The past few decades have witnessed landmark events which are geo-political and geo-economic in nature. Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” following the end of the Cold War, the devastating 9/11 attacks, and the economic recession of 2008 have all been significant ruptures in the course of contemporary history. All these schisms have now culminated as COVID-19 pandemic, which is profoundly affecting the political, social, and economic dynamics of countries across the globe. It has changed the way one looks at international relations and geopolitics.
The year 2020 will be registered as the year of the COVID-19 outbreak that sent countries big and small, rich and poor into a tailspin. The virus originating in Wuhan, China, has spread to every nook and corner of the world, making the United States the current epicenter of rising infections and mortalities. It has created a public health crisis of unimaginable proportions and is at the receiving end of war waged not by humans, but a virus. Narratives, counter-narratives, and conspiracy theories have found headlines across the world. At the same time, the virus continues to spread, forcing economies to go into lockdowns, with ramifications felt at the national, regional, and global levels. Leaders around the world have gone into panic mode with no antidote at hand. While China is being criticized for opaque handling of the crisis, and President Donald Trump faces national criticism, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has relatively received praise globally and at the national level.
Amidst the uncertainties unleased by the COVID-19 outbreak, geopolitics is bound to change forever with conventional warfare and symmetric warfare becoming the order of the day as territoriality, and localized nationalism is all set to make a comeback with areas of inter-state convergences taking a backseat. The inward-looking overarch of foreign policymaking might become a more desired norm for nation-states in the global North as well the South. Isolationism and interventionism have been the key strains in the matrix of the United States of America’s foreign policy along with other Great Powers in the larger international system. Thus, in a way, a consequential outcome of the coronavirus outbreak and social distancing might be nations and organizations turning their ways back into their shells to evade the risks of a global public crisis due to openness.
China has been facing flak from across the world, and particularly from the American President, who has been adamant about calling it the “China Virus”. The level at which the virus has had detrimental effects across the world is still being assessed. On one of America’s Aircraft carriers, USS Theodore Roosevelt’s Captain has been put off duty after several Navy personnel on board were found to be contaminated by the “Wuhan Virus”. Several theories and counter-theories have emerged regarding the origins and spread of the virus, including the Wuhan lab story and the Chinese scientists in Canada.
Apart from the conspiracy theory and perception, which raises academic eyebrows, China has perennially thrived to topple the American march and gain more substantial geo-political and geo-economic influence. The trade deal in 2019 appeared to be a neo détente between the twin powers, but that too is off the shelf as novel Coronavirus seems to rule the roost. The forecasts are being made ad nauseam about the advent of World War III in the aftermath of the world getting even more affected by the novel Coronavirus. Reports about China having once again tested nuclear weapons in Lop Nor and having sent its aircraft carrier near American bases in Guam amidst the ongoing crisis have once again caught the public eye. The primary argument against China is that owing to its realization that as the People’s Republic of China cannot defang the American power juggernaut conventionally, biological warfare could have been an easier option if it is indeed China’s doing. Beyond plain animosity, the ongoing crisis has exposed the health preparedness of Washington and that of its European counterparts. If the US goes on a military offensive against China, there could be broader regional implications for South and Southeast Asia, as other countries like Pakistan might jump in to support China’s endeavor. Countries in West Asia might too jump in the fray with the regional rivalries of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, and Erdogan’s Turkey coming into play. Some IR observers are already calling the Covid-19 outbreak as a new genre of World War III, but this author would assume that such a scenario might take a while to develop, if at all. Prime Minister Modi’s proactive and early approach to lockdown and social distancing has generally received positive views in the country and abroad. India could become an example to the world in handling the crisis, especially if the next few weeks are handles carefully.
The lesson for the world is that it might not need a conventional hostility or provocation to fight an enemy. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly proved this.
*** The author is the faculty of International Relations and International Organisations, IIPA, New Delhi ***