On 20th of March a teleconference was held amongst some countries of the Indo-Pacific on the COVID-19 pandemic. The meeting was called by US and the participating countries included India, Japan, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand and Vietnam. The objective of the meeting was to take stock of domestic situation, national responses to the pandemic, and ways to cooperate during the crisis. As per the official statement:
“The participants are expected to continue the conference call on a weekly basis, covering issues like cooperation on vaccine development, challenges of stranded citizens, assistance to countries in need and mitigating the impact on the global economy, etc.”1
This meeting is significant because it is the first of its kind to be held under the banner of Indo-Pacific. The Indo-Pacific as a term has been in currency of international relations since the past few years. The concept was met with some scepticism, but later it had begun to gain traction. Yet nothing concrete was visible. There were a few announcements such as the Blue Dot campaign, the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, but these are only on paper for now. Indo-Pacific is still evolving as a concept; its geographical definition has variations. Even within the broader understanding as the region of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, countries have different priorities. Due to these conceptual problems, and respective foreign policies, the Indo-Pacific idea had not taken of in the ways it was envisioned. Therefore, holding this meeting is an indication that the Indo-Pacific cannot be dismissed. That the select Indo-Pacific countries are finally getting their act together, is indeed significant. Had this meeting not taken place, this author would have written-off the Indo-Pacific.
But it took a crisis of unprecedented level to kickstart the grouping. The meeting was formally held under the aegis of ‘Indo-Pacific’. Before this, bilateral communication on the COVID-19 took place between Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and EAM S. Jaishankar on 14 March and between Pompeo and Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi on 20th March.
Interestingly, the participating countries are part of the region which exactly fits into the US’s Indo-Pacific concept. It also has all the four QUAD members. If one sees the official documents on the Indo-Pacific from various countries, these were essentially from the point of view of traditional security- be it the numbers, force structures, or concerns over freedom of navigation. There were some non-traditional matters such as maritime security and transparent infrastructure development. Nonetheless, it was always seen as a military concept (which it actually is) and hence some countries were reticent about being on board. But this COVID-19 meeting has flipped the concept on its head in the sense that its first such meeting is discussing a grave, non-traditional, truly trans-national security matter. This does not mean dilution of the underlying geo-strategic undertones, rather it shows that the group is capable of a lot more. Until now the mandate of the group was amorphous, and rightly so. Now it is clear that the Indo-Pacific framework will also handle trans-national, non-traditional security matters. It may be predicted that this messaging would encourage more countries to be part of the Indo-Pacific.
If this happens, particularly this would be in India’s interest since New Delhi was widening this concept-geographically; and also, essentially through emphasis on non-military matters. India had taken international COVID-19 initiatives within South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), and also by extending aid to Iran- that is to the countries in the Indian Ocean region (IOR), that India considers as its core area of interest. It had taken lead in IOR on its own; whereas it has gone multilateral across the Malacca- exactly the way its strategy in the Indo-Pacific should be.