Diplomacy During a Disaster – India’s Challenges and Opportunities

In the intertwined global era, the multi- alignment had evolved to be a new grand strategy. Therefore, diplomatic ties should be an impetus for revisiting the policies and subsequent at the locale and international levels. Foreign diplomatic ties in the conventional sense is a fragile area, at defining and applying national interests. For instance, India has never been an expansionist power, and the world saw no threat. At the same time, some labelled it as a non-assertive nation. This generalist culture makes seem diplomats unprofessional when they cannot be insistent.

Defining diplomatic ties to crisis responses are not unusual. In times of emergency, politicians and diplomats constantly try reinforcing alliances and become more tolerant based on their existing status quo, culturally and economically. Theorists are yet to find any instances where diplomatic relations have changed long-term after a disaster. But to thought, this happens only if the conditions before were feasible. If diplomatic relations are improving, then dealing with disasters brings improvement temporarily. If it is bad, then dealing with disasters catalyzes the hostility further. Though the rates of danger and geographical impact varies significantly, similar are the traits expressed when disasters strike. Thus, responsible interactions of government and international actors are highly significant. A clear understanding of improved and sustainable development is required for speedy recoveries.

Disasters and post-disaster effects do not stand alone. Depending on geography, civic-ness and extent, disasters transpire with existing social and political contexts in ways that bring potential changes. One example, for instance, is that of a province named Aceh, Indonesia, during the 2004 Tsunami. The militants and Indonesian government despised each other from long-standing, internal political conflicts which had been particularly violent over the previous decades. When the disaster struck so bad, consequently, clear disaster diplomacy opportunities emerged. As the area sorely needed major efforts at post-conflict and post-tsunami rebuilding, neither of which could be completed by the local or national authorities alone. And international actors came in. Amidst the international humanitarian response, the Indonesian government and militants in Aceh negotiated for and eventually signed a peace deal on 2005. Despite violence flaring occasionally and many aspects of rebuilding being incomplete, the peace is lasting in Aceh.

Disaster as a Stratagem

Does the exchange of aid and other assistance following disasters play a role in fixing something unresolved for quite a while? Disasters are found to positively affect ongoing conflicts at various political levels. They form a channel for more intensified cooperation on issues unrelated to the conflicts. All forms of disaster-related activities have the potential to affect diplomacy, such as by spurring it on or by providing space. Thus, generating a kind of torrent to more peaceful diplomacy. On the flip side, the disaster diplomacy analyses show that, fundamentally, disaster-related activities are not a high political priority. Examples of non-disaster factors include leadership changes, mutual distrust, and belief that a historical grievance should override current humanitarian considerations, or a desire for conflict because of the advantages gained from it. Assessment of historic wrongs and domestic politics can lead to not accepting assistance. For instance, Cuba’s refusal to accept aid from the U.S. during the 1998 drought and the U.S. refusal to accept offers of aid following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
An all-embracing challenge is that disaster diplomacy might be attractive because it appears to be a quick solution. Expecting that decades-old differences could be resolved overnight because an earthquake destroyed a town or building would be naïve. Successful dealing of both disaster and diplomacy are long-term processes, requiring alertness, whilst ensuring that all key parties are satisfied, at least in theory. Disaster diplomacy is something like a stimulus and might eventually succeed through luck or co-necessities.

Aberrant from accustomed perception, economic resources and government assistance are not the only drivers of recovery and rebuilding after a major disaster. The role played by ‘social capital’ which are interpersonal relations, social networks, shared sense of identity and trust within a society, serve as the core engine for a swift and robust recovery. The survivors who have strong social networks are said to experience faster recoveries and have access to needed information, tools, and assistance. Communities with little social capital may find themselves unable to keep up with their counterparts possessing these deep networks. Qatar, for example, not only survived the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) blockade but also stood strong these many years, because of sound financial and social capital interactions. Thus, any nation should be prepared to have a self-sufficient stand or at its best, hold better relations with other nations that can provide.

The Indian State of Kerala for instance had witnessed several defining moments in the wake of the recent stretch of disasters. During the rescue and relief operations, the natives displayed a high level of intra- and inter-community trust and networking. The decentralized, people-driven rescue operations coordinating a large population and the use of communication technologies surprised the globe, something not expected of a developing nation. Several international actors also contributed to the cause. Intra-regional diplomacy played a strong role, alongside solid social capital.

What remains a challenge is to keep up the collective consciousness and shared sense of identity created during a disaster into the rebuilding phase and further. It is mainly because there are areas with an individualistic culture where people have limited social relations, an occasion that requires diplomacy.

Power Relations and India

What makes a country a world or a regional leader? If it is population, military power, or economic development alone, then South Asia is a region of too many leaders. Or it could be a combination of all these, allied to something difficult to define – say, ‘soft power’. To quote Joseph Nye: ‘the soft power of a country rests primarily on three resources: its culture, its political values and its foreign policy’. For Nye, the United States is a standard exponent of soft power.

This rationale application of Nye’s ideas to India, lay in the excessive focus from international players, on the nation’s rising power in conventional terms. India is perceived in the world as a wisdom hub, which owes its origins to the culture of debate and discourse. Truth be told, India has underperformed in communicating its historical legacies and civilizational synergies. Considering the extent of diversity, the only safe generalization about India is that nothing can be taken for granted about the country. There is no imposing of narrow conformities on its population. They can be many things and one thing.
Distinctive characteristics, like public reasoning and religious tolerance, a culture of argumentative heterogeneity and philosophy of peaceful coexistence and many more soft powers generated by India will be visible only when there would be a detox of westernization to the ideology.

India’s Role in South Asia can be looked upon in two ways – either as a ‘perceived hegemony’ or a ‘reluctant leadership’. India occupies a unique position in the South Asian region. By the virtue of its size, location and potential, it assumes a natural leadership role in the region. But the presence of several neighbours with aspirations for global leadership simmered uneasiness. The analysis of India’s policies and her neighbour’s expectations often occurs to be biased depending on the country making analyses. Advice becomes intrusion, assistance as instigation and guidance as domination. This transpires the lack of understanding of the concepts of power, leadership, hegemony and formation of perceptions, by the South Asian States. Thus, ‘Disaster Diplomacy’ for a country, like India, should be a careful opportunity for concreting a solid status.

Disasters and the recent pandemic surge have unleashed a reign of anxiety and helplessness around the world. Many agencies have already predicted the catastrophic consequences of the pandemic. Effects of failure of global governance are very evident. Thus, the impact is sure to restructure international relations across the globe. In this context, the recent meeting of the heads of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is a positive signal. Because the South Asian region is highly dis-integrated in several terms, and SAARC has always failed to produce credible results of regional cooperation. Geographical South Asia is home to 24.89% of the global population, thus arresting the spread of the pandemic is crucial. It is well known that the work of SAARC has been repeatedly stalled by India-Pakistan political disturbances, to the extent that it led to the cancellation of the SAARC summit in 2019. Therefore, labelling opportunities and challenges of disaster diplomacy depend on some ‘Eternal Affairs’ more precisely, than external.

Many theorize that India’s disaster relief is not only restricted to the immediate neighbourhoods but extends to other parts of the world as well. The historical, cultural, and geopolitical linkages with several nations in the Southeast, Central, and West Asia as well as Africa are considered part of the extended neighbourhoods. West Asia especially estimated to be predominant in India’s disaster relief operations. The presence of a large Indian Diaspora has resulted in India monitoring closely situations of disaster, armed conflicts, and the internal tussles for power. But over time, India seems to have lost its grip and predominance, in its immediate neighbourhood and growth of equally hegemony thirsty nations, has added to its woes. For example, the string of pearls of China, with potential intentions.

Opportunities and Challenges

During the early stages in domestic underpinnings of Indian foreign policies, public opinion hardly mattered. This is noticeably less true these days, but the degree of freedom to disregard or to proceed, for a policymaker is still more. The term ‘Common’ these days resonate to ‘Global Commons’. The need for increased, more democratic and more equitable global governance cannot be denied. It should go without saying, that every country needs foreign policies, concretely linked defined and linked to national interests. India, for instance, must pass the test of conveying the international ideas, domestically. As efforts are fruitless when nation talk about peace and harmony, and art of war, all in the same breath.
Non-traditional security issues are challenges to the viability of people and states that arise primarily out of non-military sources. They are climate change, resources scarcity, and pandemics, natural disasters, irregular migration, smuggling and trafficking and so on. These dangers are often transnational in scope and require comprehensive responses and humanitarian use of military force. They have certain common characteristics: The threats are transnational in nature, but they not from competition between states or shifts in the balance of power, but defined in political and socio-economic terms. Threats like climate change and disasters cause induced disturbances to the fragile balance of nature and severe consequences to both states and societies. These are often difficult to reverse or repair. National solutions are often inadequate and would thus essentially require regional and multilateral cooperation. Quoting, an observation from The National Bureau of Asian Research: “The nontraditional security threats of tomorrow could themselves become sources of future traditional conflict if they’re not effectively addressed today”.

To achieve a simple definition of what constitutes South Asia is the first opportunity any nation should embrace, and India particularly. The disagreement over actual boundaries, align perfectly with the threats. Many of the non-traditional threats faced by the region are transnational in nature. For example, glacial melt in the Himalayas affects water supply throughout the region. Those cross-border issues merit a cross-border response. Secondly, disaster and subsequent diplomacy can be positioned to foster new ways of thinking about public policy. South Asian population has an immense youth reserve, the next generation of policymakers. This certainly would be the only opportunity, for having a generation that is more willing to engage multilaterally than previously demonstrated.

Centuries sang ballads of making the world safe for democracy. The next one would surely be dedicated to making a world, safe for its diversity. Indians seem to ubiquitous and can make ensure that the globe embraces diversity. This backs the diplomacy further, as an opportunity. The region of South-Asia should view the distinctions between domestic and international affairs is much meaningless in this region. Whether global institutions adapt and resuscitate will be determined by whether those assuming leadership are capable. India can use this opportunity to underline its position in the region.

India’s generous aid programs, extensive international peacekeeping commitment can make it indispensable. But, the outreach seems unequal. For example, India offered COVID-19 related assistance, supplying ‘Hydroxychloroquine’ (HCQ) and other medical supplies, to at least 123 countries, including the United States, European giants etc. Seen in this context, India’s outreach to the nearby ASEAN region appears oddly meagre. The only few ASEAN member states reached out were, Vietnam, Singapore, and Indonesia. This was to discuss health and economic challenges. Mutual agreements to supply HCQ tablets and receive donations of COVID-19 emergency utilities were also made. The nation had a broad-spectrum of diplomatic outreach during the pandemic, an opportunity to address key foreign policy priorities and regional interests. For years, the nation had faced a credibility deficit at both the institutional and popular levels in the Indian Ocean region. The disaster diplomacy opportunities, during the COVID-19 crisis, had provided a window to fix some of this deficit, but sadly not utilized.

Launching joint action and shared learning during a crisis can positively shape public and institutional memories in partner countries. The pandemic thus offers an opportunity to ramp up its public diplomacy in Southeast Asia and show its willingness to undertake mutually beneficial collaborations. Ultimately, this would help broaden and secure greater legitimacy for future regional projects. Collaborating with Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) members could catalyze creating a joint economic recovery plan for the sub-region. To prevent a rapid regression of the organization member states, the resumption of sub-regional trade links by lifting cross-border restrictions must be ensured. For India, post-crisis collaboration within BIMSTEC can boost, the Act East Policy and equip ASEAN members, to accelerate focus on their “look west” policies. At the same time, it is important not to be carried away by vanity.

A More Proactive Role for India in Regional Diplomacy

History is crammed with examples of rising powers, who prematurely withered by mistaking influence and weight of real power. Disaster Diplomacy must be built and sustained on the principles and norms that India holds dear at home and abroad. An India free of poverty, developing and engaging in trade and investment, can play a pivotal role in global politics. So critically, speaking, do the weak stature of the state, project a grand strategy? But the underlying fact is that India is not a weak state. India is gaining prominence when the world slowly moves into a post-superpower age.

The South Asian region is one of the most disorganized regions of the world in terms of the intra-regional trade. Hence the process of integrating South Asia dedicated to BIMSTEC is evident from the importance that the forum has gained in recent years. Therefore, the SAARC forum will have to deliver to stay relevant, and the functionality will decide its future course. Disaster Diplomacy and cross-border nature call for significant cooperation. The opportunity lies in utilizing the situation to come together through disaster diplomacy. Once the nations reunite, they can upgrade the institutional mechanism which can work well beyond the crisis phase and in a different dimension, whether it be economics, political, health or education. Thus, disaster diplomacy can give way to a greater possibility of cooperation within the region.

It’s high time that India’s disaster diplomacy in South Asia must be formulated to ensure due part in the stewardship of global commons be achieved. The creation of a new global public good is a challenge, the transforming India can rise to. Nation has the ability and vision to promote global partnerships, across its broader interests. It only needs to act. Thus, diplomacy in particular must be at a stronger stance. The path for taking on more ambitious roles on the global stage lies ahead. Instinctive approaches are to be formulated, with neighbourhood first policies considered. Thus, growing itself as an emerging nation, India needs to assert itself in the face of hegemony and former imperial powers. India’s presence in the global arena is incontestable and its influence in South Asia (and Southeast Asia as well) must be further expanded.

-Alert Joseph (Freelancer)

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