The global order is undergoing severe geopolitical turbulence with the world facing a once-in-a-century health crisis. The last time such a pandemic caused havoc was during the Spanish flu, about a hundred years ago.
The rapid rise in rate of infections and the loss of lives forced governments to implement measures, including partial or total lockdowns that in turn disrupted normal economic activities and social relations. Industrial activities and international trade, hotel and travel industry, tourism and entertainment, education and social interactions and many other sectors of human activities have cruelly suffered a great deal due to the pandemic. Inflation and recession disturbed economies, acute job losses impacted livelihoods and closure of educational and research institutions, stymied knowledge dissemination and innovation.
In the midst of all these predicaments, the Ukraine crisis has added to disruptions with ramifications across the globe. With unprecedented sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States (US) and its allies, the world political economy is witnessing grave distress; with supply chains disrupted, increasing energy prices and food and fertilizer shortages.
Power Struggle: The Geopolitical Churning
The world order was neither serene and nor peaceful before the pandemic and the Ukrainian conflict. A distinctive power struggle between major powers and the steady advent of new power centres were already signalling potential changes in the distribution of power in the global political structure.
BREXIT, Eurozone crisis and the global recession since 2008 have strained European economic unity and political stability while West Asia has simmering tensions since Arab Spring. Russia was evolving as a new geopolitical actor that intervened militarily in Georgia, supported the Assad regime in Syria in the face of US opposition, annexed Crimea and tested its nuclear capable intercontinental ballistic missile in April 2022.
The US, in comparison, was regarded as a declining power. The Trump Administration not only faced wide domestic political polarisation but was also responsible for fast plummeting strategic trust among its allies in Europe and Asia. The failure of the US and NATO forces to bring stability and good governance to Afghanistan, and inability to contain Islamic extremists, particularly the Taliban raised doubt on their capabilities. Significantly, President Donald Trump engaged in an economic Cold War against China by raising high tariffs on imports from China leading the latter to take similar retaliatory measures. China assumed importance as a new rising superpower in this backdrop.
In other words, a declining America, an assertive Russia and a rising China marked the strategic dynamics of this time before the COVID19 pandemic created a global health crisis. In addition, India was fast rising as a new economic powerhouse and a global player with its growing interactions with the major global powers. The Indo-US strategic partnership’s growth trajectory has created anxiety in Beijing. The Sino-Indian military standoff at Depsang near the Bhutanese border and violent clash near Galwan Valley along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) signalled the slowdown in Sino-Indian détente and the rise of strategic competition between the two countries. This competition was not confined to Sino-Indian border regions and has spilled into the entire Indo-Pacific region.
China, while reclaiming islands in South China Sea and building military facilities; sending its naval vessels to Senkaku Islands and Mischief Reef to claim its sovereignty by replacing Japan and to Philippines respectively, began to denounce the US for seeking to contain China’s rise. Beijing’s aggressive posturing against Vietnam and India too has caused widespread concerns in the region. The Chinese Government under the leadership of Xi Jinping is engaged in assertive posturing with American allies, such as Japan and the Philippines and American strategic partners, such as India and Vietnam. The strategic goal seems to be to challenge American predominance in the Indo-Pacific region and promote Chinese hegemony. Secondly, China intends to expand its power and influence by making the best use of its foreign exchange holdings. It thus floated the concept of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Maritime Silk Road (MSR). Large number of countries participated in the inaugural BRI session in Beijing to promote the proposal. Conspicuous by its absence in this initiative was India.
In Chinese perception, India has fast become a strategic partner of the US, which was seeking to contain China’s rise. India’s stable political environment under Prime Minister Modi’s government and assertive foreign policy amidst political and economic weaknesses of China’s number one South Asian ally, Pakistan, may have prompted China to increase pressure on India by deploying large contingent of troops along the Sino-Indian border. The clash at the LAC is being viewed as a trial effort by China to probe India’s will and strength to withstand Chinese challenge. If India had not stood firm in the face of mounting military presence of China along the LAC, China would perhaps have proclaimed victory of its efforts to undermine the US partners and reduce US influence in the region.
Ukrainian Conflict: Mounting Pressure on the Global Order
When Russia invaded Ukraine, the geopolitical churning explained above was in progress. The Ukrainian conflict simply supplemented to the global big power tussle already in operation. Since April 2021, Russia amassed troops on its borders with Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin had stated that the Russian military was engaged in military exercises and would not order a military attack on Ukraine. In hindsight Russia was preparing for a major assault on Ukraine. During this period, the Biden Administration issued a number of statements warning about an impending military attack, but it did little to prevent the Russian attack on Ukraine.
Scholars such as John Mearsheimer and officials such as CIA Director William Burns had warned that Ukraine’s possible membership to the NATO may provoke Russia to take stern action. The Biden Administration also did not learn lessons from Russian territorial adventures into Georgia and annexation of Crimea.
As Russia started its “major military operations” in Ukraine, which turned out to be a full scale conflict spreading to and around the Ukrainian capital Kiev, the Biden Administration seems to have decided to capitalise on the crisis to restore American leadership in the world and to deeply weaken Russia politically, diplomatically and even financially.
As a result, a new kind of Cold War between the US-led alliances and Russia appears to be taking root. This Cold War is distinct from the US-USSR Cold War in many ways. First, the NATO is now larger and stronger than before with several former US partners joining the organisation. Second, the European Union (EU) consisting of member countries from both West and East Europe is against the Russian aggression. Third, there is no non-aligned movement today and developing countries do not have a united stand on the Ukrainian issue. Fourth, a much stronger China is Russia’s partner “with no limits to cooperation”. Fifth, India, a newer global player has a unique stand on issues dividing the US and Russia. Despite its strong strategic partnership with the US, New Delhi is not on board with Washington’s responses to Russia on the Ukraine conflict. It has decided to purchase Russian oil offered at concessional rates to safeguard its national interests and security. On the other hand, despite cordial political ties and defence cooperation with Russia, India has not supported Russian-sponsored resolution in the United Nations. India has assisted Ukraine by sending humanitarian assistance.
The question that thus arises is, how will the new kind of Cold War unfold? It is difficult to predict due to a number of variables at play. i) Will the EU, as per its proposal, ban import of Russian gas and oil completely? ii) Will the common people and companies in all EU member countries be prepared to bear the heavy cost of it? iii) China has been critical of the Western sanctions on Russia, nonetheless, will it help Russia withstand the Western pressure at the cost of its own economy? iv) Many developing countries have been adversely affected by the food and fertilizer shortages. Will they continue to support the US and its allies, unless their problems are addressed? v) Both, Russian military action and the unprecedented level of Western sanctions have disrupted supply chains, pushed up energy prices and affected the availability and prices of commodities. What will be the reactions of countries adversely affected in times to come? Their tolerance level cannot be judged now.
Future of US-China Ties: Adding to the Chaos
Another development that would affect big power relations and global stability is the future of US-China relations. Many Chinese analysts who appeared convinced that the US was under terminal decline during the Trump era are surprised that the Biden Administration has not adequately relaxed the restrictions imposed by President Trump, obstructing smooth trade and investment ties between the two countries. The Chinese perception about terminal decline of the US was shaped by the strategic mistrust between the US and its European and Asian allies during the Trump Administration, social and political polarisation in the American society, relative weaknesses of American economic competitiveness and general disinterest of the Trump Administration in world affairs except on trade and investment issues. Significantly, President Trump withdrew from TTP negotiations with Asia-Pacific countries, TTIP negotiations with the EU were stalled and the US pushed for a new arrangement to replace NAFTA in North America. The weak economy inherited by President Joe Biden and the hurried exit of American and NATO troops from Afghanistan fed into the Chinese analysis that the US hegemony in global affairs was on rapid wane.
As the economic Cold War between the US and China continues under the Biden Administration, President Biden actively promoted the QUAD or Quadrilateral Security Initiative in the Indo-Pacific by elevating the interactions and dialogues among the top leaders of the US, India, Japan and Australia to summit level, President Xi Jinping and his advisers have become unsure of American decline. The US had made it clear that the American and NATO forces would not engage the Russian forces in Ukraine, nonetheless, the united Western position against Russia and the crippling sanctions to weaken the Russian economy in diverse ways were food for thought for the Chinese leadership. The number of sorties by the Chinese PLA Air Force in violation of Taiwanese airspace, along with comments reiterating Chinese resolve to annex Taiwan to the mainland have decreased in the aftermath of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. While President Biden had more than once warned against use of force to annex Taiwan and even the European leaders had extended diplomatic support to Taiwan, the large-scale sanctions against Russia in the wake of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict seem to have encouraged the Chinese leadership to re-think their strategy to annex Taiwan by force, if required. The tariff war unleashed by the Trump Administration has already slowed down the Chinese economy as de-coupling from China’s economic activities become more prominent in US policies. In fact, few Japanese, South Korean and even American companies have already begun the process of relocating some of their industrial and investment bases out from China.
The impact of the pandemic on Chinese economy has been telling. The meltdown of the real estate businesses in China has threatened its biggest companies such as the Ever Grande to face default on billions of dollars of loans and the power crisis is forcing factories to run less optimally adding to deceleration of the Chinese economy. The BRI has also begun to face the headwinds after some developing countries, such as Sri Lanka fell into the Chinese debt trap and many other countries began to reconsider Chinese projects as originally proposed.
If China would face Western sanctions in response to its use of force to annex Taiwan, what would be the repercussion on the Chinese economy? There is little doubt that such a situation would adversely impact the global economy as well, however, would China be able to face such a situation? This does not mean that China will abandon its dream to establish Chinese hegemony in the Indo-Pacific. China, in fact, has been preparing to resist Western pressure and make its economy resilient. Had it not been for its determination to seek hegemonic power, China would not be sending aircraft carrier to Senkaku Island and signing deals with Solomon Islands or engaged in diplomatic tussle with Australia, over the latter’s call for investigation into origin of the COVID19 virus. It is very likely that there will be fierce competition and even rivalry between the US and China in coming years and decades.
The days of constructive engagement between the US and China now seem to be a thing of the past. It will be an era of the existing superpower and the aspiring power vying each other for spreading their influence around the world and checkmating each other in various fronts in different parts of the world. It cannot be the kind of enmity that the world witnessed during the US-USSR Cold War. China is a Communist country with a difference. It has prospered under the US-led global economic order. It has profound trade and investment ties with the ‘capitalist’ West. Its economy is more globalised than one could think of the Soviet economy during the Cold War. At the same time, it has been able to achieve technological excellence in certain sectors and acquired critical military capabilities as well. The US, in turn, has been clear about its strategic goals, as articulated in official documents, to work towards preventing the rise of a rival power. Chinese believe that there cannot be two tigers on the same mountain. Thus, simultaneous conflict, rivalry, cooperation and competition will mark the nature of Sino-US relations.
Antagonism with Russia will make it difficult for the US to balance its relations with China. However, Russia will bank upon China in the absence of alliances that the former Soviet Union could establish. China will also play the Russian card to ward off any major strategic challenge posed by the US and its allies. But there will be limits to Sino-Russian collaboration and Russia will certainly oppose Chinese inroads into its sphere of influence, particularly the former Soviet space.
Is the Nuclear Genie Out of the Bottle?
Even as the big power scrimmages keep the global order in flux, the future is not looking optimistic for nuclear stability. First of all, questions have been raised in Ukraine and in other parts of the world as to whether Russia would have launched an attack on Ukraine, if the latter had not abandoned its nuclear arsenal after the Soviet disintegration. Secondly, the potential nuclear powers have seen how the US and other powers differentially treat a nuclear North Korea and a non-nuclear Iran. Thirdly, smaller states with potential nuclear capabilities as well as with fear of probable invasion by stronger neighbours may be tempted to seek a nuclear path.
As a consequence of the Ukrainian conflict, the nuclear non-proliferation regime may come under severe stress. The nuclear stability in the global order was based on arms control by the US and Russia. The flexing of the nuclear muscle by Russia in the midst of the Ukrainian conflict may be a strategic signalling by Moscow to Washington to refrain from escalating the situation on the ground, but it has allowed the nuclear genie to seek a way out of the bottle. There is a growing demand that China should join the nuclear arms control initiatives, but Beijing has shown no willingness to do so. There are sections of analysts in Japan, South Korea and even Australia who support nuclear weapons programmes in their respective countries. There was a time when Saudi Arabia was in quest for a nuclear weapon even by purchase. Pakistan was suspected to be the potential seller. Now, an economically troubled Pakistan has sought billions of dollars of assistance from Riyadh and has received a promise of more than US$ 8 billion of assistance. This raises concerns among champions of non-proliferation and countries anxious about spread of nuclear weapons in West Asia.
How will the global order look like in coming months and years? Although it is difficult to predict when the COVID19 pandemic will be over and when exactly the conflict in Ukraine will end, the consequences of both the pandemic and the conflict are almost visible. First, the future will witness a stronger and possibly more enlarged NATO. Secondly, the EU that is yet to completely recover from negative consequences of BREXIT, also experienced disunity during the pandemic and has gone through the vaccine nationalism phenomenon. The EU may find itself embroiled with more challenges with new questions appearing on Germany’s new defence policy. Thirdly, the Trans-Atlantic relations facing mistrust will be more robust due to the new Russian assertiveness. The US military presence in Europe will get further strengthened. Fourth, it is to be seen how the US will divide its attention on Europe and the Indo-Pacific proportionately. When Washington gives more focus to Trans-Atlantic ties, the Indo-Pacific allies of the US feel marginalised and vice-versa. Fifth, India will emerge as a unique centre of power that will seek and exercise strategic autonomy in foreign policy and international relations. The Ukrainian crisis and India’s inimitable position have shown how most major powers are keen to engage India despite diplomatic differences. India will not be an alliance partner of any single power, but will seek strategic partnerships with most major powers. India’s diplomacy with major powers will revolve around befriending all and enmity towards none. When facing challenges from regional adversaries or rivals, such as China and Pakistan, India will seek indigenous strength and technology. The resilient democracy, economic growth, technological achievements and military prowess will make India an independent centre of power and not a member of any military grouping. India will, of course, embrace multilateralism and regionalism where they suit Indian interests and promote regional peace and stability.
Chintamani Mahapatra, Professor at School of International Studies, JNU & Founder and (Hon) Chairperson Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies
Disclaimer: The views expressed are of the authors.