Geostrategic paralysis against Covid-19 could open a role for India | Opinion – editorials
The international community has never been so divided and paralyzed in the face of common threats to humanity. How do we get here? More importantly, where do we go from here?
We have long been faced with a “synchronized global crisis”. The crisis has involved a great rivalry of power, conflict, terrorism, trade wars, climate change and now a pandemic: everything happens in a synchronized manner. In an ideal world, this level and scale of crisis could have prompted coordination and cooperation among all stakeholders. Instead, what we are witnessing today is not just the absence of global cooperation, but worse, pointing the finger and blaming the great powers.
The UN Security Council has been in limbo for the past few years. And given the state of relations between the United States, on the one hand, and Russia / China, on the other, the possibility that this forum will do something significant is diminishing day by day. If the UNSC cannot act on Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan, what hope is there for this world plagued by conflict?
The World Trade Organization (WTO), whose mandate is to provide a predictable framework for international trade at a time like this, is facing a serious crisis. Powerful WTO members are to blame for stopping this organization. As for climate change, the less said, the better. There could be no more existential threat to humanity, yet countries have behaved in a “take the latest devil” way that begs for belief.
It is in the above context that the coronavirus hit the world, starting with China. As described above, the timing could not have been worse. Already, the global institutions created after World War II had become atrophied to such an extent that they became dysfunctional. Add to that a high degree of mistrust among the great powers for a variety of reasons.
When the deadly virus occurred, China committed the capital sin of trying to cover up. Authoritarian societies have advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is to gamble through measures and seek compliance from your population. The downsides are a lack of transparency, questionable accountability, and the absence of a vigilant press. China appears to have taken a big gamble in trying to hide the truth at first, hoping that the strong state can beat this virus through draconian measures. You may have overlooked the fact that the coronavirus is an equal opportunity infector and forgives no one. If China had recognized the problem and sought international cooperation in late December or even early January, things could have been different. But then, confidence among the great powers was so low that China may have been more interested in saving face and affirming its great power status than seeking external help.
As often happens in such cases, the initial cover-up led to subsequent lies and subterfuge by the Chinese Communist Party. One of the most egregious things China did was mislead the World Health Organization or, worse, crush the organization into claiming in January that there was no evidence of human transmission by this dreaded virus. If this complicity is established, WHO will be greatly diminished as an organization whose fundamental objective (article 1 of the WHO Constitution) is “the achievement by all peoples of the highest possible level of health”.
Then there is the “small” question of how or where this virus originated. Against massive evidence, China refuses to accept even to this day that the virus started in a wet market in Wuhan. Instead, he’s always tried to change the narrative by floating outlandish theories that the virus may have had an American origin! Currently, China is desperate to demonstrate that, as a Great Power, it has controlled the problem, even as the West falters.
There is little doubt now that China will use this global crisis to gain a geostrategic advantage. Let’s take the simple case of masks, of which there is a global shortage. China has already produced 50 percent of the world’s supply and is now ready to increase production. France, a country that fights against the coronavirus, for example, depends 100% on China for the supply of masks. Italy presents an interesting example of how China plays the strategic game. Just as the EU was struggling to comply with Italy’s request, China rushed medical supplies and equipment to earn Italy’s gratitude. However, Chinese assistance, whether for Italy / France or, indeed, for Africa, is based on quid pro quo more than on any altruism.
The world came here because the liberal international order showed signs of collapse even before the coronavirus hit us. The fact that there was no global leadership at this juncture led to a geostrategic paralysis. Based on the evidence so far, China will try to take on the mantle of global leadership, but it is unlikely to be easy. In fact, a leadership struggle in China is not inconceivable. Meanwhile, expect more rotation, more clutter, and more fighting for the strategic influence of the great powers. Can India, along with others like Japan, try to foster multilateral cooperation using the G-20 framework? It will be a long journey and success is by no means guaranteed, but it may be worth a try.
(Dr. Mohan Kumar is a former Indian Foreign Service official and retired as Ambassador of India to France)