from Strength Through Peace

The Strategic Consequences of India’s COVID-19 Crisis

Indian army soldiers walk along a road near Zojila mountain pass that connects Srinagar to the union territory of Ladakh, bordering China, on February 28, 2021.
Indian army soldiers walk along a road near Zojila mountain pass that connects Srinagar to the union territory of Ladakh, bordering China, on February 28, 2021. Tauseef Mustafa/AFP/via Getty

April 28, 2021 12:00 pm (EST)

Indian army soldiers walk along a road near Zojila mountain pass that connects Srinagar to the union territory of Ladakh, bordering China, on February 28, 2021.
Indian army soldiers walk along a road near Zojila mountain pass that connects Srinagar to the union territory of Ladakh, bordering China, on February 28, 2021. Tauseef Mustafa/AFP/via Getty
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Daniel S. Markey is a senior research professor and academic director of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies' (SAIS) master of arts in global policy program.

Last week, as the magnitude of the second wave of India’s coronavirus surge became increasingly clear to the world, U.S. policymakers soon began to appreciate the strategic implications of India’s national trauma. Over the weekend, President Joe Biden and his top officials publicly pledged their commitments to send medical supplies, including oxygen, vaccine materials, and therapeutics to India, while seeking additional ways to address India’s crisis.

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COVID-19 already inflicted a crushing blow to India’s economy last year. A national lockdown instituted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the early stages of the global pandemic was intended to relieve the stresses on Indian’s inadequate healthcare system, but it also delivered a 24 percent contraction in the economy and led millions of migrant day laborers to flee India’s cities for lack of work. Through the late fall and winter, it seemed that somehow India would escape the worst of the pandemic, but that hope has now been dashed by a devastating combination of new viral strains and inadequate public health preparations. India now faces this wave of the virus exhausted and depleted.

The Biden administration clearly appreciates that the magnitude of India’s crisis turns it into a global crisis. With over 1.3 billion people, India alone counts for one-sixth of humanity. And India’s crisis will not be contained within its borders. New viral strains out of India could worsen the health threat to all. Other second-order economic consequences will follow; at the very least, India’s lost economic productivity will hurt global trade and investment.

Yet the geopolitical implications of India’s tragedy must also be keenly felt by the new Biden administration. After his election, the president’s top national security officials quickly established the aim of closer partnership with New Delhi as a cornerstone in the U.S. strategy for competition with Beijing. India’s role was highlighted by President Biden’s decision to host a virtual “leaders’ summit” of the Quad in March, and by U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s three-day visit to India shortly thereafter.

Having made a strategic bet on India as an important Asian counterweight to China, U.S. concerns about Indian health, economic growth, and political stability are not purely altruistic or humanitarian. As a number of prominent Indian foreign policy analysts observed in the days before the Biden administration announced its plans to assist India, the promise of U.S. partnership would be severely undermined from India's perspective if Washington were to fall short in such a time of need.

In the midst of immense suffering, it is tempting to assume that India’s situation could not get worse. However, the reality is that India was already facing an entirely different, daunting threat to its national security prior to this new viral wave: a year of heightened tensions and unusual levels of violence along its contested border with China. Many of the causes of deteriorating relations between India and China remain unaddressed. The two sides have taken some initial steps to disengage from their border conflict in the Himalayas in early 2021, but in recent weeks their bilateral military dialogues have stalled without progress. If Beijing were to seek a territorial advantage from India’s ongoing health emergency, the compounding of multiple crises would complicate New Delhi’s decision-making and would increase the potential for policy miscalculations and otherwise avoidable armed escalation.

More on:

Asia

China

India

Conflict Prevention

Coronavirus

The Biden administration should help India here too. As I argue in an update of an earlier CFR Contingency Planning Memorandum on the risk of armed conflict between China and India, the United States has a strong interest in preventing military escalation along their border. Through carefully calibrated defensive assistance to India, the United States can help it deter China without taking steps that make conflict more likely. Other diplomatic and economic measures can improve India’s defenses and resilience in the face of Chinese aggression, lessen regional tensions, and prepare U.S. policymakers in the event of another Himalayan standoff this year.

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