It’s time for India & ASEAN to shape Asia: S. Jaishankar

The world faces an unprecedented challenge. The term “unprecedented” is not an exaggeration. None of us has seen a crisis of this proportion before, or indeed uncertainty of this level. How, when and with what result this pandemic will end is still a very open question. Even after several months, the true extent of its destruction in terms of losses of lives and livelihood remains unclear. We cannot pretend that this is just another happening, only bigger. On the contrary, the impact of the Coronavirus has been beyond our collective imagination. Current estimates put the cumulative loss in the range of USD 5.8-8.8 trillion or approximately 6.5-9.7% of the global GDP. The contraction of the world economy being predicted will surely be the largest since the Great Depression.

India & ASEAN: Shared Interests

The contemporary relationship between India and the ASEAN was founded very much on our shared interest in globalization. In Asia at least, the ASEAN were pioneers of that process and helped bring India into it. But as it comes under stress today, we need to go beyond its economic and even social definitions. Globalization may be reflected as trade, travel and financial flows. But in reality, it is something very much larger. In fact, what the pandemic has brought out is the indivisible aspect of human existence that underpins globalization. Whether it is climate change, terrorism or indeed pandemics, these are not challenges where those affected have a choice. The limitations of purely national responses or sometimes living in denial have become evident. It, therefore, underlines the need for the international community to work together much more sincerely in search of collective solutions.

 Crisis in Multilateralism

The irony, however, is that just when multilateralism was most in demand, it did not rise to the occasion. If we saw little leadership, it was not just due to the admittedly anachronistic nature of key international organizations. Equally, it reflected the intensely competitive nature of current international politics. Indeed, if one goes beyond organizations and structures, this was even more evident in the individual behaviour of many states. Therefore, the big issue that confronts the thinking world is not simply the state of the economy, the damage to societies or the challenges to governance. It is actually a debate on the future directions of global affairs and what kind of world order – or disorder – we are going to live in.

Redefining National Security

As a result, the commodity that is perhaps most valued in international relations today is that of trust. We had already seen in many quarters national security being redefined to include economic security. More recently, this then led to questions and concerns about technology security. The pandemic has now added to that the importance of health security. In fact, the concept of strategic autonomy that was once fashionable in a unipolar world has now assumed relevance once again in terms of global supply chains. Whatever we may profess, the actions of nations during times of crisis determines how the world really perceives them, and they did bring up many of the risks inherent in the current global economy. Consequently, concerns about supply chains are sought to be mitigated at the very least through greater emphasis on their diversification and resilience.

Atmanirbhar Bharat

For exactly these reasons, it is incumbent on all of us to think through these challenges and come up with a more positive and practical model of cooperation. And it is not as though the world lacks good examples even during times of crises. After all, there were many who also shared what they could at this time, whether it was in terms of medicines, supplies or resources. In fact, through their actions what they demonstrated was a need for broader rebalancing as well as a more generous and equitable world view. For India today, this means among other things the urgent requirement to strengthen its national capacities. It also underlines the importance of de-risking critical aspects of societal existence, specially health. And at the same time, complementing the domestic priority of building an employment generating economy, not just a profit generating one. We call it Atmanirbhar Bharat- self-reliant India.

The Road Ahead

ASEAN is one of the cross-roads of the global economy. India is the fifth largest economy in the world. We are not only proximate to each other, but together help shape Asia and the world. It is important that at this juncture, we put our heads together. There are conceptual issues to debate including Indo-Pacific. The Indo-Pacific Oceans initiative that we have tabled needs elaboration. As global relationships alter, we too need to take stock. Security, connectivity, economy and politics will jostle for space in your discussions. My remarks today are only meant to remind you all, how much the big picture has changed. As we come out of this pandemic, let us be clear on one fact. The world will never be the same again. That means new thinking, fresh ideas, more imagination and greater openness. We need to go beyond orthodoxies, whether of trade, politics or security.

(This is the edited text of the speech delivered by India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar during the virtual Roundtable Meeting of ASEAN-India Network of Think Tanks (AINTT) on August 20, 2020)

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