As the COVID-19 outbreak gripped the world, and air travel restrictions were imposed across the globe, India’s foreign office started turning the crisis into an opportunity for increasing diplomatic engagement with countries across the world. India has been offering help in terms of supplies and expertise to other countries, including through shipment of Hydroxychloroquine that is being seen as a ‘miracle drug’ to cure the novel Coronavirus.
Leading India’s efforts to increase diplomatic engagement is, of course, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar who has engaged with several countries- big and small across the world ever since the COVID-19 outbreak brought the world to a standstill. He has been engaging with smaller countries, including little islands in different parts of the world including the Caribbean, the Pacific Ocean region and the African islands.
Jaishankar, a career diplomat, has been silently going about his job to ensure that India emerges as a responsible power in the good books of both the advanced economies/ superpowers and small, strategically located countries throughout the globe.
In line with this strategy of bringing smaller countries on board, he interacted with the Foreign Ministers of Grenada, as well as St. Vincent and the Grenadines- two small Caribbean island countries, which have traditionally not been quite popular on India’s diplomatic radar.
But this is where S. Jaishankar is pushing New Delhi into playing a greater leadership role in the international arena during the COVID-19 crisis. With the promise of health cooperation and token initiatives that put India in a comfortable situation when their cooperation is needed. As part of India’s engagement with Caribbean Community (CARICOM), he also interacted with his St. Lucia counterpart.
Such a strong sentiment of friendship and solidarity.
Great to talk with FM Louis Straker of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. India will support more community development projects. Friends must help each other in economic recovery.
— Dr. S. Jaishankar (@DrSJaishankar) April 30, 2020
— Dr. S. Jaishankar (@DrSJaishankar) April 29, 2020
Discussed with FM Sarah Flood-Beaubrun of #StLucia our engagement with the #CARICOM. India will be a reliable partner on medicines. Agreed that in the post #corona situation, we need to focus on recovery challenges. CARICOM has an important place in India's foreign policy.
— Dr. S. Jaishankar (@DrSJaishankar) May 1, 2020
In the Pacific too, he has made it a point to turn the crisis into an opportunity for diplomatic engagement. Jaishankar tweeted, “Taking virtual diplomacy to the next level. Began the first of a series of regional reviews. A good video conference with our High Commissioners and Ambassadors in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Papua & New Guinea and the Pacific Island countries.”
Taking virtual diplomacy to the next level.
Began the first of a series of regional reviews. A good video conference with our High Commissioners and Ambassadors in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Papua & New Guinea and the Pacific Island countries. pic.twitter.com/EqdaWcJfyK
— Dr. S. Jaishankar (@DrSJaishankar) April 30, 2020
When it came to boosting Indo-Africa ties, India’s Foreign Minister devoted an entire day and tweeted, “An Africa-focus working day. Useful conversations with Foreign Ministers of Burkina Faso, Comoros, Uganda and Mali. Historical solidarity on display in the midst of contemporary challenges.”
Literally, not even a single part of the world has missed Jaishankar’s eyes, as he ensured that while interacting strategically with the bigger powers, New Delhi didn’t end up missing out on smaller countries that can turn out to be strategically crucial.
Therefore, he interacted with the Comoros Foreign Minister, keeping in mind the strategic location of the Vanilla Island country that can be a point of a base race between India and China.
A SAGAR friendship reaffirmed. Wonderful talking to FM Mohamed El Amine Souef of #Comoros. Our health cooperation and development partnership will surely grow further.
— Dr. S. Jaishankar (@DrSJaishankar) April 25, 2020
In Central America, he interacted with the Panama Foreign Minister, and in the Gulf too he assured his counterpart in Oman- a country where India plans to establish a strategic port, of New Delhi’s support in the fight against Coronavirus.
Pleasure to talk to FM @aferrerl of #Panama.Complimntd him on the decisive&effective response of his govt to #coronavirus.Our medical shipmnts wl be arrvng shortly.Appreciatd tht Panama wants to mk India 1 of its priority partners.Thankd him fr taking care of the Indian community
— Dr. S. Jaishankar (@DrSJaishankar) April 28, 2020
Very pleased to speak with FM Yusuf Alawi. Appreciated #Oman’s taking care of the Indian community there. As trusted partners, assured him of India’s support in the collective fight against #coronavirus.
— Dr. S. Jaishankar (@DrSJaishankar) April 23, 2020
S. Jaishankar being a professional diplomat is doing what a dexterous diplomat would have done during a crisis like this- he is not showing any streaks of a politician getting occupied in a PR campaign.
His strategy is clear- forge strong ties with bigger powers, but do not lose hold of smaller countries especially island countries with strategic significance. With the foreign office’s responsible conduct, India manages to impress upon these smaller countries across all parts of the world. And this helps New Delhi in achieving its broad foreign policy goals.
Most importantly, the smaller and seemingly insignificant countries can suddenly become crucial once a resolution in the United Nations General Assembly goes to vote. When voting takes place on the principle of one country, one vote, then all such countries suddenly seem to become that much more significant.
At a time when Pakistan and its ‘all-weather ally’ China aspire to foment trouble for India at the United Nations, keeping these countries close to the diplomatic radar can come in handy for New Delhi at any given point of time and small token measures today will help secure their cooperation tomorrow.
Secondly, India has high expectations when it comes to getting a permanent United Nations Security Council (UNSC) seat. If any reforms happen in the United Nations, New Delhi wants to ensure that they happen for India and not for anyone else.
Foreign Minister Jaishankar too is hopeful, and in a Rajya Sabha speech last year he had said, “We are not lacking in patience, perseverance and aspiration. We will get there (UNSC permanent membership) one day. It is progressing day by day.”
In the same speech, Jaishankar had also emphasised the need to engage smaller countries, when he added, “To shape the global agenda more effectively, India has to engage countries large and small across all regions. It is not only a matter of advancing our own national interest, the expectation that the world has from India are also very much higher.”
What is also happening with the COVID-19 Pandemic is a palpable realisation of a changing world order. India plans to woo companies exiting China in a post-Coronavirus world, and to some extent kick Beijing out of the supply chain.
In such a situation, the strategic location of a small island say Comoros comes into the picture. If after a decade or less, India manages to change the global manufacturing dynamics sharply then it will be crucial to foster strong economic and strategic ties with such countries.
With rising influence in the global sphere, India will also have to expand its footprint across the world, even if it means setting up military bases in strategic locations to look over supply lines and also to secure its interests in strategic waterways.
Beijing essentially believes in a bipolar world- its foreign policy thrust being based on the strategy to engage other countries and rule out American presence, which likely rules out Indian presence too. But Jaishankar has time and again stressed upon a multi-polar world.
He had said, “We see a multi-polar landscape unfolding over last decade although its pace has been hastened in recent years. Our own growing capability and influence is one part of this change.” India’s multi-polar worldview counters China’s bi-polar worldview and carves out greater space for India in the present world order.