Dr. Gareth Price is a Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House leading research on South Asia. His Ph.D. focused on the politics of Northeast India. His current research interests include India’s foreign policy, regional relations within South Asia and the politics surrounding water. He has worked on projects for numerous governments and companies and is a regular media commentator on South Asian affairs. In an exclusive and in-depth interview with NEPAL FIRST, Dr. Price analyzes the political and socio-economic impacts of Covid-19 in South Asia and the world in general.
How do you view the Covid-19 situation in South Asia considering it is one of the most populous and poorest regions of the world?
The impact of Covid-19 in South Asia could well be severe. On the one hand, the region as a whole has a generally young population, which could serve to limit the impact. However, the prevalence of diseases such as diabetes, combined with general poor healthcare facilities, is deeply concerning. Further, widespread poverty makes the region ill-equipped to undergo a sustained period of lockdown. And while there are regional variations, by and large governments in South Asia lack the capacity and resources to provide services – along with essential items – to those in need.
How do you assess the impact of the pandemic on India’s economy and its ripple effect in the region and beyond?
Some commentary in India has suggested that the country could benefit from the diversification of production from China in the aftermath of the pandemic. While this is possible, it would seem more likely that supply chains would shorten, intensifying the existing trend towards re-shoring closer to demand, intuitively benefiting North America and Europe rather than developing countries in Africa or South Asia.
For India, the pandemic would seem likely to strengthen support for autarchy rather than free trade. Whether regional supply chains start to emerge, or whether India focuses on its own domestic economy, remains in the air. Another question emerges about India’s army of migrant laborers and the scale of investment required to formalize the informal workforce. The pandemic could be an opportunity to re-think India’s economy though, of course, it could be a blip after which the situation returns to the status quo ante. The answers to these questions are likely to determine the impact in India’s neighborhood.
Traditionally, South Asia has been considered by India as its sphere of influence. However, China has emerged as an influential actor in the region. China’s economy is bound to suffer heavily in the aftermath of this crisis. How do you view this equation will roll out in South Asia in the days ahead?
China has been a major investor in infrastructure across South Asia, with the notable exception of India. It seems reasonable to assume that the economic impact of Covid-19 on China’s economy will reduce the resources available for the Belt and Road Initiative in general, including for the countries of South Asia.
Aside from economics, the other part of the equation relates to geopolitics. Clearly China’s political influence across Asia was rising prior to the pandemic as a result of years of sustained economic growth. However, this did not necessarily equate to admiration of its political system. Covid-19 seems likely to spur two competing narratives. One side will argue that China’s more authoritarian system made it better placed to cope with the pandemic that Western countries in which individual freedom is more highly valued. Indeed, those of an authoritarian bent may well take advantage of the crackdowns on freedom necessitated by a period of lockdown.
On the other hand, China’s handling of the outbreak of the coronavirus gives support to an alternative view. China’s initial response – cracking down on whistle blowers and allowing the virus to spread – served to undermine the global response. And in the extreme event – for which there is no evidence at present – that the virus was man-made rather than natural, global respect for China is likely to decline significantly.
Clearly aware of the potential threat of the second narrative, China is providing medical support to many countries around the world, and those in South Asia seem likely to be significant beneficiaries of, for instance, Chinese protective equipment.
The South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation has remained almost defunct due to the perpetual rivalry between India and Pakistan. A SAARC fund has been set up by the member countries through the initiative taken by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Covid-19 could have been a great moment to revive it and fight the pandemic jointly, but things do not seem to be moving in the right direction. What are your thoughts on the future of SAARC?
It is not particularly clear what spurred India’s outreach to SAARC. Clearly, SAARC could have been a useful medium in sharing across the country’s in South Asia best practice and lessons learned, given the relatively homogeneous demographics, economics and health profiles of the countries. Furthermore, these similarities could have spurred dialogue between India and Pakistan on approaches to combat the virus.
Again, intuitively, it seems likely to be the severity of the pandemic that determines the trajectory of regional cooperation in South Asia. If the region is less badly affected a return to business as usual – with regional cooperation limited by tension between India and Pakistan – seems most likely.
Earlier efforts at demonstrating that regional cooperation could provide economic benefits across South Asia have largely failed to gain traction. It may well be that the shared threat of the pandemic may be a better means of encouraging cooperation, particularly if the region is more severely affected.
At the same time, the measures being taken to mitigate Covid-19 serve to justify more authoritarian, nationalist narratives, fueling a discourse increasingly common in several countries in the region. On balance, it seems harder to make the case that SAARC has a future than that it will remain by-and-large defunct.
Nepal and India share an open and porous border. The open border has been there since antiquity and the socio-economic considerations have so far outweighed the security threats that can emanate from such an arrangement. How do you view the opportunities and challenges of an open border in view of situations such as the Covid-19?
As noted above, whether the pandemic spurs regional cooperation or increased nationalism is still to be determined. If the latter – and given India’s on-going debates regarding “illegal immigration” this seems far from unimaginable – there could well be an impact on Nepal.
More generally, all the countries in South Asia are highly reliant on remittances from other countries, along with internal migration. To diverge from South Asia to Western Europe, many European farmers have been reliant on seasonal migrant labor from Eastern Europe. Given the current lockdown, this is currently more challenging this year. One feasible impact of the virus in the longer-term could be increased mechanization of Western Europe. Now, if such trends were replicated in other countries – construction work in the Gulf stands out – then the impact across South Asia could be substantial and negative.
What may be the strategies that may be beneficial for poor countries like Nepal in a bid to tackle the coronavirus and its impacts?
Some positive examples of tackling the pandemic do seem to be emerging. For instance, the Indian state of Kerala and Vietnam appear to have adopted strategies that have served to slow the spread of the virus which, until a vaccine is discovered, appears to be the best approach. Clearly it would be prescient for countries like Nepal to take advantage of any international assistance and support being offered.
But alongside the health impact, the economic consequences are likely to be stark. Aside from the importance of remittances, Nepal’s tourism industry seems likely to be hard hit, potentially well beyond the immediate lockdown period. And the impact on Western economies seems likely to reduce international assistance. Combined, the threat that Nepal – and similar countries – will suffer a brain drain, seems high.
On the plus side, Nepal has shown itself to be a resilient country, not least following the last earthquake. Resilience seems likely to be crucial in successfully adapting to the changed global circumstances.
What are your thoughts on the impacts of the novel coronavirus in the history of humanity and world politics? How will the post-Covid-19 world order be shaped?
Aside from suggesting that it is too soon to tell, some strands may be starting to emerge. First, the pandemic will reinforce both those who believe that global challenges require global solutions and those who see in the response the importance of the (strength of) the nation state. Proponents both of globalization and authoritarianism will take their own conclusions from the outbreak. For the latter, the surveillance required to trace contacts in the context of Covid-19 may well be perpetuated as a means of perpetuating coercive control.
Second, the pandemic has done little to halt the gradual (relative) decline of the US in terms of global leadership. But, as noted above, it is much harder to ascertain the eventual impact on China’s global standing. It is not difficult, particularly in a US election year, to paint a scenario in which tensions between the US and China ratchet significantly upwards.
Third, questions raised regarding undue Chinese influence in the World Health Organization could spark a broader debate about global governance. In recent years China has stepped in to compensate for reduced US spending in parts of the UN system. A yet more isolationist US could allow this to continue. But if anything were to lead to reform of the UN system, the current pandemic would seem to fit the bill.
Finally, there may be demands for some of the benefits of the on-going lockdown to be maintained. Will urban South Asians, for instance, put up with a return to highly polluted cities having seen that clean air is possible?