Is COVID-19 a Geopolitical Game-Changer?

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Due to COVID-19, the world is going to face recession; and it is being expected that the global losses may exceed World Wars I and II combined. At the same time, the falling world price of crude oil has added further anxieties. Many scholars argue that we are about to witness a new world order in which the forces of uninterrupted globalization process will make a way for the forces of protective nationalism and nation-states will strengthen their status as the most legitimate political community. However, there is no denying the fact that the post-COVID-19 world will not be the same as before. We start from an observation that the pandemic acts as a revelation of the characteristics of our new world. Two of these characteristics stand out: the weakness of global governance – in the area of health in this case – on the one hand; and a shift in the centre of gravity of the balance of power towards China and Asia in general, on the other. However, as the thread of reflection unfurls, we return once again to the United States, fallen star of our old world, whose trajectory may be profoundly altered by the ordeal currently facing many other countries. Many things will change.

1. Impact on Globalization

• Many analysts are of the view that the emerging world order will evince more intense geopolitical competitions among great powers – most notably between the United States and China.

• On the other hand, some experts believe that globalization is a never-ending process. The rise of such transboundary challenges as epidemics and environmental disasters will require more globally coordinated responses. Hence, turning back to the pre-globalization era is almost impossible.

2. Rise in Regional Globalization

Globalization might slow down across the world, yet it will accelerate at regional levels.

• Decoupling between the American and Chinese economies might increase, yet both powers, particularly China, will increase their efforts to lead globalization in their regions.

• The process of regional globalization will speed up as leading countries in different regional locations see the creation of regional supply chains under their leadership more vital to their national interests than ever.

3. The reassertion of Role of Nation States

• The war on COVID-19 has also shown that nation-states are still the most legitimate entities to provide the most effective remedies to the virus plague.

• Boosting different economic sectors by providing stimulus packages, adopting strict lockdowns, asking them to respect the social distancing, treating them in well-equipped hospitals and tracing the physical movements of those who are infected by the virus could not have been handled by any authority but states

4. US-China Rivalry

• Even before COVID-19, Trump’s trade war with China was gaining traction domestically within the US. This will be further strengthened post-COVID-19.

• The years ahead will likely see the geopolitical rivalry between the U.S. and China intensify. This power competition will likely transpire within a post-liberal international order.

5. Rise of China

• Given the recent attitudes of both US & China towards the globalization process, China seems to be in a more advantageous position than the U.S. • Even though the U.S. is far ahead of China in terms of the number of treaty allies, strategic partners, and economic partners, the resentment against the U.S. has recently reached high levels among traditional American allies in Europe and East Asia. • Given that winning the emerging geopolitical competition requires as much soft power as hard power, China’s pro-globalization stance and intensifying economic and medical diplomatic efforts might tilt the balance in China’s favour.

6. The weakening of Global Governance –

• The pandemic has highlighted the weaknesses of global governance. The weakness of global governance, particularly in the area of health is very much visible.

• The US has shown no inclination to play a leadership role to harness international cooperation.

• China has blocked discussions in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on the issue. Role of WHO is under the scanner.

• There is a lack of international cooperation and trust deficit. The pandemic of fear may deepen an ongoing shift towards increased anarchy reflected in ‘everyone for himself’ and could further energize the process of weakening international institutions and agreements.

7. Increased Cooperation in South Asia

• While each of the South Asian countries has undertaken drastic measures to save its nation from COVID-19-driven pandemic, regional cooperation is felt important to effectively handle the common challenge.

• A full house of SAARC leaders met through video conference in March 2020 to discuss the scope and possibility of joint action. Among other decisions, South Asian leaders have decided to launch a regional fund to deal with the crisis.

• An electronic platform with health experts has been launched, and a follow-up video-conference of senior health officials was organized thereafter, where countries have discussed several important issues. Steps are also proposed to foster technical cooperation, training, and capacity building, among others.

8. The debate between authoritarianism, populism and liberalism is being revived in our democracies– First, most, if not all, governments and regimes have to face somewhat of a stress test with Covid-19. This is the case for regimes that are already in difficulty, such as Iran, which is particularly exposed to a crisis that has come on top of ongoing ones. Tehran has for the first time asked the IMF for help. As far as Mr. Putin is concerned, will the crisis help him push through his constitutional reforms ensuring the extension of his power, or will it complicate the strange battle over oil prices that he has engaged against Saudi Arabia and, indirectly, the United States? But the same applies to democratic leaders whose credibility in the eye of the public opinion is directly at stake. Second, Covid-19 confirms that borders are far more blurred in today’s competing models than they were in the once upon a time “real” Cold War. In terms of policies, Italy, Germany and France aren’t following such a different line from China, even if the implementation is obviously less deprived of individual freedoms than is the case in the People’s Republic of China. This is somehow illustrative of the world’s shift towards Asia. It is not in an America with a tragic leadership deficit that we find a counter-model to the Chinese approach to the fight against the pandemic, nor in a Europe in the grip of hesitation, but in Asia itself, where South Korea and Taiwan, as well as Japan in certain respects, are demonstrating a rigorous and effective policy without recourse to social control that destroys liberties. Finally, Personal profiles count in this world of populists and authoritarians. Bolsonaro, in Brazil, falls into ridicule in the face of Covid-19, while Modi, in India, is so far portraying himself in the flattering light of the “pilot of the plane”. Salvini is struggling to find his feet, exploiting the anti-Brussels wave of Italian opinion, but is limited in his ability to criticize Mr. Conte’s government because of his popularity. Historically, pandemics have been portals for dramatic change. Kyle Harper in an article in Foreign Policy, quoted Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, who survived the 14th-century Great Plague, as saying that random pathogens can cause the rise and fall of empires and civilisations. Harper concluded that “that biological shocks often coincide with moments of transformation and change – and sometimes even progress” For the sake of caution, let us discuss only three possible scenarios:

• Return to the past: we have overcome the crisis, at a much higher cost than during SARS (2003) but without leaving much more of a mark. A certain inertia on the part of the international community prevails, it returns to its usual quarrels, even with marginal changes to certain policies in the field of global health. Given what we already know about the crisis’ intensity, this is not the most likely scenario. In the other two, we consider a paradigm shift;

• China’s rise is confirmed: in this hypothesis, the current pandemic marks the consecration of the new power dynamics that we have seen set in motion in recent years. It may even, in the words of Dominique Moïsi, constitute an “accelerator”. Westerners are finding it much more difficult than Asians to overcome difficulties arising from the health crisis. The torch of initiative and leadership would be passed for good to China, firstly in the field of “global issues” – of which health is part, alongside development or climate change – but also, of course, economically (the “economic landing” in the post-Covid-19 era will be as important as the victory against the pandemic), technologically (5G), and even one day, militarily.

• A Western burst of action: the election of Mr. Biden to the White House is not impossible. In the Democratic camp, some fine minds consider Covid-19 as a wake-up call beyond the 2008 crisis or the Ebola crisis. The comparison that comes to mind is the 9/11 attacks which triggered a paradigm shift in American politics. From then on, all external action – and partly internal if you think of the Department of Homeland Security – was redirected towards counterterrorism. This very reorientation had led to the fatal mistake of the invasion of Iraq and to a disproportionate extension of the United States’ military commitments across the world. Obama had tried to break away, in part, from the post-9/11 paradigm, at least from its dimension of “military overextension” (Afghanistan, Iraq, refusal to act in Syria). Trump tries to go even further while keeping the rhetoric of counterterrorism alive and without having been able to imagine an alternative paradigm that isn’t a form of “belligerent isolationism”. From this perspective, USA should reinvest in international institutions, and to reconnect with America’s natural position as a leader in global governance. Europe must be at the forefront of revitalizing global governance, as President Macron has been attempting with the efforts to revive the G7 and G20 in order to deal with economic, and other consequences, of the pandemic. This would also offer the possibility of rebuilding the transatlantic relationship while involving countries such as South Korea or Japan, which are part of the “alliance for multilateralism” led by Germany and France. Conclusion- A new world order that redefines national security, economic priorities, health protocols and systems, compact and self-sufficient supply chains, ecological sustainability etc., is inevitable. India could shape it, which it missed out on when the present post-World War II world-order was established. China’s efforts to achieve global geopolitical dominance vis-à-vis the US could be further hindered if major countries shed their ambivalence regarding China, excepting Russia, perhaps, whose reliance on China may deepen. China can no doubt be expected to push back against this trend. As a result, the post corona world will see a new world order with a new set of rules and new dynamics. So far, India has shown its strength and is winning the hearts of people all over the world by extending much-needed help. However, a lot of what India currently does is either bilateral or South Asian in scope – not global. In the post-corona world, India will need to expand its cooperation programs into a global effort: Engage in the multilateral development of solutions to global policy challenges, and share lessons and experiences to progressively strengthen public systems and state institutions worldwide

-Anoushka Chandra

NewsQues India is Bilingual Indian daily e- Magazine. It is published in New Delhi by NewsQues India Group. The tagline of NewsQues India is " Read News, Ask Questions".

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