The current focus in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic rightly remains on the medical management, economic fallout and impact on social harmony due to the mass displacement of migrant labour — all aspects of human security. I would not hazard a guess at the final comprehensive impact of the coronavirus on India or the world. Human imagination is finding it difficult to fathom how this will pan out.
It’s the post-pandemic strategic environment that will dictate how soon the world recovers from this unexpected shock. It must start with the international geopolitical angle, with many assumptions. With some clarity in this domain, we can prepare ourselves better for the recovery phase of a near post-war situation. In his essay titled “The World after Coronavirus”, Israeli historian and celebrated author Yuval Noah Harari writes: “The decisions people and governments take in the next few weeks will probably shape the world for years to come. They will shape not just our healthcare systems but also our economy, politics and culture. Yes, the storm will pass, humankind will survive, most of us will still be alive — but we will inhabit a different world.” Shortly, even as the world continues to reel under the pandemic threat, there will be more endeavours on enhancing human security through better strategic management of the world. So, what will all that be about?
In 1921-22, the great powers came together for the Washington Naval Conference. It was a time when the world was also trying to deal with the global effects of a pandemic and an age of great power competition after the Great War. A moratorium on aspects such as enhanced naval deployment and restrictions on the size of battleships followed but nothing more. The strategic effects of the Treaty of Versailles escaped attention. A century later, the level of trust between great powers is even less. Individual nations or blocs of nations are bound to see opportunities for strategic gain. The situation is similar to the elusive efforts towards the creation of a new world order after the end of the Cold War in 1989. Will the world consider a major conference with the agenda being a revival after the coronavirus? The 2015 Paris Summit of the United Nations, which was convened to save the world from the rapid impact of climate change, could not muster a consensus. Will a potential 2020 “pandemic conference” succeed in getting big powers to jettison their geopolitical ambitions?
The US-China rivalry will remain the core issue, with several other regions and nations jostling to clamber on to the one who can bring them short to medium-term advantages. Contingent upon how badly the US is finally affected, its current confused leadership is unlikely to inspire and its efforts at internal stabilisation may compromise US power. I see a major turn in political fortunes in the US and its bumbling on pandemic management could throw open opportunities for others to exploit. The US will perceive itself as far more insecure than it was even after 9/11.
There is likely to be a huge effort to slander China — accusing it of being the originator of the scourge — and isolate it economically and politically. The allegations on the use of biological warfare are the ones which will cause turbulence in relationships. Ironically, China is also in a unique position to help the world bounce back. Against the backdrop of these accusations regarding culpability, we need to be ready for changes in the norms of international cooperation and behaviour.
A cold war of sorts could well be on the cards for some time, hampering a full recovery. It will be brutal in the cyber world — fake news on social media will prevent international cooperation in crucial fields such as scientific research, patents and perhaps even slow down the ability to prevent the next pandemic. China is reported to be having leadership issues, but a steadfastness of purpose has always been China’s strength. Its ambitions for 2035 and 2050, so succinctly expressed by the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, could well be advanced sensing a moment of opportunity.
Subject to the US’s economic capability after the pandemic, the ability to find a consensus to put on hold defence spending for the sake of human security will be the key. But the trust deficit between nations will probably hamper this to a great extent. The key anchor of globalisation — the US-China trade relationship — will change even more. China cannot be replaced by the US as a major industrial producer (even for the US market). Other countries or blocs — ASEAN, Bangladesh and India — will all chip in but that will still not be enough. Nor can any country buy as much grain from the US as China does. So, an economic relationship will continue but will be politically fractured as both parties search for alternatives, which don’t exist on a scale that both of them need.
China’s recovery is likely to be the fastest. Its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) may now go uncontested by the US-led efforts to create alternatives. The Chinese ability to influence politics among smaller nations in Asia and Africa could bring it strategic advantages, but it is unlikely to be enough to replace America unless the recession-hit US remains defensively oriented. Knowing the US propensity to bounce back, China’s efforts will have to remain energetic and that is where the potential for conflict is likely to rise. Of course, it is not as if the US would abandon its interests for an era of only-inward economic healing. Its eye on the future will remain firmly in place.
The UN has lost credibility with the World Health Organisation taking the worst hit any UN agency has suffered in years. However, its future is contingent upon how it manages the geopolitical fallout of the pandemic. The sooner it can get the world leaders on board, the better.
Some traditional hot spots could yield temporary space. Iran has been hit badly and with the US unrelenting on sanctions, its economy could collapse with frightening results as far the Middle East is concerned. A big nation in instability mode with internal turbulence and leadership challenges could spread greater threats of an undefined kind. The US may abandon Afghanistan with less commitment towards keeping its economy sustainable — a sure recipe for internal instability, which could see the Islamic State emerge a major player. Everything in the Middle East points towards Russian advantage and domination.
Is this an opportunity for India? Economically hit but probably one of the few nations without a recession, India’s strong central leadership could be a big advantage. Prime Minister Narendra Modi would need to use all his influence to cobble together international cooperation to pull the world from the abyss it could sink into. His credibility is already higher than most international leaders and could spell a leadership role for India not in conflict with China but in cooperation with it. It is India’s established multilateral foreign policy that could eventually come to the assistance of the world.
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 21, 2020 under the title ‘Putting world together again’. The writer, a former corps commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps, is chancellor, Central University of Kashmir.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines