The year 2020 saw the recurrence of challenges not faced by humanity since 1918. People across the world were preparing to mark the end of World War I in 1918, in which 20 million people lost their lives. Even as the war was ending, the world had to face a pandemic (Spanish Flu) in which 50 million people perished, in two years. The Covid-19 pandemic is perhaps the most difficult medical challenge humanity has faced since then.
But with vastly improved global communications and advances in medical sciences, nations in the 21st Century have faced up to the current pandemic over the past 11 months, with greater confidence than in the past.
The pandemic has resulted in 88 million cases and 1.88 million deaths. Mercifully, the world today is far better placed than it was in 1918, to deal with a global pandemic.
More importantly, the world has learnt to deal with problems affecting the lives of people in a more united manner, because global cooperation is now in place for facing such developments that affect humanity at large.
The Covid-19 pandemic is now at a stage where the largest number of cases and casualties are in some of the most advanced countries. The US has suffered the largest number of fatalities. Even the Europeans have faced extraordinarily high casualties, while the challenges have been met most successfully in East Asia.
The New Year has brought some relief to India in 2021, with Covid recoveries rising. But given the experiences of other countries, we will be hoping that this trend continues, especially as it has been reversed in some parts of the world. Moreover, thanks to some innovative methods adopted, the contraction of India’s GDP in the current financial year has been estimated at a manageable 7.5 per cent.
But what are the trends one can see in the coming years? One can reasonably hope that while there will be ups and downs, there will be enough momentum, to return relatively soon, to the state of the economy that prevailed before the pandemic started.
With the pandemic holding the centrestage, India has become the focus of growing world attention. Strangely enough, the affluent Western world, notably the US and Europe, are focussed almost exclusively on their own problems. There appears to be relatively little interest, or intent, in helping developing countries, which in any case would find American and European products unaffordable.
In a short while, however, India, which is the largest producer of vaccines globally, is the country to which fellow developing countries are turning, to meet their urgent needs. New Delhi has set itself the target of immunising 300 million of its citizens by July, using both AstraZeneca and Bharat Biotech vaccines. While initial commercial exports are scheduled for Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, commitments have also been made for supplies, thereafter, to SAARC neighbours like Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal.
This is really an occasion for India to earn the long-term goodwill of its immediate neighbours. One hopes this exercise is carried out imaginatively, for also strengthening our relations with countries across our extended neighbourhood, across the Indian Ocean. We would be well-advised to finance such shipments from our assistance programmes, for cash-strapped neighbours.
With over 22 million cases and 375,000 deaths from the raging coronavirus pandemic in the US, the icoming Biden Administration is going to be predominantly focussed on domestic issues.
This will inevitably provide China the diplomatic space to push its aggressive policies across the Indo-Pacific region. India would be well-advised to make it clear that while it is committed to resolving differences peacefully, its armed forces are prepared to meet cross-border threats.
There are encouraging signs from developments such as the rise in consumer demand that the prospects of an economic recovery and growth are good even now in India. Nomura envisages 9.9 per cent growth in 2021 and a 11.9 per cent growth in FY 22, in India.
Growth rates can be even better if there are positive signs now about the effectiveness of vaccines. Interestingly, a few decades ago, India’s economic growth was dependent on the monsoons, while the growth rates today are dependent on vaccines!
Preoccupied with Covid
The US is now preoccupied with the growing number of its citizens being afflicted with the coronavirus, because of some incredibly clumsy handling of the pandemic by the now disgraced President Donald Trump. The primary focus of the Biden Administration is going to be on internal developments and on repairing the mess that Trump has bequeathed.
We have already seen the impact of Trump’s actions in polarising and dividing American society. Dealing with the coronavirus crisis is going to be the primary focus of attention for Biden. It is going to take years to deal with the challenges the US economy faces. We are going to see the Biden Administration making a concerted effort to repair relations with European allies, which have gone ahead with signing a Free Trade Agreement with China, without any consultations with the Trump Administration. The Europeans, however, appear keen to respond positively to the Biden’s initiative.
In the meantime, China and significant parts of East Asia including Japan, Vietnam and South Korea are set to recover soon from the effects of recent challenges.
While the US could remain the dominant global power, an assertive and economically dynamic China is going to seriously challenge American-led Western dominance. This is evident in the manner the Biden team has moved to build bridges with European powers, which are fed up with the Trump Administration.
The year 2021 will provide ample opportunities for India to consolidate its growing relations with countries across the Pacific and Indian Oceans. We would need imaginative diplomacy to consolidate our relations in the face of challenges, which a growingly assertive China will continue to pose.
It is only appropriate to go ahead with measures we are even now taking to secure both our eastern and western borders with China. Border negotiations with China are going to be challenging. But we must not undermine the successes we achieved in Ladakh last year, without a clear indication that China will pull back to positions they have traditionally held. Moreover, with an imaginative effort, India can, and is likely to play an important role on issues of national security, as it is now a member of the UN Security Council for the next two years.
The writer is a former
High Commissioner to Pakistan