

Actually India-Russia Strategic Partnership is under stress because of the Quad and buying of American weapons. But in view of the S-400 and other big arms deals, they are trying to keep India happy by first getting them on the Afghanistan peace high table and now with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visiting Delhi and suggesting that Russia may make “additional military equipment” in India.

Not to go overboard, he followed this with a visit to Pakistan. Russians indeed keep all sides of the toast buttered! Of course they were most forthcoming with medical aid, notably the Sputnik-V vaccine for the current second wave of Covid-19 in India,

National interest and global good

India’s foreign policy mandarins know more than anyone else that altruism does not exist in international relations and diplomacy must be conducted on the basis of realpolitik acting only in pursuit of their self-interest. Remember the most fundamental lesson in statecraft stemming from the British statesman Lord Palmerston, who said in March 1848, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

Sample this against what Italian diplomat and politician Niccolo Machiavelli said in 1520: “The promise given was a necessity of the past; the word broken is a necessity of the present.”

Our own national interest must reign supreme, always and every time.

Notwithstanding this rather jarring echo emanating from the sounding board, it needs to be underlined that ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ does not lose any of its sheen even in today’s Covid world order. As some experts point out, India must make a virtue of reconciling global good with national interest. Remember eventually, leading abroad will require delivering at home.

(The writer is a retired general of the Indian Army and a research scholar on defence and strategic issues. Views are personal. He can be contacted at yashmal@hotmail.com)

(This article first appeared in South Asia Monitor May 6, 2021. Used with permission)



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