Strategic Implications of India's Second Corona Wave
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Strategic Implications of India's Second Corona Wave

By Group Captain (Retd.) Murli Menon
Indian Air Force

Strategic Implications of India's Second Corona Wave

The sense of ennui for the average Indian citizen these days is palpable no doubt. Times are indeed changing the world over and more so in our country. The premature declaration of victory over the virus and the unexpected second wave have torn our social milieu asunder. I have been impacted myself, losing several erstwhile military colleagues and friends to the unforgiving infection. Perhaps we are paying the price for an inadequately invested health care system post-independence, what with lack of ICU beds, oxygen, and medical staff all over the country. These are all not weaknesses that could be overcome in a short period, as aspects such as trained medical personnel and appropriate ICU wherewithal does not materialize overnight. 

When the pandemic unfolded last year it was expected that many a ruling dispensation across nations worldwide would pay the price for any suboptimal handling of the challenges posed by the pandemic to its citizenry. The real worry for our country could be more than just adverse economic fallout or societal upheaval. A double whammy would be our national security gets compromised simultaneously. Due caution in terms of our strategic priorities and any plausible mishandling caused by faulty decision-making by a government in health distress would be called for. 

The Biden administration initially embarked on an inept bilateral stance in extending aid to India, uncannily espousing the Trumpian “America First” slogan. Fortunately better sense prevailed and substantial assistance is coming our way, mainly comprising medical equipment such as oxygen concentrators and Astra Zeneca vaccines, besides epidemiological assistance from American experts of the ilk of Dr. Anthony Fauci.  Considerable other international assistance is expected in terms of medical stores and vaccines from the UK, France, Russia, and Germany including from China if you please and our military is committed to the Covid fight. Even Pakistan has made conciliatory statements about fighting the beast together. That’s not to say we can expect the tiger to change its spots, in terms of her stand on state-sponsored terror. Contrariwise we should expect our worthy but shady neighbor to fish more in the troubled waters of the Kashmir valley, Covid or no Covid. India’s “Vaccine Maitri” policy also appears to be bearing fruit as help is pouring in from many quarters as it indeed ought to in an emergency like we are facing. Dr. Fauci has called for an emergency group to resolve issues of medical supply and vaccination.
Be that as it may, the real challenge is going to be vis-à-vis the China border threat. The several rounds of high-level military discussions since last year’s stand-off in Ladakh have failed to throw up any tangible de -escalatory norms to assure border security. So should we expect China to attempt to exploit India’s Covid predicament to try and alter the ground situation to her advantage? Regardless of the sympathy expressed by President Zhi recently on our pandemic turmoil, we should expect China to play truant. Her ongoing muscle-flexing in the Taiwan Straits and South China Sea could be indicators of her belligerence to come along the vulnerable Indian borders too. And should things play out that away in Ladakh or elsewhere along the Line of Actual Control this year again, and under pressure establishment in Delhi could find itself straitjacketed into taking some miscalculated military steps, leading perhaps to a military confrontation between the two countries? 
Another area of concern Covid preoccupation wise would be in India’s expected role in the Quad. More so if things hot up along the Taiwan Straits, we could have things going south militarily in the South China Sea or concerning the Quad/Quad  Plus arrangements. With the Biden dispensation continuing on the competitive track on China and her bullying tactics globally, things could go awry in the Indo Pacific. The other related challenge for the nation would be to maintain its budgeting priorities between defense and development. There could be a “ guns versus butter” malady caused by public opinion swinging in favor of spending more on the health sector, for instance, more specifically to augment the medical infrastructure such as medical staff, hospital beds, and vaccines/medicines. It is to be hoped that our planners keep their heads in this regard, aiming to not let political developmental priorities impinge on defense allocations. 
It is to be hoped that given the existing strategic linkages between the two countries, the US would like to step in should China venture to extract territorial advantage out of India’s Covid predicament and associated health emergency. Whilst any direct military confrontation along the Indo-China borders would not be in the US’s interest, carefully calibrated defensive military assistance (à la the just inked two billion dollar six  P-8 I Poseidon deal) could help India deter Chinese designs, whilst warding off actual military altercations. Should however a stand-off ensue as happened last year, the USA could adopt suitable diplomatic and economic measures to reduce regional tensions and prevent all-out war. Either way, India could be in for some trying times strategically. Whether the US and our other Quad allies Japan and Australia actively step in to counter Chinese aggression on multiple fronts, our policymakers cannot afford to make any miscalculated moves to be pushed headlong into an unnecessary border war. Meanwhile, US Vice President Kamala Harris has exhorted the United Nations to be prepared for the next pandemic. There is no gainsaying the fact that Indian decision-makers have a think coming on putting our house in order medical infrastructure wise. Whilst doing so we cannot afford any strategic mischoices, especially concerning the new kid in the block, the unpredictable Himalayan behemoth.

About the Author:

Group Captain (Retd.) Murli Menon served in Indian Air Force for 32 years, transiting its tactical, operational, strategic, and conceptual appointment spectra with credit. He was India’s Air Advisor to Indian High Commission at Islamabad, Pakistan (2000–2004). In his second avatar, he served for 8 years with India’s Cabinet Secretariat, including a stint as Consular at Ankara, Turkey from 2008–2011.

He was one of the pioneers in the IAF’s Doctrine Think Tank — “Air War Strategy Cell” that produced India’s first Air Power Doctrine, the IAP 2000 in 1995. His interests include strategic studies and since post-retirement, he contributes to various think-tanks based out of New Delhi, India.

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