The geopolitical maneuvering emanating from the Coronavirus (Covid19) outbreak has taken its toll on international relations. The world order is witnessing an esoteric transformation with the possible development of a ‘unipolar moment’, but not for the United States this time. The United States did enjoy it in the early 1990s during the post-Cold War era, when countries tried to align their foreign policies with it. Today, it is China – the world’s factory – that has almost overcome the pandemic and is eagerly seeking this title.
Not only is the global order changing, but more so is its characteristics. In times to come, the international community would be looking toward a power that characterises “geopolitical isostasy” – a term though scantily used in geopolitical literature and insufficiently explained too. In fact, in the discipline of geology, isostasy is a technical term used to define gravitational equilibrium between the earth’s crust and mantle. It helps to understand the changing topographical altitudes on the surface of earth, for instance, explaining the reason why the height of a mountain keeps changing. In today’s context, geopolitical isostasy would imply a state of equilibrium managed by a country to exercise its geopolitical gravity. It thus seeks to establish an equilibrium among three instrumental enablers of a country’s global outreach viz. if it can become an indispensable economic partner, if it responds to humanitarian needs with immediacy, and, if can be a pro-active security provider even during random needs.
Today, the arguments of Charles Kindleberger, a proponent of the Hegemonic Stability Theory (HST) might make sense. In his book on the Great Depression of the 1930s, he attributed the world power’s lack of a dominant economy as a cause of the economic instability post the World War I. Though HST – which asserts that the world order is most likely to remain stable if it is dominated by a single power – does not hold good, yet Kindleberger’s reference to economic dominance does make sense.
The World Economic Outlook 2020 published by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasts that China will grow at 9.2 per cent in 2021, which is much higher than the 6.6 per cent growth projection for the group Emerging Markets and Developing Economies. Though such projections imply economic resilience, yet China continues to be an adversary for the United States and a ‘systemic rival’ for the European Union. Yet, China’s global competitiveness, despite the trade war, is the result of hosting a robust and a specialised supply chain across sectors and the ability of the Chinese small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to continuously upgrade themselves in the value chains. Moreover, their SME’s ability to cater to low-income countries on a mass-scale and simultaneously adhere to stringent quality and safety norms to meet American requirements, is exemplary.
A closer look at the impact of trade war and the subsequent lockdowns caused by Covid19 outbreak do not reveal a proportionately harsh condition for China. In fact, despite some firms wanting to shift their manufacturing base or value chain activities from China, challenges like the lacunae of scale of operations or inherent supply-side constraints in other economies of the region, are still safeguarding China’s competitiveness. Even, its flagship infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which had been facing financial and operational difficulties, is set to revive. To enhance its geopolitical isostasy, China is likely to give large stimulus package filled with aid and loan to attract smaller countries that are already facing economic chaos due to the pandemic. The United States on the other hand which is projected to face a negative growth rate i.e. (-)5.9 per cent in 2020 as per the IMF estimates will have to focus on mass production instead. Also, regional and product diversifications coupled with increased capital investment in sectors other than defence production would be imperative for the American economy.
This pandemic has also created avenues for countries to enhance their geo-social reputation by responding to humanitarian needs with utmost immediacy. Whereas, the United States as a global power has failed to reach out to the billions of people globally affected due to the pandemic, China has manifested humanitarian concerns through its Health Silk Route. This route is envisioned as a part of the BRI, and has helped China send medical supplies to Europe. In fact, China has supplied personal protective equipment, masks, infra-red thermometers, medicines and other medical supplies in bulk to several countries across the globe including the United States and those in Europe.
On the strategic and security front, the United States has moved from President Barack Obama’s strategic intent envisaged in the ‘Asia Pivot’ to an evident withdrawal syndrome in the Indo-Pacific region in recent times. The most recent instance has been the abrupt withdrawal of a continuous bombing presence from its Andersen Air Force Base on Guam, a United States territory in the Western Pacific. A couple of US aircraft carriers are already embroiled in controversy over the Covid19 outbreak on them. Nonetheless, the United States continues to look for a role in the Indo-Pacific region through its random strategic interventions as is evident in the South China Sea.It is without doubt that at least in the Indo-Pacific, the United States faces an existential threat from China, whom it lists in its National Security Strategy 2017 as an adversary trying to displace the United States in the region.
The United States declining interest in providing security solutions to its allies is also taking its toll. The Philippine recently sought withdrawal from the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that it has with the United States. The VFA facilitates the presence of American forces in the Philippines. The United States may possibly agree to it thus strengthening China’s position in the South China Sea. In a strategic shift, it seems that the United States now wants its allies to take larger roles in ensuring their own security, instead of relying much on the United States. It should also not be surprising to see reports that President Trump hadat one point of time even expressed his desired to pull out of NATO a security alliance which has made plethora of interventions across the world. So, the power gap is now apparent, and China is all willing to fill it up to become a net security provider. The China-backed Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) which also includes Russia, India, Pakistan and other Central Asian countries is taking a lead now as a security provider. Either through SCO or via BRI interventions, China has been positioning its geopolitical gravity as a key security provider – both tradition and non-traditional security – to several developing economies, least developed countries, land-locked countries, small islands across the world. Overall, it seems China will be able to manage the geopolitical isostasy in the near future and leverage strategic gains from it.