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COVID-19 and Geo-political Implications

Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Dr. Prakash Menon is the Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, Bangalore and Former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat.
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  • April 17, 2020

    It is perhaps too early to judge the scope and long-term impact of COVID-19 on the geopolitical landscape. What is not in doubt, however, is the certainty that there will be global political and strategic effects. Presently, the dominant emotion that runs across the global population is the ascendant fear that stems from the known and unknown aspects relating to the coronavirus. While it is known how the virus spreads and what its symptoms are, no known cure has been discovered nor is a vaccine likely before 12-18 months, if at all. One of the major challenges in containing its spread though is its ability to transmit, even during the incubation period. Herd immunity1 is said to theoretically provide the best available defence against the virus, but it comes at a major cost in terms of human lives and the infection quantum.

    The Big Picture

    Different nations have adopted diverse approaches and the jury will continue to be out as to which nations, that can, in the shortest possible time, restore and sustain normal activities while minimising mortality rates. China, South Korea, Turkey and Iran are among the few that have been able to restore a relatively better semblance of normality. Mortality rates for South Korea are the lowest, while others are closer to the global average. But what could differentiate South Korea from the rest is that it is unlikely to have achieved much herd immunity and, therefore, could be vulnerable to COVID-19 making several comebacks. Their healthcare system though is geared to speedily course through a Testing, Tracing and Treatment model.  On the other hand, China, Turkey, Iran and the United States (US) may have achieved some amount of herd immunity and may, therefore, be able to normalise activities and restrict disruption to a shorter time span. 

    The US, meanwhile, is the worst affected country with nearly 6.4 lakhs infected and over 28,000 deaths, as of April 16. However, the worst seems to be over and some amount of herd immunity could have been created. Internal political divides in the country though have widened. President Donald Trump is being blamed for poor leadership and for reacting too late. The Trump administration is also accused of being more concerned about the economy than saving people’s lives. There has been discord between the states where the Democrats are in power and the Trump administration, with the latest being about who will lead the reopening with Trump claiming complete powers on the issue of public health and police powers inside the States.2 A $2 trillion rescue plan has been announced to help in economic recovery. There is popular resentment against China and this could inhibit the US from depending on China’s ability to supply cheap goods.

    In the European Union (EU) countries and Russia, despite having efficient and well-funded public health infrastructural frameworks, the impact of COVID-19 got aggravated due to their older demographic profile. From the quantum of people infected, acquiring herd immunity is likely, though economies would be put to stress. But like China, the US and Japan, the EU has the financial capacity to launch stimulus initiatives to revive the economy. EU has already announced its revival plan.3 Russia has been dealt a double whammy by the pandemic, due to the steep drop in oil prices.

    India’s COVID-19 journey seems to be relatively successful from a public health perspective but has been economically debilitating due to a nation-wide lockdown that is now programmed to last for 40 days. India’s political and scientific decisions have received widespread domestic support and have aimed to save human lives as well as prevent the nation’s fragile health care infrastructure from being overwhelmed. It was initially expected that 21 days lockdown would facilitate the containment of the virus and also provide, inter alia, the time to beef up the public health infrastructure and help in resource mobilisation and data collection. It is now planned to allow for agricultural activities and some essential manufacturing from April 20. The economy has already taken a major hit that will certainly pose major challenges for recovery. It is evident that India would require bold and innovative economic recovery plans.

    It is also possible that the process of getting the Indian economy back on track may be impeded by COVID-19 making repeated comebacks. The current Indian approach is not expected to build any herd immunity and beyond a point, the spread cannot be restricted due to the density of the country’s population and limitations on public health resources. However, if official statistics are close to reality, there might be a dubious silver lining — the prolonged and abysmal living conditions of the elderly among the poor may seem to have resulted in some herd immunity.

    Geo-political Implications

    The uncertainty wrought by COVID-19 had added a critical layer to the turbulence in the prevailing global order. The lack of international cooperation and trust deficit to tackle the COVID-19 crisis is stark. Notably, 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. The pandemic of fear may deepen an ongoing shift towards increased anarchy reflected in ‘everyone for himself’ and could further energise the process of weakening international institutions and agreements.

    Even if China emerges relatively better in economic terms over the long-term, it will have to contend with the consequences of the worldwide resentment it has generated, as it is seen as the main cause of the predicament. Even prior to COVID-19, Trump’s trade war with China was a manifestation of the narrative gaining traction domestically within the US of China’s essential malfeasance, vis-à-vis trade relations. This has been further strengthened post COVID-19.

    A similar narrative is gaining strength in East Asia, ASEAN countries, India, Africa and the EU. There is a growing realisation and acknowledgement of the predatory nature of China under the leadership of President Xi Jinping. Given the above, the present pattern of over-dependence on China is likely to see a pushback from most of the major economies on account of its concomitant hazards. This may also strengthen regional and global alignments to China’s disadvantage. China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) project could face opposition to a degree where projects underway may be stalled and some abandoned.

    COVID-19 has, therefore, unequivocally eroded China’s legitimacy and trust that is necessary to sustain itself as a global power. Beijing could no doubt still make future gains but that will to a significant extent depend on the US reducing its global role, a possibility very much on the cards. China’s efforts to achieve global geo-political 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. Many countries like the US, Canada, Japan, Australia, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and India, including regional groupings such as the EU and ASEAN, could reconsider their political and economic postures that have so far been based on accruing economic benefits as a result of cooperating with China, while at the same time conceding Beijing’s dominance. China can no doubt be expected to push back against this trend. India too must review its present equation with China though there can be no easy choices.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.