Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jul 08, 2020
COVID19 and the Indo-Pacific Decade

Great powers rise and fall, shaping each transitional period of global power shift and its geographic concentration. Currently, the world is witnessing a profound transformation in the geopolitical arena of international affairs. For the past years, the pundits have been propagating the emergence of an Asian multipolar century, with a shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific realm. However, following the COVID-19 virus outbreak, this year marks the obvious manifestation of an Indo-Pacific decade, with the US, China, and potentially India being the main protagonists in an emerging competition. This time, it is the unfolding of regional centres of power, which create the delusive impression of multipolarity, while in fact a new systemic bipolarity between the US and China comes to light. In the post-COVID-19 global context, the virus has become a catalyst of multiple systemic changes, inducing ad hoc constellations of regional actors—shaped by their geopolitical and geoeconomic interests—in a changing global order with eroding multilateral structures.

The upcoming decade is witnessing an intensification of the global systemic rivalry between the US and China, and, as a consequence, major regional tensions in all parts of the globe. With India being on its path to becoming the third largest-economic power by 2025 and as a natural long-term rival of China, the Indo-Pacific region is slowly but surely becoming the main arena for global power competition in the 21st century. The ‘bilateralization’ of international relations, coupled with traditional South Asian security dilemma triangles between China, India, and Pakistan, as well as the imminent global supply chains reconfiguration due to COVID-19, provide a fertile soil for a profound tectonic shift in global affairs. Against this background, there are three layers of vicissitude responsible for the emergence of the Indo-Pacific decade.

Systemic rivalry between the Eagle and the Dragon

With the possible emergence of two systemic centres of power—namely, the US and China—the global order may transform from a unipolar to a bipolar world. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US unilaterally shaped the global order and wielded enough power to control, structure and secure supply chains and sea lines of communication. However, given China’s rapid economic and trade growth, there are projections about its rise on the global stage as a second systemic pole. China has also launched a comprehensive geostrategy through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims to connect all continents, and may unleash a significant change in the structural flux of international relations.

It must be emphasized, however, that both countries were already involved in a competition encompassing various domains from trade and economy to finances and agriculture to the technology sector prior to the COVID-19 virus outbreak. The prominent speech of Vice President Mike Pence and this year’s speech by President Donald Trump on China, as well as the US Administration’s new approach to Beijing, are considered in this context. Despite the achievement of a preliminary bilateral “Phase One” trade agreement, a full-scale deterioration of their relationship seems more realistic in a post-COVID-19 context.

In this regard, the US is increasingly turning to the Indo-Pacific realm and would likely invest more in partnerships and allies’ formations linked to this region. Gurpreet Khurana describes this geopolitical space as stretching from the Indian and western Pacific Ocean to the littorals of West Africa and East Asia. It must be mentioned that President Obama proclaimed the US pivot to East Asia in 2012 to advance the rebalance to Asia and the Pacific. However, it comes without surprise that the US Department of Defence has just recently laid out the Indo-Pacific region as main priority theatre and the US Pentagon Chief announced the readiness to reallocate forces precisely to this area.

Make every country great again

The global system also reveals an emerging network of regional actors with limited power projection capabilities, which seek to navigate the systemic rivalry between Washington and Beijing. In the famous words of Lord Palmerston, there are neither eternal allies, nor perpetual enemies, only eternal and perpetual interests. This seems to be the leading geopolitical maxim of the upcoming decade, facing multiple ad hoc actors’ constellations and reconfigurations—determined by the goal of maximizing their own gains. Among the main protagonists are countries such as Russia, India, Japan, Canada, the key European states such as Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy, Australia, and a few other relevant regional powers. Following COVID-19, they have one thing in common—to play a balancing act between the US and China without getting caught by the difficult choice of taking sides.

Against this background, the conflictual relationship between China and India will further complicate the existent security triangles in the Indo-Pacific region. A rapprochement between China and Pakistan, and in a broader context between China and Russia (the Dragonbear), are key examples of the fluid regional formations due to ongoing systemic changes. Logically, the US regards India as a reliable partner to create a counterweight to China’s overwhelming presence in South and South East Asia. Current developments, such as the emergence of QUAD, CPTPP negotiations, and other Anglosphere constellations, are increasingly seen as US-led counterbalancing efforts against China’s own geoeconomic projects such as BRI, China Pakistan Economic Corridor, and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Furthermore, new defence cooperation formats were also agreed on, such as the deal between Australia and India covering cooperation between their militaries and facilitating technology exchange. Obviously, the political elites in New Delhi are increasingly in favour of closer relations with Washington, but also continue to rely on friendly relations with Moscow amid the intensifying tensions with Beijing.

It is expected that a major geopolitical shift in the region will take place, caused by Washington’s efforts to establish a comprehensive strategic relationship with New Delhi, due to China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. Furthermore, China will continue extending its terrestrial connectivity to Europe through Central Asia, in order to bypass the US maritime dominance in the Indo-Pacific space. To conclude, it seems that there are two likely mid-term systemic scenarios linked to the region: either the US (and India) against China and Russia (the Dragonbear) or the US in a rapprochement with Indian (and Russia) against China. In the case of further conflict escalation, the US would use each opportunity to support New Delhi against Beijing, while Russia would rather seek to remain officially neutral in the tensions between China and India while supporting both sides in a different manner.

Geoeconomic reconfiguration of supply chains due to COVID-19

Repositioning the global supply chains away from China is already becoming a reality following the COVID-19 virus outbreak, and the Indo-Pacific region is about to become a forefront of this geoeconomic reconfiguration, due to the withdrawal of American and international capital from Beijing. Major geoeconomic opportunities and challenges will appear following the diversification of the global supply chains. A global disruption of supply chain, coupled with the imperilled rules-based global order caused by eroding international structures, as well as newly emerging organisations and institutions, will certainly not bypass the Indo-Pacific region. On the contrary, the reconfiguration will be initiated by the US to bring manufacturing and supply chains back home or to branch out to American allies and partners from the Anglosphere of influence such as UK, Australia, Japan, and increasingly India. Moving production from traditional hubs to new ones will take time and will require trust building, but will also create new geoeconomic advantages, particularly for New Delhi. Regional centres of trade power, such as Japan and the EU, already began considering a shift of manufacturing operations out of China. Over the long term, there is a likely scenario of two parallel supply chains networks, one set up by the US, the other with access to China.

Sectors such as space technologies, artificial intelligence, defence, and cyber tools can expect strategic investments to promote the growth of new, regional power centres. This is important since any significant breakthrough in these areas will bestow global competitiveness and geoeconomic advantages. Further, the unprecedented interconnectedness of all socio-economic systems has obfuscated the distinction between economic and trade indicators, on one hand, and defence and security considerations on the other. This explains why the competition between the US and China does not solely represent a trade war, but a broader rivalry extending to the global networks of finance, trade, economy, diplomacy, energy, defence and so forth. So once again, the Indo-Pacific region will become a major battlefield for any progress regarding the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the upcoming decade.

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Velina Tchakarova

Velina Tchakarova

With over two decades of professional experience and academic background in security and defense Velina Tchakarova is an expert in the field of geopolitics. Velina ...

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