In a post-Covid-19 world, there is a need to deepen South Asian co-operation. In such a changing landscape, it is important for India to modify its approach towards the region.
Around forty countries, including the US, UK, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, Russia, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have extended their support to India as the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic wreaks havoc there.
Significantly, India has also received valuable assistance from its immediate neighbours – Bangladesh and Bhutan. While Bangladesh provided 10,000 vials of the antiviral injection, Remdesivir, to India, as well as vitamins and other medicines as part of its assistance on 6 May 2021, Bhutan has promised to supply India with liquid oxygen from June.
In Pakistan, the Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi both expressed their solidarity with India through Twitter. Not only did the government offer moral support; the Edhi foundation, a major charity in Pakistan, also offered support in the form of ambulances and staff. A number of Pakistani celebrities also expressed their sympathies on the deaths caused by the pandemic.
As the rest of the world grows more insular in the aftermath of the pandemic, there is scope for South Asia to work together in order to deal with its common challenges. India has an important role to play in fostering regional co-operation, but needs to bear in mind the following issues.
While there is no doubt that in recent years bilateral ties with neighbouring countries, especially Bangladesh, have witnessed an upswing, a lot remains to be done to make regional co-operation a reality. A few points need to be borne in mind. First, it is not just sections of the strategic community and electronic media, but even some in responsible positions who tend to patronise the smaller countries in the neighbourhood. They forget that in the region is a dynamic neighbourhood; for instance, in recent times Bangladesh, which was often dismissed as a laggard, is becoming an important engine of regional growth, its success being recognised beyond the region. For the 2020-21 financial year, its per capita income was estimated at US$2,227 ($2,900), a year-on-year jump of nine per cent. Significantly, for 2020-21, the country’s per capita growth was higher than that of India. Only recently, Bangladesh, whose foreign currency reserves stood at US$45 billion ($58.75 billion), approved a currency swap of US$200 million ($261 million) with Sri Lanka. While Sri Lanka has received much greater financial assistance from other countries, including China and India, the assistance extended by Bangladesh is symbolically important.
Second, a stumbling block in terms of ties between India and her neighbours is the relationships of those countries with China. Each country will prioritise its own interests, with nothing to prevent them from maintaining ties with China and India simultaneously, as Bangladesh does. Recently, when China’s envoy in Bangladesh said that the Bangladesh-China relationship would be affected if Dhaka joined the Quad, Dhaka was quick to respond, saying, that Bangladesh itself would decide the course of its foreign policy. Ties between China and India’s neighbours in South Asia are influenced by two important factors: first, India’s own economic standing and its ability to deliver on commitments that it has made and, second, the economic position of New Delhi’s neighbours. As Bangladesh’s economy grows, its ability to maintain a good relationship with Beijing without kowtowing to it, also grows.
All countries in South Asia also need to bear in mind that they will encounter common challenges, which will provide an opportunity for co-operation. While countering the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is one such opportunity, the introduction of tighter immigration rules by a number of Western countries, Singapore, New Zealand and the Gulf countries could be another. South Asia contributes significantly towards global migration. Remittances to South Asia witnessed a rise in 2020 although a fall of over 20 per cent was expected. That temporary increase has been attributed to specific one-off factors and remittances could drop in 2021. Most, if not all, South Asian countries will be hit if that dip eventuates; they could work under the umbrella of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) to explore solutions to that challenge. Apart from that, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that there is need for a well-planned and co-ordinated regional response to such events as pandemics and natural calamities.
In conclusion, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the fore many issues, an important one being the necessity of maintaining robust intra-regional ties. Regional co-operation should not just be perceived as a slogan, but needs to be looked at as a solution for many of the challenges which South Asia is likely to encounter in a post-Covid world. Multiple stakeholders need to be brought on board that endeavour, even if there are areas in which their foreign policy priorities and interests do not coincide.