Writing

The unravelling of Pax Americana

The “war on terror”, launched two decades ago, epitomised the peak of America’s unipolar moment. The jets crashing into the twin towers were seen by most as an attack on the soul of globalisation, a project promoted and designed by the United States (US) and its partners in Europe. The near-universal commitment to this war, within the P-5 and outside, was a demonstration of America’s real power. That was a different time and a different world.

Since then, the US has been implicated in the global financial crisis of 2008. Its flawed domestic landscape and divided democracy have been a public spectacle for global audiences since 2016, from the swearing-in of President Donald Trump to that of President Joe Biden. Both individuals were and are legitimate leaders for only half their nation. America’s botched and self-serving response to the Covid-19 pandemic only hastened the decline of its ethical and moral positioning. Hot on the trail of these events, the hasty and bungled exit from Afghanistan is not just a political event, but part of a continuum, one that points to the momentous unravelling of Pax Americana.

The jets crashing into the twin towers were seen by most as an attack on the soul of globalisation, a project promoted and designed by the United States (US) and its partners in Europe.

It is not the US’s material power alone that has suffered; the institutions undergirding the liberal order are on shaky ground as well. The partisanship of its media and academia are visible to all. It is a nation where trolling as a way of life has replaced a broad national consensus. Morally tinged lectures about the international liberal order are likely to fall on deaf ears for those who witnessed the West’s callous indifference to billions in the developing world still in need of vaccines, or towards the thousands of Afghan interpreters who risked their lives to fight America’s war.

Those watching from capitals in Asia, gearing up for a new era of conflict and competition in the Indo-Pacific, will be even more sceptical. Some among them will be the first victims of the Taliban’s willingness to shelter and nurture terrorist groups. More importantly, the fall of Kabul will serve as a dire reminder of the fate that may befall them if they get mired in great power competition.

For instance, if one lived in Japan, going nuclear may be a sensible option. If you were a resident of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) country, your neighbourhood bully would seem a more predictable and acceptable proposition. No spin can change this. America today is less attractive to many. This is a heavily mediated exit from a partnership and the damage is far greater than any of its other follies.

As these geographies rediscover one another, everything in between becomes a shared problem; refugee surges from countries mired in civil conflict, the climate crisis, and flows of finance, infrastructure and technology.

One could even argue that the US’s Indo-Pacific project has already faced its first significant setback. The idea that the US will now focus on China with greater intensity is naïve and suggests a poor understanding of politics. Land frontiers still matter and the US has ceded South and South-West Asia to Beijing. Chinese State media have lampooned and mocked the US’s withdrawal all week.

What role China will eventually play in Afghanistan is uncertain, but it has plans to fill the void that exists. The Chinese model is different and is based on the extraction of value from resources in the host country and providing lucre to the rulers who facilitate this. Tribes and feudal societies tend to work with this model better than the alternatives that seek to turn them into liberal nations and free markets. In the short term at least, China could well emerge as a powerful shaper of the economic and military arrangements in Af-Pak and West Asia.

This episode will have repercussions for the Quad, an ostensibly “counter-China” alliance in the Indo-Pacific. It is time to face up to some home truths.

First, for too long, policymakers in DC have relied on maps that mark the East Indian Ocean as the Indo-Pacific boundary. India’s perspective on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and West Asia has been dismissed time and again. This must change, or India will work with other arrangements to manage the threats that abound. The US must realise that dealing with the influence of China in Afghanistan and Pakistan are a core Indo-Pacific challenge. Ceding these to China defeats the Western Pacific project as well.

Countries have learnt to assess the US by what it does, not by what it says. Efforts to shape and design regions to suit their own narrow interests are likely to be resisted.

Second, even as DC learns to re-imagine the expanse of the Indo-Pacific, it must internalise that Europe and Asia are merging through the efforts of Beijing. As these geographies rediscover one another, everything in between becomes a shared problem; refugee surges from countries mired in civil conflict, the climate crisis, and flows of finance, infrastructure and technology. The US cannot afford to ignore this region if it is to remain relevant at the end of the 2020s.

Third, India will continue to assess the US as its most important partner. A declining superpower is easier to do business with. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CATSAA) sanctions and sermons on “values” could be shrugged off more quickly. Countries have learnt to assess the US by what it does, not by what it says. Efforts to shape and design regions to suit their own narrow interests are likely to be resisted. Its reliability and trustworthiness will be measured as per its capacity to contain China’s rise without disrupting the determination of states in the region to seek growth and development on their own terms. A transactional America will now encounter transactional friends.

This commentary originally appeared in Hindustan Times.

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Research, Writing

India: Too strategic to fail

Co-authored with Akshay Mathur

Since the second wave of COVID-19 engulfed India, there has been an outpouring of support from nations around the world. Help came from all directions. Rich nations including the US, UK, Germany, and Australia; developing and emerging markets like Mexico, Indonesia, and Bangladesh; and even smaller nations like Mauritius, Kuwait and Bahrain have rushed emergency supplies to India. Partner countries have responded to India’s humanitarian need with whatever they could muster, from oxygen concentrators and liquid oxygen to Remdesivir.

An embattled India sought help and gratefully accepted what it got. This assistance came with a sense of camaraderie—with confidence, eagerness, and without prejudice. The tone and tenor of aid being offered is markedly different from ‘north to south’, ‘rich to poor’, ‘developed to developing’, or ‘conditions-based’ grants of the past. It is also qualitatively different from the all-round aid India received in the 1960s or 1970s. This time, India was short of only essentially two commodities—oxygen and specific medicines like Remdesivir. As such, its requests were focused and purposeful.

India’s strategic position in international relations

Why did the world respond so expeditiously? One reason is India’s emerging salience in global affairs. India today is a strategic partner to many nations. It is a dependable stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific, a dynamic market-based emerging economy with a direct bearing on geoeconomics, and a core member of the club of democracies. How India responds and recovers will be a test for emerging arrangements on economic interdependence, regional security, artificial intelligence, reforming multilateralism, and trade negotiations. India, despite its low per capita income is too strategic to fail—or even to be put out of action for too long.

As Australia sent support, it spoke of India as a key partner in the Quad in vaccine production. The Australian government emphasised the criticality of helping India recover quickly, for its production capacity is important for the world to fight COVID. The United States’ move to waive IP protection for COVID-19 vaccines, its willingness to negotiate at the WTO, and its delivery of raw materials required for India to make millions of vaccine doses showed that shoring up India’s domestic manufacturing capacity is a key motivation for external assistance. A similar perspective came from the India-EU Summit. It highlighted cooperation on “resilient medical supply chains, vaccines, and the Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs)” as central to the joint fight against COVID.

India’s significance in global politics cannot be gauged from data alone. It is still a developing country by any economic measure. Yet, when seen as a member of the G20, a founding member of the Quad, an invitee to the G7, a member of the alliance of 10 ‘like-minded’ democracies (D10), a member of the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence, the chair of BRICS in 2021, an elected member of the United Nations Security Council for 2021-22—India’s aggregate strategic, geopolitical, and geoeconomic weight and influence matters.

There is also recognition and gratitude for the 66.3 million vaccines India shipped as bilateral aid, contracts, and through the WHO-led COVAX to other nations, before the second wave hit India. True, this approach is being questioned by some today. But if we step away from the polemics of the moment, it is important to recognise this as a sign of India’s commitment to good global citizenship. This will offer little solace for those who have lost loved ones or are currently suffering because of the devastating second wave; there are understandable questions about the way in which the second wave has been handled, and illustrations of where the state (and society) could have done better. Even so, that does not mean we start interrogating the very basis of global citizenship and solidarity—the same sense of unity that has come to India’s assistance today. Without friends abroad, our situation would surely be worse.

The speed and scale of global support could very well be attributed to India’s active and effective foreign engagements. It demonstrates how Indian diplomacy punches above its weight on the international stage and can mobilise help when needed. India today is understood more comprehensively around the world. Its actions and policy positions on global affairs are more pronounced and appreciated.

To be sure, India is not the only nation to which aid is being provided. The total assistance to India by the US is worth nearly US $100 million, of more than a billion dollars in contributions made so far including to GAVI. But support to India is one of the largest. Similarly, the EU has pledged €2.47 billion for supporting vaccines to developing and low-income nations. Global civil society has raised its voice in support of India in unison. The fact that even progressive critics of India in the US polity have rallied to India’s cause—and discovered common ground with it on issues of vaccine IP and access—is an acknowledgment of the uniqueness of the pandemic moment, the goodwill for India in its entirety, and the contribution of India to global causes.

A developing side story in this journey of Indian diplomacy has been paradiplomacy. Take, for instance, the role of business chambers. The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) is working with its German counterpart, Bundesverband mittelständische Wirtschaft (BVMW)—an association of the German Mittelstand—on oxygen concentrators. The US industry-led Global Task Force is working with the US-India Business Council and the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum on ventilators and concentrators. Danish companies such as Maersk have directly supported India with oxygen concentrators and medicines.

Similarly, California sent oxygen generation units and the German state of Baden-Wuttermberg sent oxygen equipment to Maharashtra, with which it has sister-city agreements. This demonstrates that paradiplomacy by subnational governments in India has come of age. Japan specifically directed its aid to India’s Northeast, aligning COVID support with existing regional interests. Bhutan sent oxygen to India through neighbouring Assam. Gujarat, Kerala, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh, among others, have all put global economic and diaspora networks to use. Indian businesses, professionals, and students remain the best roving ambassadors for their mother country and, in some cases, their home states. The Indian diaspora in Qatar for instance, has sent direct support. Indian business corporations have stepped in and sourced key equipment from foreign countries where they have operations. For the first time, perhaps, India’s aggregate calling abroad is larger than the piecemeal efforts that have been deployed by it in the past.

The way forward: Continuing with good global citizenship

All this is comforting for an India in whose wellbeing nations around the world are invested. What we need now is for India to fulfil the goals it must embrace. The pharmacy of the world has to live up to its promise as a vaccine source for not just itself, but also its neighbours and the Global South. Without India being vaccinated and without Indian vaccine capacity being widely available, the world will not be able to defeat COVID-19. As many have repeated over the past year, “No one is safe until everyone is.”

The international community has done what it can for India. It is time for us to return the favour—jab-by-jab. For that we need to heal as a country, build capacity to cater to each Indian, and plan for the needs of many outside who count on us. Even if the natural impulse is to look inwards and only provide for one’s own, the way forward is continuing with good global citizenship, not curtailing it. The Prime Minister has often spoken of the potential of India’s scale, speed, and size. In the coming six months, one-sixth of humanity has to put these attributes to use. There is no scope for failure and the outcomes will be scrutinised by many.

As the Health Ministry prepares its plan to vaccinate the entire adult population by December, this is the also the time to plan how much we can deliver to the world. The numbers, in terms of vaccine doses being produced, need to be rethought to take into account the imperative of assisting those countries who require India’s manufacturing capabilities to safeguard them from the devastating impact of the pandemic. Research indicates that COVID-19 is likely to become a seasonal phenomenon like the common flu, in which case, India must invest in the production of booster shots that may be administered regularly. As the treacherous virus mutates, experts are of the opinion that it might potentially mutate into a form that evades existing vaccine immunity. To prepare for such a scenario should it arise, research and development efforts should also be directed towards responding to potentially more lethal variants. As we race towards the immunisation of the world against the novel coronavirus, vaccines will be the most important global products, servicing the world’s needs.

For India to continue being a responsible global actor that plays a central and vital role in the mission to vaccinate the world against COVID-19, India needs to build the capability and capacity at home first. The intensity of the second wave may not have entirely been within our control; but what we do next will be. So, we must ramp up production, vaccinate our population, and then embark on the essential task of making the world safe for all, and not just the rich. The success of India in saving lives—at home and abroad—in the coming months and years,  will rest on its vaccine capability that needs greater heft and rapid investments.

The views expressed above belong to the author

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