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EAM's Remarks at the Global Town Hall during the Session - "Indo-Pacific and the Covid-19 Crisis"

November 20, 2020

1. I am delighted to address the Global Town Hall 2020 and thank Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute for the opportunity. As I was asked to speak on ‘The Indo-Pacific and the Covid-19 Crisis’, my remarks focus on three issues: the rationale for the Indo-Pacific, the Indian response to the Covid-19 crisis, and how the two come together.

2. Every era produces its own strategic concepts and analytical constructs. The current one is no exception. After all, the sharp distinction between the Pacific and Indian Ocean theatres was only made after the Second World War. What has changed now? To begin with, the intensification of globalization and inter-dependence that has expanded the horizons of all nations, especially major ones. In India’s case, the Indo-Pacific was a natural extrapolation of its Act East policy that has made China, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Australia major economic partners. Indeed, we do more business East of India than West, quite a reversal from the immediate post-colonial era.

3. The second factor is the rebalancing that has taken place in the global order. There have been changes in the capabilities and reach of nations, making some do more and others less. But both categories treat the Indian and Pacific Oceans in a more seamless manner than before. The resulting multi-polarity also requires the like-minded to work more cooperatively and effectively than before. As a result, we have seen initiatives that go beyond alliances and working arrangements that are more flexible and imaginative than before.

4. From any objective viewpoint, the Indo-Pacific is a more contemporary description of current reality. Such a landscape actually creates an ethos for greater cooperation, one particularly necessary at a time when global goods are in short supply. If challenges multiply but capacities do not keep pace, the answer is only in more intensified cooperation. Issues like maritime security, transparent and market-based connectivity or counter-terrorism require such solutions. Indo-Pacific is also a rejection of spheres of influence and all that this may imply. It is a reiteration that the world cannot be frozen for the benefit of a few, even if that is the case with the United Nations. It is an indication of our future, not a throwback to the past. Only those harbouring a Cold War mindset will see such intentions.

5. There has been a growing recognition of the logic of the Indo-Pacific in recent times. The ASEAN’s Outlook on Indo-Pacific was a notable step. Apart from the nations of the larger region, we have also seen Germany, France and the Netherlands subscribe to this approach. The need of the day is to give it a practical shape. This can be done by plurilateral diplomatic consultations such as the Quad. Or, it can be furthered in a structured fashion by the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative that India tabled at the East Asia Summit in 2019. This is built on the seven pillars of Maritime Security; Maritime Ecology; Maritime Resources; Capacity Building and Resource Sharing; Disaster Risk Reduction and Management; Science, Technology and Academic Cooperation; and Trade Connectivity and Maritime Transport. It is natural that we will see different ideas and suggestions in interplay and harmonizing them is very much part of the pluralistic political culture that many of us support.

6. While strategic debates have their own importance, there is no getting away from the context of Covid-19 which shapes so many of our priorities today. From the Indian perspective, I can tell you that we have responded with determination and discipline to this challenge. An economy which did not make ventilators, testing kits, PPEs and N95 masks today not only caters to its own needs, but those beyond. By setting up more than 15,000 dedicated Covid treatment facilities, we created an infrastructure to respond effectively. Our high recovery rate and low case fatality rate speak for themselves, as indeed does a social distancing culture and mass adoption of preventive measures. But for the world, what is more relevant is the emphasis we put on global cooperation to deal with a global challenge.

7. Covid-19 created a spike in demand for pharmaceuticals, especially hydroxychloroquine and paracetamol. We naturally ramped up production but more important, responded to the requirements of others. Both Australia and Indonesia were beneficiaries. Today, the focus has shifted to vaccine production and rapid testing, both so essential to the return of travel normalcy. India is deeply involved in many international collaborations and initiatives. Prime Minister Modi has committed to the UN that we will help make vaccines accessible and affordable to all.

8. It is revealing that in the midst of a global health crisis, Indian diplomacy has actually put its Indo-Pacific approach into practice. We provided assistance to Solomon Islands, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Tonga, Tuvalu and Palau for procurement of medical equipment and supplies to assist in their response to Covid-19.This was natural given the growing development partnership between India and the Pacific Islands.

9. The pandemic also underlined the extensive nature of global mobility and migration. As people sought to return to their homes, cooperation between Governments to create the necessary logistics and protocol was central to that objective. In India’s case, more than 2.5 million citizens came back, almost 24,000 of them from Australia alone. We are deeply appreciative of the extra mile that many went to in their desire to help. On our part, we supported the movement of more than 110,000 foreigners out of India to 120 countries.

10. So let me conclude by highlighting the big takeaways from the Covid-19 experience. Above all, it is a call for more international cooperation on the key issues of our times. In a world where trust and transparency are now at greater premium, it highlights the importance of building more resilient supply chains. It is also a reminder of the importance of multilateralism. And that, in turn, requires adherence to a rule-based global order. Out of every traumatising experience, we try to come out better. We should ensure that this is the case this time too.

New Delhi
November 20, 2020

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