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Every few years there is an event that highlights systemic flaws in the model the world has been following. But the pandemic we live in today is among the greatest shocks globalisation has ever witnessed and is, in all probabilities, going to fundamentally alter several notions about the globalised world.

The global system has already begun to crumble, with a persistent rise in strongly inward-looking economic policies being introduced, in several large economies. It is important to keep in mind that the world today is an accredited right-wing, often populist haven. Before the pandemic materialised fully in early March, there was already a pronounced setback in multilateral cooperation, and a tendency to safeguard self-interest in a more visible or loud manner if not a more proactive one. The COVID-19 pandemic has bolstered this spectrum of politics; there is now a clear rejection of the world order that was built and functional before the pandemic.

Fault lines have emerged – the US has pulled out of the World Health Organisation, there is overwhelming anti-China rhetoric being employed by several prominent western nations, there is unrest at the Indo-China border, and economic relations between several nations have deteriorated drastically. The compass of culpability is quick to point out a convenient scapegoat, especially when nearly every democratic government today is limited by a clear populist agenda.

The Language of Absolutes

It is known today that neither the United States nor China are leaders of the global effort against COVID-19. This is partly because of bipolar tensions between the two giants. It is also because so many nations have withdrawn from actively seeking an internationally organised attempt to curtail the pandemic. A lot of right wing authority rests on active gratification and appeasement, which is why several countries seem to have suddenly begun to believe that they operate in idiosyncratic economic bubbles. Till early March the global economy was deeply interlinked, but in six months that scene will have radically changed.

It may be fitting to note that a blowout in international relations was imminent. With Brexit, with the US-China trade war, with China’s soft power growing concerningly – there was simply a need for a triggering event that would justify overreactions; justify breaking and doing away with the current system. The COVID-19 pandemic has ensured that not only are such drastic measures justified, they can now also be written off as necessary. With an event of such terrifying scale and complexity, nations are now relying on their compasses of culpability far more than ever. Politics today is very carefully intertwined with perception (it is the age of information, after all) and that is why there is a tendency to make categorical statements and clarion calls that blow events out of proportion.

The United States’ clearly directed rhetoric against China is a simple example. Searing indictments are being made now about China’s belligerence, about its concerted efforts to build a ‘maritime empire’, about its ‘patterns of aggression’ in the South China sea – a clear layering of accusations that means to pin blame onto China, and soften public sentiment against an inadequate US response to COVID-19. Strong statements have been made against China’s ‘threats’ to India, Vietnam, Taiwan, Cambodia, and Malaysia. It is ironic to hear belligerence being condemned by a nation, that in the last fifteen years alone has waged war in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen. But the compass of culpability has always disregarded the past.

Because of China’s rise, US relationship with the rest of the world has become rather paradoxical. A right wing, authoritarian administration ensures that ‘America First’ is the top priority, and policies are anti-immigrant, inward-looking, and populist. The President of the US, by exercising his own prerogative, is no longer the leader of the global order but only the head of State of a powerful nation. At the same time, China’s stark rise and the world’s descent into a bipolar order sends alarm bells ringing across US diplomatic circles, and the administration must resort to condemnation and accusation from the same holy mantle it has just given up. This sort of two faced-ness is common now, because nations are prepared to be far more unabashed in the protection of their interests, especially in these circumstances.

Europe has not resorted to making the same strong accusations against China. The European Union has been struggling under the weight of the refugee crisis, persistent economic problems, and a clear disunity for a few years now. If the EU manages to extricate itself from the US-China economic-information-perception-rhetoric conflict then there is a possibility that the EU may be able to emerge as a more resilient coterie of nations. If matters boil down to choosing a side in a few months, then a more united EU can tip the balance simply by picking one of the two superpowers.

Where India Stands

The incident at the Indo-China border was a deeply shocking and upsetting event that deserves condemnation. If anything, it has been made clear that the Chinese commitment to peace at the Line of Actual Control is a farcical, self-suiting policy.

However, when confronted with a belligerent neighbour with growing traction, the easy way out is to make use of hollow rhetoric without any sense of deep-seated conviction. The Chinese boycott is long overdue as a global affair, not just an Indian one, and if any semblance of victory is to be achieved – then far more is needed.

Which is why if there is going to be a clarion call for a Chinese boycott, then it comes at a time when such a boycott can win favour. With the United States and the United Kingdom eagerly insistent on waging indirect economic war on China, a simple, gradual shift in consumer preferences can help change the Indian narrative of dependence on China. Of course, narratives are not changed overnight. If there is a serious will to boycott China then it must be done in a structured way, over five, even eight-ten years to rid ourselves of Chinese dependence.

The purpose of extricating India from dependence on China is not actually because of skirmishes at the border or because of any other general sinophobic tendency even if the event acts as a trigger. The truth is that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted, arguably more than anything else – the very real drawbacks of being reliant on international supply chains. The movement of both people and goods across borders is going to be very restricted for a few years and will take a long time to resume in full flow (if it ever does). Once the pandemic has passed, there will be a very pronounced need to create jobs internally and build a robust network of self sufficiency within the nation. There will definitely be very stringent import export regulations that will make international trade both time-consuming and extremely expensive.

The clarion call for boycotting Chinese goods and the recently announced Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative seem to denote that the Indian government does have cognizance of this situation. There are several justified criticisms against Prime Minister Modi’s government, even regarding the recently announced fiscal stimulus package. But one nuance that is ignored in pre-empted economic criticism is the fact that even the government’s hands are tied, and in such critical situations no government can do enough. PM Modi’s self-aggrandising 20 crore package declaration may be construed as deception by some but his announcements, and his government’s recent rhetoric show that they are aware of how closely linked economic policy is with perception, especially in the current regime. The announcements may sound hollow but they are part of a series of steps designed to foster confidence in the economy. This is a trend that is seen all over the world – President Trump along with his fiscal stimulus has implicitly sought to take credit for the Federal Reserve’s actions, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government too has announced a similarly large 33 billion pound stimulus, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a 130 billion Euro stimulus last month, and Japan’s Shinzo Abe has ushered in the boldest figure – a fiscal stimulus figure of nearly $1 trillion. Serious doubts about the feasibility of these schemes and the sources of funding have been expressed the world over.

It is not implied that these are the right steps, or that this is the correct economic response. The only conclusion we can derive now is that globally there is a clear rise in perceptive policymaking. This sort of thinking may have been interpreted as harmful in a more interlinked and globalised world, but now that ties are being cut off – a reshaping of both policymaking ideology and political systems is bound to happen. Greater government control, more centralised economic recovery, and union cabinets as command centres are three common factors that are part of every nation’s COVID-19 response and recovery plans.

In conclusion, there is a devolution (or evolution, perhaps) of the world order as we know it. Supranationalism has been replaced with super-nationalism, and more and more nations are adopting an unapologetic stance on the reckless protection of self-interest. The compass of culpability spins faster than ever, far more frantically. On a lighter note, it is not wrong to suppose that diplomats are going to be more terrifying people with thick skins in the next few years. India must also jump onto the bandwagon of self-serving nations. The time for ideals and ideologues is over, and whether it is boycotting manufacturers from China or standoffs at the border, there is a clear emphasis on strong, pragmatic policy responses. This new onslaught of political shrewdness has the power to leave a lasting impact on all international mechanisms. If there is anything conclusive that can be said about our uncertain future, then it is that things are simply not going to be the same again.

By Parth Kulkarni


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