Indo-Pacific meeting on COVID-19
Amruta Karambelkar

On 20th of March a teleconference was held amongst some countries of the Indo-Pacific on the COVID-19 pandemic. The meeting was called by US and the participating countries included India, Japan, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand and Vietnam. The objective of the meeting was to take stock of domestic situation, national responses to the pandemic, and ways to cooperate during the crisis. As per the official statement:

“The participants are expected to continue the conference call on a weekly basis, covering issues like cooperation on vaccine development, challenges of stranded citizens, assistance to countries in need and mitigating the impact on the global economy, etc.”1

This meeting is significant because it is the first of its kind to be held under the banner of Indo-Pacific. The Indo-Pacific as a term has been in currency of international relations since the past few years. The concept was met with some scepticism, but later it had begun to gain traction. Yet nothing concrete was visible. There were a few announcements such as the Blue Dot campaign, the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, but these are only on paper for now. Indo-Pacific is still evolving as a concept; its geographical definition has variations. Even within the broader understanding as the region of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, countries have different priorities. Due to these conceptual problems, and respective foreign policies, the Indo-Pacific idea had not taken of in the ways it was envisioned. Therefore, holding this meeting is an indication that the Indo-Pacific cannot be dismissed. That the select Indo-Pacific countries are finally getting their act together, is indeed significant. Had this meeting not taken place, this author would have written-off the Indo-Pacific.

But it took a crisis of unprecedented level to kickstart the grouping. The meeting was formally held under the aegis of ‘Indo-Pacific’. Before this, bilateral communication on the COVID-19 took place between Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and EAM S. Jaishankar on 14 March and between Pompeo and Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi on 20th March.

Interestingly, the participating countries are part of the region which exactly fits into the US’s Indo-Pacific concept. It also has all the four QUAD members. If one sees the official documents on the Indo-Pacific from various countries, these were essentially from the point of view of traditional security- be it the numbers, force structures, or concerns over freedom of navigation. There were some non-traditional matters such as maritime security and transparent infrastructure development. Nonetheless, it was always seen as a military concept (which it actually is) and hence some countries were reticent about being on board. But this COVID-19 meeting has flipped the concept on its head in the sense that its first such meeting is discussing a grave, non-traditional, truly trans-national security matter. This does not mean dilution of the underlying geo-strategic undertones, rather it shows that the group is capable of a lot more. Until now the mandate of the group was amorphous, and rightly so. Now it is clear that the Indo-Pacific framework will also handle trans-national, non-traditional security matters. It may be predicted that this messaging would encourage more countries to be part of the Indo-Pacific.

If this happens, particularly this would be in India’s interest since New Delhi was widening this concept-geographically; and also, essentially through emphasis on non-military matters. India had taken international COVID-19 initiatives within South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), and also by extending aid to Iran- that is to the countries in the Indian Ocean region (IOR), that India considers as its core area of interest. It had taken lead in IOR on its own; whereas it has gone multilateral across the Malacca- exactly the way its strategy in the Indo-Pacific should be.

Every crisis in international relations is an opportunity. Earlier this month foreign ministers of China and ASEAN held a meeting and in the typical ASEAN style of hand-locking, agreed to cooperate and fight the COVID-19 pandemic. This was China’s display of its influence in Southeast Asia. Barring the case of Singapore and Vietnam to a certain extent, the responses from Southeast Asia to the pandemic have been worrisome.

On the other hand, the Indo-Pacific grouping consists of countries that have taken the right measures against the pandemic. These countries would become models for the rest of the region, and also for the world. South Korea has immense experience of dealing with pandemics in the past. Even in the current crisis South Korea (and Taiwan) have taken exemplary steps. This grouping could be a signal- that how a US-led regionalism can effectively act during crisis, unlike a China-led order. So far, China’s friends- Pakistan, Cambodia, North Korea and its BRI partners- Iran and Italy have been unable to manage the crisis.

The other thing to note would be the addition of Vietnam in this group. US-Vietnam relations have deepened over the years, with significant strategic undercurrent to it. Southeast Asian countries are generally very cautious of their relationship with China. China has been trying hard to downplay the COVID-19 pandemic and as part of its public relations, expects that countries tone down the rhetoric and underplay the crisis, just as it has. Despite this, Vietnam has got on board with the Indo-Pacific meeting on COVID-19. When the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific was released, it was often heard that the group struggled to get the document out, because of internal differences on the content of the Outlook. It is no exaggeration to say that those differences have ultimately played out. Vietnam is the only ASEAN member to have participated in this tele-meeting.

The grouping would need to take some critical steps. One would be formulation of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) in times of such pandemics or natural disasters. The current crisis caught the world off-guard hence there was delay in international cooperation. In the next such event, better international cooperation would be expected. This SOPs could be in terms of information dissemination, inspections at airports, land and sea borders. A common code needs to be devised on this. Likewise, a lot of thought would be needed to salvage economies during and after such crippling crisis. Some rethink on supply-chain formation is advisable.

This crisis has shown the criticality of health professionals- a regional approach to training and capacity building can be worked upon- to avoid over-burdening the health systems as far as possible. Cooperation and joint funding of research and development projects are required. India is one of the leaders in pharmaceuticals and has the expertise to develop low-cost medicines. India also has air and naval assets to deploy during natural disasters. South Korea has admirably managed the pandemic due to prior experience during the SARS outbreak; Taiwan has an excellent healthcare system. The United States is the leader in innovation and scientific development. The strength of each of these countries should be collectively exploited. The Indo-Pacific platform should be used to coordinate and cooperate on the current crisis, but more importantly the COVID-19 crisis should stimulate unprecedented levels of cooperation amongst the Indo-Pacific countries. Cooperation and coordination henceforth should be proactive, in the sense that national systems and organisation is jointly formed, a SOP of sorts. So that if ever there were to be such a disaster in the future, our countries follow the best practices on auto-pilot. This is a right time to institutionalise the Indo-Pacific.

Unless the free world of the Indo-Pacific can cooperate in radical ways, there is little for the rest to be on board. Democratic countries of the Indo-Pacific will have to falsify the argument that only authoritarian regimes are capable of managing a COVID-19 situation. During a calamity, free world too, should be able to build hospitals in ten days.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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