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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 45, New Delhi, October 24, 2020

Covid-19 and the emerging International Balance of Power | P. S. Jayaramu

Saturday 24 October 2020


by P. S. Jayaramu

Historical international events impact not only relations among nations but also the balance of power and thereby affect the role they play in the international system. My purpose here is to assess the possible impact of Covid-19 on the international balance of Power. Before getting down to such a task, it is pertinent to briefly recapture the major historic occurances in the 20th century and the way it shaped the balance of power.

Let me begin by going back to the world as it emerged after the Second World War. The Great War resulted in the defeat of Germany and Italy( the Axis Powers) by the Allied Powers comprising of Britain, France and the United States. It also led to the rise of the United States as the preeminent power in the international system with the decline of Britain in terms of its military and economic power, and the emergence of USSR as a major power. The Cold War that followed between the US and USSR, was not only an ideological conflict but a struggle for power and influence, marked by the creation of the NATO and the Warsaw Pact as military alliances led by the US and USSR respectively, heralding the rise of bipolarity. Equally importantly, it led to the rise of non-aligned nations, consisting of India and a few Asian-African countries whose objective was to make the world multipolar in character. Jawaharlal Nehru who was one of the architects of Non-alignment did not want India to be sucked into the entangling alliances of the Cold War. He was keen to project himself as an important leader of the Asian African nations and also project India as a balancer in the balance of power game between the US and USSR. He achieved a measure of success as seen by the fact that India received the best of economic aid from the US and defence assistance from the USSR.

The above feature of the international system continued till the end of the Cold War though the international balance of power underwent some changes with the formal entry of Communist China to the international system in 1972 following Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in February that year. America’s objective as was envisioned by Henry Kissinger, who paved the way for Sino- US entente was to use China to contain the Soviet Union. From then on, Communist China started emerging as a major Power in world Politics, thanks to its military modernisation under Deng Zio Ping. To cut the story short, the end of Cold War in 1991resulted in the unquestioned rise of the US as the ‘Unipolar’ world, following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It also led to the disbanding of the Warsaw Pact and the gradual decline in importance of the NATO. The end of the Cold War coincided with the rise of Liberalisation, Privitisation and Globalisation (LPG) as one of the cardinal features of international politics heralding the ‘primacy’ of economic factors over the military-strategic elements to determine the power position of nations in the international system.

As for India, it entered the LPG era trying to get into an economic alliance of sorts with the US and Europe. China on its part, began to rise steadily as an economic and military Power extending its reach to South east Asia, the Indian Ocean, Africa and Latin America, posing competition to India both in economic and military terms.

The rise of China was heralded by the economic and military modernisation initiated by its leader Deng Shio Ping in the second half of the seventies. The same was carried forward by his successors in a steady manner. That however did not prevent the United States from leading the international balance of Power, though In recent years, China’s rise as an economic and military power under President Xi JinPing has started posing a challenge to the American preponderance in world affairs.

The outbreak of Covid-19 in December 2019 in China and its spread to Europe, United States and the rest of the world has thrown up a few issues leading to the global debate about the possible changes in the international balance of power. Though China too has suffered as a result of the pandemic, it seems to have emerged relatively successfully with limited loss of lives and the resumption of economic/industrial activity. There are however, evidences to show that the pandemic has resurfaced in China, along with a new virus. More than the pandemic, global dissatisfaction and anger about the suppression of the Covid 19 by the Chinese leadership has resulted in a serious trust deficit and consequently its legitimacy in the world. A survey carried out by Pew Research Center points to China’s unpopularity hitting historic highs in 14 advanced economies in the world, thereby affecting its standing in the world.(Source: The Hindustan Times, 6th October 2020).

Notwithstanding the above narrative, as things stand, the contemporary challenge to the United States is posed by China alone with China and Russia enjoying a stable strategic relationship and and the Russian-American power rivalry being very much on the back burner. Additionally, China’s reach in the world in terms of its trade and investments in Asia, Africa, Latin America and even the European Union countries and its growing naval capabilities along with port facilities (as acknowledged by the Pentagon and reported in The Diplomat, 3rd September, 2020), in the Indian Ocean and the South China Pacific region, it is clear that the Principal challenge to American Power comes only from China. However, the negatives on the Chinese side, as already alluded to, range from the trust and legitimacy deficit it suffers globally. Additionally, its economic position may face a setback if the flight of capital and industries from China to Vietnam, Japan and the US takes place in significant proportions in the months to come and in the process affect China’s power in the international system.

It is against the above-noted background that an effort is being made here to make some tentative projections about the upcoming international balance of power. Clearly, there two schools of thought involved in such an academic activity. One school of thought emphasises that though the Covid 19 pandemic has posed challenges to American power, given the strength it enjoys in the elements of national power like geography, natural resources, specially its huge oil reserves, levels of industrial and technological development followed by its superior military power, the United States will overcome the negative consequences of the pandemic and bounce back not only as the leading global power, but also shape the international balance of power in its favour, as it has done since the Second World War. This school of thought argues that The United Kingdom and the European Union will continue to be the strategic/ military allies of the US. With the US taking a lead to inject a military component to QUAD, as was borne out by the observations of the US Secretary of States at the recently held meeting in Tokyo, the road map being prepared by the US to contain China in the Asia Pacific region and shape the balance of power in its favour becomes clear. It is this light that one has to understand the meaning of Richard Haas’s observation that either America will lead the world or no one else will!

The Second school of thought is headed by scholars like Kevin Rudd, who look at the larger reality and argue that the pandemic will result in an anarchic world order.( Kevin Rudd, The coming Post Covid Anarchy, Foreign Affairs, July/ August 2020)

This writer believes that however much the idealists denounce the balance of power approach of the realists to the conduct of international politics, the world as it has evolved itself in the post-war years, has in unmistakable terms demonstrated the quest by nations for power and influence globally and regionally. Viewed in this sense, as Hal Brands says: ‘all things being equal, the country or countries that have the better part of the balance of power will be better able to negotiate the terms on which they cooperate with others’. (Source: Hal Brands, Coronavirus has not killed the global balance of power, The Japan Times, 31st May, 2020)

As far as India is concerned, it bears noting that after becoming independent in the Cold War environment, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, consciously embraced the foreign policy strategy of Non-alignment. He was keen and succeeded to a great extent in acting as a balancer between the Super Powers. It is also true that he was interested in carving out for himself and India a leadership role in the Afro-Asian world. His successors continued with the policy of Non-alignment with appropriate changes in its nuances. Our present Foreign Minister Jaishankar has in a way echoed the need for its continuance in his book ‘The India Way’. Truly, India’s interests would be better served if it responds to the contemporary challenges, be it from China or at the global level, by charting out policy decisions which serves her national interests optimally rather than succumbing to the pressures of the United States, be it in playing its role in QUAD, or any such regional alliance system as and when it takes shape.

(The writer is former Professor of Political Science, Bangalore University and former Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi)

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