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View: 2020 is the year the scales fell from our eyes, enduring challenges became visible

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As the 21st century ends its adolescence and enters a new decade, the year 2020 has powerfully underscored what transition from adolescence to adulthood often looks like. The turbulence of 2020 is not merely a turbulence of a difficult year but a culmination of certain trend lines, the contours of which were being shaped over the last ten years.

While the Covid-19 pandemic may have exacerbated a number of challenges which have been building over the decade, it has also made us all aware of the unsustainability of the extant order. And so as we end the year, we can be reasonably assured that the century’s innocence is now irrevocably dead.

Even as we began this year, there was a sense that perhaps the existing global order will be able to manage its challenges. And challenges were manifest – structural, institutional as well as normative – for a very long time.

But there was a belief that perhaps the power of an authoritarian rising power could be harnessed for greater good; that perhaps the attraction of the sole superpower would be enough for it to lead positively; that perhaps the forces of economic globalisation would be able to generate benign social outcomes; that perhaps trade and technology could remain the harbingers of greater global coordination; that perhaps the multilateral institutions can work out win-win outcomes for all stakeholders; that perhaps a new Cold War between two major global powers can be avoided.

But as the pandemic struck this year with all its ferocity, it demolished these assumptions one by one till the entire edifice of the global order stood without any foundations. The worst case scenarios proved right and the naiveté of the old beliefs looked infantile by the time the year ended.

There was, however, a reason why infantilism in geostrategy was in vogue for so long. No one really wanted to bear the costs of looking the challenges squarely in the eye. Even as China continued to push the boundaries of unacceptable behaviour, no one was willing to bell the cat.

The world was busy making money from the Chinese model as economics was seen to be the main vehicle which would deliver us from evil. The Americans, the Europeans and the Asians – all believed that because we were making money off the Chinese, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would leave us alone. Trade was the panacea and technology the new frontier.

It was Donald Trump who forced us to acknowledge that something was not quite right in the world’s subservience to China. Even then the belief was that Trump was an aberration, that he would go away soon and things would return back to normal.

But China was busy creating its own ‘new normal’ – in South and East China Seas, in the Himalayas, in global institutions, in using trade and technology for geopolitical ends and in laying down a blueprint for a new world order derived from CCP’s world view. While the rest of the world hesitated in pushing back against China on territorial aggression, in multilateral platforms and in bilateral engagements, CCP had no compunction in laying down new terms of engagement for the rest of the world across domains.

The Covid-19 pandemic merely sharpened Beijing’s desire to use this moment to its advantage. From Taiwan and Hong Kong to India and Australia, it was made clear that there is no holding back China now. The inability of everything that the liberal world holds so dear – democracy, international institutions, global norms, economic interdependence – to contain CCP’s malevolence this year is a reminder of how corrosive intellectual consensus can be at times to the larger structural imperatives.

The fragmentation of the global order today is symptomatic of the larger challenge that China poses where even today several countries find that bandwagoning with China has advantages. Yet while China dictated the global agenda for the better part of the last decade, its ability to continue to do so in the future remains highly circumscribed with a large part of the world finally deciding to push back.

The fact that despite China’s stiff opposition, the Indo-Pacific is now a well accepted part of the global discourse from the Pacific all the way to western Europe, showcases the limitations of China’s aggressive strategy. The world has also finally recognised the need to reduce economic and technological dependence on China as well as the need to build ‘coalitions of the willing’ so as to reduce the negative externalities generated by the inefficiencies of the global multilateral order.

India’s role will be critical as the world adjusts to the new structural realities over the next few years, with New Delhi seeking its rightful role in the comity of nations as a rule shaper. It will be as much about the framing of new political and military coalitions as it will be about becoming the new core of the emerging economic order. But most significantly, perhaps, it will be in the realm of ideas where the world would be seeking India’s leadership. And unlike in the past, India should be ready to lead in unambiguous terms.

The writer is Director, Studies at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations at King’s College, London.

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