Centred around the face-off between US President Trump and the WHO, the developments of the past fortnight hold signposts for Indian diplomacy. The annual session of the World Health Assembly (WHA) last week (May 18-19), the WHO’s policy-making plenary, witnessed the face-off taking the form of a morality play — theatrical entertainment and allegory with moral attributes prompting viewers to make choices.
For South Block, it all began with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s videoconference with a clutch of like-minded counterparts handpicked from Asia, West Asia and the western hemisphere — ‘Quad’ plus South Korea, Israel and Brazil — to discuss the ‘transparency and accountability in combating the Covid-19 pandemic and in addressing its causes’ and for ‘reaffirming the importance of the rules-based international order’.
This followed Trump’s announcement to freeze US funding for the WHO for its refusal to blame China for the outbreak. Trump alleged that the WHO promoted China’s ‘disinformation’. Pompeo proclaimed, ‘The rule of law, transparency, and accountability will be the key to our shared success.’ Delhi’s role in this sordid episode remains obscure, but the folly of creating misperceptions of India lending its shoulders to the US to snipe at China and the WHO cannot be understated. Pompeo hoped to mitigate the US isolation on the eve of the WHA, as global concerns over the pandemic began crystallising. Frankly, Pompeo’s venture was none of India’s business.
In the event, China played a lead role in the negotiations at the WHA to forge a consensus among 194 member-countries and become one of the co-sponsors of the resolution that was finally adopted. Over 100 countries formed a coalition to come up with the draft resolution. The thrust of the resolution was in its stirring call to prevent discrimination and smearing campaigns and to take measures to counter disinformation (read ‘Wuhan virus’); implement a multi-sector action plan in strengthening the health systems of the member-countries against the pandemic; and work collaboratively to develop and scale up effective and affordable diagnostics, therapeutics, medicine and vaccines. Simply put, Washington’s push for a so-called independent investigation into China over the outbreak fizzled out. And India, as so often when it comes to China, missed the woods for the trees.
In his address to the WHA — Trump refused to attend the virtual meeting — Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged a $2 billion contribution over the next two years to help developing countries cope with Covid-19 — and, importantly, he committed that vaccines developed by China would be made ‘accessible and affordable’ to developing countries. This last part is of crucial importance to India.
Trump has refused to make any such pledge on global accessibility or affordability of any vaccine being developed in the US. Delhi should have absolute clarity of mind here, for India is no stranger to the predatory trade practices of western pharma companies.
But the WHA has been a watershed event for other reasons, too. It not only debunked the ‘Wuhan virus’ thesis, but also the international community realises that Trump’s motives are self-centred — to divert attention from his own incompetence in combating the pandemic, which threatens to be the leitmotif of the presidential election in November. Even the US’ European allies understand why in the midst of a global crisis, American foreign policy is absorbed with China’s actions at the start of the outbreak, rather than a global effort to contain and eventually end it.
The 27-member EU backed the WHA resolution. The paradox is: The US had largely led the world into the current global system, but no country is prepared today to follow America out of it. In effect, the US is abandoning multilateralism as the only way to halt its decline and diminishing global dominance. In this momentous debate, where does India stand, since it swears by multilateralism as the beacon light of its foreign policy? In retrospect, India shouldn’t have had any truck with Pompeo’s six-nation ginger group.
Fortuitously, India’s election to the WHO’s 34-member Executive Board and of minister Harsh Vardhan’s choice as its rotating chairman for the next year presents us with a fresh start. The heart of the matter is that Covid-19 poses a big challenge to India, but also poses a great opportunity at the political level.
So far, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has been the navigator of our ‘pandemic diplomacy’. He made a few phone calls and distributed some hydroxychloroquine and Panadol tablets to some countries. That lacklustre phase has been a disappointment. The government’s priorities have since turned, rightly so, to expatriate evacuation operations. But there is a ‘big picture’ that shouldn’t be lost sight of.
The pandemic highlights the imperatives of South-South cooperation, which used to be a key template of India’s diplomacy till we abandoned the developing countries and hitched our wagons to the Washington Consensus. It took a pandemic, finally, to compel our elites to shake off their reveries and witness the sorrows of millions of countrymen entrapped in a life of poverty, and hark back to India’s ingrained habitat.
Vardhan’s advisory role in the WHO is easily definable. China can be a natural ally for him, provided he is allowed such latitude by South Block whose pivot to Washington complicates India-China relations and brings no dividends as the country enters a dangerous period with the virus stepping out of metropolises to stalk our vast undefended countryside.