A new order: When the world emerges from the pandemic, we’ll wake up to a new multilateral order
This story first appeared in The Economic Times
The world might be in the throes of a pandemic but that hasn’t stopped some from planning for a post-Covid world and imagining a new global order. Well, we should be careful what we wish for.
US President Donald Trump’s Tuesday night invitation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for India to join an expanded G7 is the latest in a line of developments that appear to be taking steps to build a new multilateral order responding to the geopolitical equations of the 21st century.
The Covid pandemic has accelerated a change in the global multilateral system that has been on over the past few years. With the UN system virtually paralysed due to the competing interests of the US, China and Russia, the global multilateral system appears to be moving in a direction that might eventually look like a Venn diagram— smaller, tightly knot groups of countries that overlap.
The G7 Plus, or G10/11 — whatever the final number may be – shows an interest in bringing together the “old” world of Europe, with middle powers like India, Russia, Australia and South Korea in the Indo-Pacific theatre, with the US serving as a sort of lynchpin.
Trump is not treading new ground here. In 2019, France, which chaired G7, suggested bringing Russia back into the G7 fold (it left the group in 2017 after a suspension over the annexation of Crimea). Right now, Trump’s stock with European leaders is particularly low, with his lacklustre handling of the pandemic and race tensions. So it’s not yet clear how he can helm this grouping — with Russia and without China.
In the past few years, the G20 has acquired greater prominence. Decision-making on the global economy by the world’s top 20 economies has made it a more representative body.
Earlier this year, G20 leaders held their first virtual summit, organised by Saudi Arabia, but proposed by India and Australia, trying to find answers for the coronavirus pandemic that is crashing economies and killing people with no treatment in sight.
Of course, the biggest difference between the G7 and G20 is China. At this point, nobody is feeling particularly charitable towards China — not only have there been questions about China’s role in the early weeks of the outbreak and its manipulation tactics with regard to the World Health Organisation (WHO), but Beijing has been fighting allegations that it “weaponised” the global supply chains, which overwhelmingly begin in China.
The US and India have been building on their geopolitical convergences, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, where the Quad countries — India, US, Japan and Australia— are building themselves up as a backbone for smaller groups of connected countries, coming together to cooperate on specific issues. Foreign secretaries have been meeting in an “Indo-Pacific dialogue” for the past couple of months again with Quad and South Korea and Vietnam.
The US championed another grouping at the ministerial level, led by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, which met virtually a couple of weeks ago. This included the Quad countries plus Israel, Brazil and South Korea.
India’s interest in the G7 grouping also ties in with New Delhi’s renewed interest in EU as well as the UK, particularly after India walked out of the RCEP. Another aim is to rebuild global supply chains that are not completely dependent on China.
Some of this was evident this week when India and Australia signed off on mechanisms to access “critical and strategic minerals” like lithium and cobalt from Australia. Preparing for a post-pandemic world, countries are not only looking inwards to rebuild lost manufacturing capacities, but they are also looking to create networks of countries to collaborate on creating alternate supply chains — “trusted networks” that will secure supplies in the event of disruptions.
The WHO and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) are two others that the US has just taken a wrecking ball to. The WTO was toast in December when its most important function, dispute settlement mechanism, shut down — Trump’s US said China made hay with its membership of the WTO and skewed the global trading system.
On May 29, the US formally announced it would leave the WHO, blaming it for the pandemic and for playing China’s cheerleader.
For the present, these plurilateral arrangements are more informal, looking to pool their resources, technology and skills to help steer their countries out of the pandemic as well as the economic recession everybody finds themselves in.
While these new groups can be useful in limited capacities, we do need a multilateral system that offers a level-playing field to all countries.
We do not need another UN Security Council, but one with an upgraded operating system.
More importantly, while it is important to push back against China’s recidivism, it is also important to not build a world order that does not include China. Apart from being the second largest economy with a growing sphere of influence, we do have to remember that alienating China will also succeed in alienating many parts of the world. Certainly, ASEAN is not likely to choose between the US, mercurial as it is, and China’s aggressive expansionism. Neither will Central Asia, large parts of Africa, Pakistan, Iran or even Russia, which has already expressed its discomfiture with Trump’s proposal.
The post-Covid world is likely to be defined by the US-China rivalry, which would affect countries like India, which will need to decide whether to have mutually exclusive networks with both these countries or pick a side.
This could be the start of a whole new system of geopolitical and geo-economic relationships.