image: 
Thumbnail images: 

The COVID-19 crisis has claimed unlikely victims in global politics. Apart from its catastrophic effects across the world, in the realm of interstate relations, COVID-19 has re-imposed the popular realist notion of states pursuing their own interests, leading to international cooperation taking the backseat. While a lot has been agreed on paper about cooperation in the “post-COVID” world, the coordination among states during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis has been anything but impressive. Several instances including closed national borders, fighting over and cartelising natural resources, political mudslinging and inefficiency in the international organisations and a lack of introspection and discussion over the issue at forums such as the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), highlight the very shaky foundations on which the global order now rests.

 

The world before the COVID-19 crisis beset us had moved very quickly from multipolarity to disparity. The US-China conflict or trade war tested the limits of the current global dynamics, with global businesses being the first casualty of the trade war, highlighting the increasing primacy of geo-economics in the current global environment. In fact, one could argue that the shifts in global businesses on account of the US-China trade war triggered a delicate reordering of geopolitical balance in Asia.

 

Enter the COVID-19 Pandemic         

 

While the world celebrated the détente in US-China relations, the spread of the novel coronavirus played an important role in heightening global tensions. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has been critiqued for its handling of the COVID-19 crisis. It has faced flak from not acting in a timely manner on the advice of “Taiwan” and going ahead with mainland China’s position on the spread of the virus. Geopolitically, sovereignty has been a game of barter between China and its trading partners, wherein China opens trade in return for delegitimizing Taiwan as a sovereign nation. While Taiwan has been losing allies globally, the US-China tensions have given Taiwan a good opportunity to manoeuvre. Under the recent The Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act of 2019, the US will consider reducing its economic, security and diplomatic engagement with nations that take significant actions to undermine Taiwan. This geopolitical faultline would have played a key role in putting the WHO (which does not recognise Taiwan) between a rock and a hard place in deciding to warn over the severity of the outbreak in Wuhan (the epicentre of the novel coronavirus) in its very early stages. However, the inability to tactfully convey to the global community could be squarely blamed on the international organisation. After all, international organisations were formed for international cooperation and not to crumble under the weight of geopolitics. Moreover, the continuing blame game between Beijing and Washington over pandemic highlights the fragility of their bilateral relations and the non-permanence of short-term agreements.   

 

The United Nations, notably the Security Council in which China was the President in March desisted from discussing the issue on the draft proposal put forward by Estonia. While peace and security and as a result, the global order is being affected, only a change in the presidency within the UNSC ushered a discussion. These observations point us to the fact that these international institutions have retained their original characteristics and purposes with which they have been formed, i.e. to cater to and reinforce great power interests.

 

Regional Mechanisms Struggle to Cope

 

Regional institutions have not fared much better and a cursory read will explain the rollback in measures enabling regional cooperation at a flick of a switch when COVID-19 originated. The deep impact on Europe meant that the European Union (EU) was left with several key political challenges. Internal bickering over how to resurrect the economies of Europe was the first strain in many crises, which have fallen on the continent since the onset of the pandemic. Certain foundational ideals of the EU such as free movement of people are on hold due to COVID-19 but the divide now emerging in Europe over political structures within its member states are leading to graver consequences. Europe cautioned Hungary over its regulations to control the epidemic’s spread in the country. This emerging discord on the political as well as the economic side along with a brewing refugee crisis is a big challenge for the countries in the region.

 

Similarly, in South Asia, India has tried its dynamic approach to rope in a regional response to the crisis. Taking advantage of the emerging global situation, India proposed cooperation within SAARC nations including establishing cooperation in the fields of healthcare and medicine and forming a concerted effort to fight the effects of COVID-19.  the usual suspect has put a conditional offer to cooperate. Pakistan preferred its usual stance including the question on Jammu and Kashmir and diversion of attention from the Indian leadership towards the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) secretariat. While regional identity-building in South Asia has had limited impact, mostly depending on the non-reciprocity of India and the roadblocks from Pakistan, COVID-19 has once again proved that strong nations can initiate regional actions with limited outcomes within the regional framework.

 

However, all is not lost for regional institutions. The thrust of major power politics will not allow smaller nation states to resort to a direct confrontation to achieve their objectives. Though a collective effort will be used to recoup in terms of collective finance to bailout regions as well as position on international issues as demonstrated by the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) (having prior experience of dealing with the Asian Financial Crisis and SARS epidemic in the region), the diametrically altered global power settings may see some cracks in how states will react in a collective manner.

 

While advantages will be taken as in the case of Europe vis-à-vis China, wherein there is a fear that China would engage in large-scale buy outs (that of European companies in heavy losses due to the COVID-19 impacts), collective action will be the only way forward until the economic measures are taken to reduce the dependence on sources of supplies and manufacturing. Diversifying global supply chains will be the way forward. Nevertheless, regionalism will require a hard rethink on how it will face future crises and to what level collective action will be effective. While regional organisations follow a collective effort in countering the COVID-19 pandemic, the benefits of diversification of supply chains will only benefit a few countries who are prepared and ready to make the most of these developments. Vietnam and Thailand in Southeast Asia as well as India in South Asia can be the regional magnets. Due to weak policies, the lack of incentives, and a general inability to manage economies of scale, including lesser availability of labour, add to the problems in other countries.     

 

Conclusion                

 

As the COVID-19 crisis tides over, a lot of questions in the global order will remain unanswered. An economically reviving China followed by a politically mellowed Europe and the decreasing interdependence between the US and China will define the breaking points. India will see a great opportunity in terms of capitalising on the expected flight of capital from China. However, in the larger geopolitical sense, India’s situation will be largely the same in terms of balancing its ties between the US and China. Nevertheless, the altered situation will help India with a few more options in dealing with the ASEAN on the trade front.   

 

The silver lining however, for the developing countries now will depend on how they can capitalise on the decreased resource demands globally and save for the future. As the global economy continues to suffer as a result of decreased demand and increased instability in resource-dependent countries, the IMF forecast for 2020 and 2021 has predicted a good growth rate for India, China and the ASEAN region. The COVID-19 crisis has altered geopolitics in ways unimaginable, leading to a much bigger impact than the financial crisis of 2007-08. The countries which can take advantage of the shifting global supply chains as well as recover the fastest to cash in on lower resource prices will certainly benefit the most. At present China’s recovery has already started before the other nations; and its ability to sustain and supply the global economy in a diversified economic environment with diverse supply chains will determine the next phase of geopolitics in the post-pandemic world.