Indian Foreign Policy During Covid-19 Pandemic

ABSTRACT: This article focuses on the shift of India from the notion of “Aatma Nirbhar” (self-reliance) to “Vishwa Nirbhar” (reliant on the world). Proceeding with the historical aspects of India’s foreign policy, I have tried to track the series of events that led to India adopting a realistic policy and discarding its earlier idealistic policy. Subsequently, the article throws light upon the actions of India undertaken in pursuance of its foreign policy during the COVID-19 pandemic and is backed by their examination and analysis. From exporting vaccines to other nations under the “Vaccine Maitri” scheme to not being able to meet its domestic vaccine requirements, unnecessarily focusing on China time and again when it comes to India’s foreign policy, ambiguity towards India-US relation during COVID-19 pandemic to identifying the post-COVID foreign policy requirements of India, this article tracks the developments in India’s foreign policy due to COVID-19 pandemic and critiques the foreign policy measures undertaken from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic till now and provides with some suggestions for the betterment of the India as a global power, as a potential neighbour and as a nation that believes in “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” i.e. “the world is one family”.


Due to security challenges from the world and regional institutions, India’s foreign policy shifted from idealism to realism with the signing of the Wachtel Accord in 1954. India then showed its ‘sense’ of realism over and again while being confronted with various challenges in the political realm, leading to the adoption of a realist strategy which was now visible via military realism, multi-alignment, and India’s power imbalance with China. Therefore, border clashes and nuclear proliferation compelled the country to take a more realistic approach and focus on national security issues. As a result, the era of idealism in Indian foreign policy ended.

Military power is central to realist philosophy, whether as a defensive strategy for survival or an offensive strategy for power maximisation, as a means to a goal or as an end in itself. Power is vital, but hard power is the most important power of all, according to most realists. According to realists, India’s desire to be a great power must be matched by realistic military capability.

It is not only a matter of status but also of survival. India has a history of violent territorial wars with its neighbours, most notably China and Pakistan, with periodic clashes, the most recent being the Galwan Valley fiasco.


COVID-19 pandemic started with initially a few fatalities but economic constraints forced a staggered lockdown exit strategy, resulting in a spike in COVID-19 cases. Now, India appears to be weakened as a result of the second wave of the Covid-19 epidemic and protracted internal policy gridlock. The Indian public health infrastructure, oxygen shortage, and hundreds of abandoned dead bodies scattered over the Ganga’s banks have all made international headlines. The wave of Covid-19 has shattered the illusion that India is a rising global power.

The Indian immunization effort has also failed miserably. Before the second wave struck India, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) was actively pitching India to the rest of the globe as a net vaccine provider. India exported 66 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine to 95 nations as part of the well-publicized “Vaccine Maitri” campaign. China, on the other hand, has sold 80 million doses to 60 nations.

When the developed world was focused on internal vaccine management and had imposed a moratorium on vaccine exports, India was busy packaging vaccines in export containers. Ironically, the Prime Minister, who was fully aware of the need for coordinated regional and global action to combat COVID-19, entirely ignored the local need for an organised strategy to fighting the second wave of COVID-19 attack.

India’s foreign policy posture has altered substantially as the world grapples with the Covid-19 crisis. The second wave of COVID-19 pushed India to defy its 17-year-old foreign policy and accept foreign help, despite the fact that doing so might have far-reaching strategic consequences for the country. India, which previously supplied vaccinations to over 90 countries under its ‘Vaccine Maitri’ programme, has now received foreign help from over 25 countries as a result of the second wave. The reasoning for this is still unclear, given there is a scarcity of vaccinations in India, so why prioritise other countries?

Before moving further, it is pertinent to take a look at the origins of the policy of “not accepting foreign aid”.

The policy of not taking foreign aid was originally envisioned by India’s Ex-Prime Minister, Mr. Manmohan Singh, but no particular justification or reasoning was offered for the same, and with what may be considered a “policy shift,” India was forced to suffer certain repercussions as a result of this policy. One of the repercussion is as follows, the United Kingdom opposed India’s request for financing from the International Development Association (IDA) for national initiatives aimed at promoting economic development, eliminating disparities, and improving living circumstances claiming that these funds are intended for the world’s poorest countries, and that because India obviously does not want foreign help, it should not require these grants as their actions imply.

Subsequently, India was removed from the list of IDA borrowing countries in 2014. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s administration then decided not to accept any foreign help worth less than $100 million. Interestingly, in contrast, during the COVID-19 pandemic, India appears to have welcomed foreign assistance regardless of its magnitude; for example, Canada provided India with $10 million in financial financing, which can undoubtedly be seen as a blot on the ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat’ canvas.

With the world’s fourth biggest foreign exchange reserves, one wonders why those assets aren’t being used by India to purchase vital goods, instead of accepting funds from other countries. India must keep in mind that these benefits come with some opportunity cost, while there is no wrong in accepting aid that is not supplied for the sake of gaining points but is given generously.

The tremendous help and support that India has obtained from all corners of the globe is due to broad media coverage of its tragedy, since the globalized world cannot allow a rapidly evolving virus to survive in India or anywhere else on the planet.


 India’s Foreign Policy during COVID-19 can be analysed and examined on the contours of: –

Primacy in the Indian Ocean region/ Indo-Pacific region: The acceptance of foreign aid after a 17-year hiatus has been described as an exception by India’s foreign secretary, Mr. Harsh Vardhan Shringla, and will not be seen as a shift in India’s foreign policy. Material help, political influence, and historical links are the foundations of India’s longstanding supremacy in the area and historical links alone are insufficient to sustain its regional predominance.

India’s political influence is diminishing, and its capacity to assist neighboring countries is shrinking. The epidemic has harmed India’s capacity and ambition to contribute to the Indo-Pacific and Quadrilateral. Any ambitious military expenditure or upgrading plans are thwarted, resulting in Beijing’s growing influence in the area. The Second Wave has accelerated China’s invasion of India’s strategic space, and it appears that India will be unable to stand up to China in terms of political will as well as balance of power concerns. Undoubtedly, during the COVID-19 epidemic, China has arisen as a stronger state in general. Last year, India battled with China at Galwan; with regards to any future incident with China of the same type, I do not believe that we can expect India to respond in the same way, and that the response would be more conciliatory. In recent years, India has been compelled to cede before Beijing, and it is probable that South Asian governments will also be more oriented towards China, therefore, South Asia’s power balance may shift toward China.

India’s Association with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) and its Defense Expenditure: Military has aided in India’s rise to the role of regional hegemon in South Asia, and it now serves as a key unit in today’s multipolar globe. Because of the volatility and transitory nature of India’s border with China and Pakistan, the country has made significant investments in border security and infrastructure.

Prima facie, the COVID-19 epidemic will prevent any aggressive military expenditure or modernization plans from being implemented, as it would be prudent for the emphasis to be on global diplomacy and regional geopolitics. Therefore, now, it is unreasonable to expect India contributing enthusiastically or at all towards the expansion of the QUAD.

The Impact of Economics on Geopolitics: COVID-19 has caused widespread economic misery, a fall in foreign direct investment and industrial output, and a spur in unemployment, all of which would restrict India’s strategic aspirations. therefore, acknowledging the economic turmoil, a lockdown, declining Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), slow industrial production, and rising poverty and unemployment, for a few years, we should prioritise internal growth, and for domestic welfare international arena may be disregarded. As a result, it would be prudent to pause India’s post-covid foreign strategy for the time being. At the very least, the COVID-19 epidemic would have an indirect influence on India’s objective of retaining strategic autonomy.

Add to it the impending UP assembly elections in 2022 and general elections in 2024. Domestic political concerns will dampen the political establishment’s enthusiasm for foreign policy innovation or initiatives. As a result, post-covid-19, Indian foreign policy is likely to be gloomy.

India-China Relations:

The problem with Indian foreign policy is the country’s continuous fixation with competing with China. Since America began focused on China in the mid-1950s, the ruling Indian elite has believed that India’s primary role in global affairs is to control China. The partnership with the United States adds to New Delhi’s obsession with Beijing. Unfortunately, many members of India’s security and strategic affairs elite regard U.S. pressure as a privilege. Pressure is being viewed as a chance to increase the emphasis of foreign policy, leaving economic diplomacy in the dust.

Contrary to India’s Minister of Communication and Information Technology Mr. Ravi Shankar Prasad’s statement in December 2019, India has not allowed Chinese companies such as Huawei and ZTE to conduct 5G trials in India. Second, as already apprised of, for realists, military power has always taken centre stage, and for the majority of them, “hard power” is the true power not only for status but also for survival. The recent territorial conflict between India and China at Galwan Valley, and attempts of China to prevent the WHO from investigating the origins of the COVID-19 virus, which is said to have originated in Wuhan, China, indicate towards the two nations’ non-cordial bilateral and multilateral relations.

During the epidemic, the whole globe faced severe supply shortages, owing largely to intentional Chinese actions (Simon J. Evenett, 2020). According to the campaign initiated by India, Japan, and Australia, i.e., the Supply China Resilience Initiative, nations are now looking for alternatives to supply chains that are unstable owing to China. Also, because discussions on the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between India and the European Union have been restarted, although after an 8-year hiatus, India may continue to seek new market opportunities and diversify in order to minimize reliance on China on a variety of issues.

The MEA is guilty of portraying an inflated picture of India’s prowess as the world’s vaccine production powerhouse. With the exception of India, Bhutan, and the Maldives, this foreign policy blunder has allowed China to increase its vaccine-related diplomatic operations in South Asia. India pledged to supply 30 million AstraZeneca doses to Bangladesh by June, but has barely supplied 7 million. Due to an unexpected halt in vaccine supply from New Delhi, Dhaka has been obliged to accept a gift of 5,00,000 doses of Sinopharm vaccine from China. Nepal has received 8,00,000 doses from China in response to an increase in illnesses.

One can only hope that the current health crisis, which, according to the Lancet journal, will result in one million deaths by 1 August, will force the MEA to pause and chart a new course that will help India achieve economic prosperity rather than wasting its meagre resources on pyrrhic victories in border battles.

India-US Relations: In April, 2021, the United States had delayed clearance for exporting raw materials for production of vaccines in India, a reason was offered later by the States albeit a dent originated in India-US ties. The ramifications of the same may be observed in the near future. Following COVID-19, India may find it more difficult to oppose US requests for a stronger military partnership; in the long run, the US may be unsure if India can compete with China and subsequently, what may be expected from the United States is that it will not gamble entirely on India, but rather on Beijing or somewhere in the centre.

As the world transitions to a post-COVID system, India must not only seek to solve fundamental infrastructural shortages in the health sector and elsewhere, but also increase its position in the liberal international order. India, in particular, must establish itself as an effective Asian force that can provide a counterbalance to China. This is where the United States will come in handy. It is critical for the United States and India to collaborate in order to strengthen international governance and the institutions that serve as the foundation of the global order. Another significant step for India may be to gain a permanent membership on the Security Council. The most serious flaw in India and the United States’ Indo-Pacific alliance is their policies toward China; these policies must be aligned with China.

The covid-19 pandemic has brought the world to a halt and highlighted many countries’ weaknesses in the healthcare sector, and a stronger US-India relationship partnership can make an important contribution toward improving global institutions such as the United Nations Security Council and the World Health Organization’s leadership.


For human survival in a post-pandemic world, a slew of domestic measures, particularly in health, food processing, manufacturing, and job creation, are urgently needed. Much of this, however, will be determined by the government’s available resources and the degree of fiscal flexibility it can afford without jeopardizing fiscal prudence and macroeconomic balance. This, in turn, will heavily influence the direction, scope, and pace of our renewed realism reconfiguration of our foreign policy calculation in the next years and decades. Because the diplomatic capacity for ambitious foreign policy goals will be restricted, Indian foreign policy in the post-Covid-19 era is unlikely to be business as usual. However, Covid-19 may have provided the world’s least interconnected area with just such a chance. Covid-19 will also offer up new regional prospects for collaboration, particularly under the auspices of SAARC, an endeavour that had some preliminary success during the first wave of the epidemic. India might benefit from focusing the region’s collective attention on “regional health multilateralism” to encourage mutual aid and cooperative action in health emergencies like this. Classical geopolitics in South Asia should be elevated to the level of health diplomacy, environmental concerns, and regional connectivity.

Ritik Tyagi
Ritik Tyagi
Ritik Tyagi is a student at National Law University, Jodhpur pursuing his bachelors in law with a keen interest in Public Law, International Relations and the economy, having worked with Professors and Lawyers for publications.