Emerging realities

18 May 2020

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The writer is a freelance journalist.
The writer is a freelance journalist.

THE pandemic still rages, but we are an impatient race, and eager to look ahead. One burning question is whether Covid-19 will usher in a new global order, and if so, what it will look like. Whatever the answer, Pakistan is likely to be ill-prepared — unless it rallies and rejigs its anachronistic foreign policy approach.

The geopolitical question is sparked by intensifying US-China tensions. Pre-coronavirus tariff and trade scuffles have escalated into propaganda wars as both superpowers blame each other for the spread of the virus. In the US, President Donald Trump’s insistence on referring to the ‘Chinese virus’ has had the desired effect — a Pew poll conducted in March showed that 66 per cent of Americans have an unfavourable view of China, the highest percentage since Pew began to ask the question in 2005.

China, meanwhile, has pounced on the opportunity presented by the US’s bumbling and isolationist approach to the pandemic to demonstrate its fitness for seizing control of global governance. While the US and UK stumble over attempts to ramp up Covid-19 testing, China has launched a plan to test every resident of Wuhan. Chinese newspapers daily gloat about how their government’s lockdown approach to controlling the virus has been adopted worldwide.

And while Western countries block each other’s access to medical supplies, China has emerged as a global saviour, ramping up production of face masks, respirators and ventilators and generously distributing them across the world. The Serbian president captured shifting perceptions of China well when he dismissed European unity as a ‘fairy tale’ and pointed to China as the only country that could credibly help his people.

The stage may be set for a US-vs-China order.

So is a new cold war imminent? Not in the near term. The US and China are too economically linked for an immediate fallout to occur. China is the US’s third-largest and fastest-growing destination for export, and the largest foreign holder of US Treasury securities. The two countries recently agreed to narrow the trade deficit, with China promising to purchase an extra $200 billion of goods from the US. Washington will not be in a position to snub Chinese demand as it finds ways to fund pandemic support packages and bailouts. (Ironically, the US will also have to turn to China to purchase critical medical supplies, given that its national stockpile has only 1pc of masks and respirators and 10pc of ventilators needed to manage the pandemic.)

China, for its part, cannot lose its largest source of foreign demand as exports account for 20pc of its GDP, and given that growth was already dwindling before the pandemic hit. China also continues to need access to US tech and innovation, dollar markets and integration with global supply chains that also include the US.

But the pandemic has thrown up existential questions for all states, the answers to which may set the stage for a bipolar, US-versus-China global framework going forward. Democracy or authoritarianism? Protectionism or authoritarianism? State or private sector? Centralisation or regionalisation? As countries decide which way they lean as part of their response to the pandemic, they will find themselves naturally gravitating to one or the other superpower.

There are still many moving parts that could disrupt or delay such bifurcation of the emerging world order. The role and value of multilateral institutions such as the UN (and its bodies like the WHO) may yet be rehabilitated as we find our way out of the pandemic.

Ad hoc, issue-based multilateralism by middle-tier countries may also emerge as the new norm. There are several recent examples of countries finding themselves alienated by both the US and Chinese approach and forging new alliances to tackle issues. For example, Australia and Japan collaborated to create the TPP-11 trade alliance after the US withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership soon after Trump came to power. Other issues around which dynamic, multilateral coalitions — that are not dominated by the US or China — may emerge over coming decades include climate change, regionalised supply chains, corporate transparency and tax evasion, digital infrastructure and cyber surveillance.

Pakistan’s foreign policy approach is not agile enough to coast over these shifting geopolitical sands. A knee-jerk, anti-India approach will be counterproductive in a world where alliances will coalesce and dissolve on an issue-by-issue basis. Nor can we take comfort from being China’s satellite state; there will always be key issues (IMF debt, Afghanistan) over which the US will have ultimate sway.

The pandemic presents us with a window to prepare for the emerging global order, by throwing a spotlight on alliances, markets, supply chains, and national values. Let’s not squander it, and instead boost the quality of our diplomatic cadres and policies so that Pakistan is ready for what’s to come.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, May 18th, 2020