Donald Trump and Narendra Modi with their delegations in New Delhi, February 25
On Friday, May 22nd, Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan was elected chair of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) executive board. On Friday, May 29th, US President Donald Trump delivered on his threat and withdrew the US from the WHO, promising to consider a return if the global health agency reformed, ended corruption and brought an end to its reliance on China. The US withdrawal from the WHO had nothing to do with India taking the chair of its executive board. But in the space of a week, Trump postponed the G7 summit, insisting on reform of the “very outdated group” and the admission of India, along with South Korea and Australia. Trump, of course, also wants Russia to return to the G7, or whatever number tag an expanded grouping would take. In the same week, Trump claimed he had spoken to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and discussed the border tensions with China, a claim India refuted through unofficial statements.
Meanwhile, at home, America burned over the death of George Floyd, even as seeming evidence mounted that its role as the leader of the global order has unravelled.
If that’s the case, then US global leadership has been unravelling for some time and it didn’t begin with Trump, although his presidency may have sped things up. The post-Cold War global order had begun overhauling itself long before Covid-19, but the pandemic has ensured little doubt remains today that, in its wake, a new world order is emerging, nebulous and unreadable still, brought about by developing complications in strategic equations and in economic relationships. A new cold war, if intermittently talked about before the coronavirus, has now evidently broken out between the US and China that is different from the other ‘cold war’ between Russia and the West.
This is not an easy field of play for India. New Delhi’s frustration is the result of a fundamental characteristic of the morphing global order. There seems to be a basket of opportunities for Delhi but it’s locked away in a tamper-proof safe booby-trapped with incendiaries that will blow when the safe is opened. From a strategic point of view, India has never had a friendlier or more understanding administration in the White House. Yet, its modus operandi in the world at large appears to limit its overtures and usefulness in practical terms.
On March 31st, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the threat from China is real and that the Chinese would “certainly use a tactical situation on the ground to their advantage. But each of the problems…are threats they have been making for an awfully long time.” The situation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is definitely one such tactical situation. As is Hong Kong. And, more strategic than tactical, the future of Taiwan. Chinese assertion has become unabashed against the backdrop of the pandemic that began in Wuhan, sharpened by its ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’.
However, just as the US underscored how it would like to work with its allies and partners in dealing with Chinese aggression on all fronts (Pompeo even referred to the 60-odd bills, largely bipartisan, pending in the US Congress that target China), Beijing issued a warning to Delhi not to take Washington’s side. The Communist Party of China (CPC) mouthpiece <Global Times> said: ‘India has little to gain from engaging in a US-China conflict over any topic, with more to lose than gain’. Rubbing salt into India’s pandemic economic wounds, it added: ‘If in a new Cold War, India leans toward the US or becomes a US pawn attacking China, the economic and trade ties between the two Asian neighbors will suffer a devastating blow. And it would be too much for the Indian economy to take such a hit at the current stage’.
That’s the irony of India’s situation. The US and UK want it to join the global high table of an expanded G7, a grouping that will still exclude China and focus its punitive attention on Beijing post-pandemic, when the Indian economy has taken its hardest hit in decades, closely watched abroad. On June 1st, Moody’s downgraded India’s foreign and local-currency ratings to Baa3, although credit ratings agencies’ actions per se need not be taken more than a perfunctory note of. At the same time, Trump’s plans for an in-person G7 meet at Camp David, instead of a video summit, led German Chancellor Angela Merkel to decline the invite. And now, it’s not certain if the G7 can meet even in September.
Global trading arrangements, symbolised by and converging on the World Trade Organization (WTO), may be set for a revamp, as the US becomes increasingly critical of it. This attempted remaking of the global trading and economic order, apart from Beijing’s geopolitical gameplan, has been at the heart of the Washington-Beijing tension, as the US works on moving supply chains away from China and reducing its own, as well as the world’s, dependency on the country whose role in, and exploitation of, the pandemic will be under scrutiny for a long time. No economy is likely to escape this intensifying conflict. For India, the danger is to be caught off guard while the changes are actually an opportunity to shape and take partial ownership of the new global order. That’s why, the <Global Times>, too, bears down on India with its threat, while invoking the spectre of ‘a new Cold War’. This is different from both Delhi and Beijing rejecting Trump’s offer to mediate on the border tensions.
Even in a world in crisis, doors always open. The trouble with capitalising on such chances today—for a US strategic partner, short of treaty ally, like India—is the apparently self-negating nature of some American actions. For instance, few contest that something is rotten in the WHO. The build-up to the pandemic, and the months since, have demonstrated again and again how close the ties are between the WHO and Beijing. The US has reasons to be displeased and its argument that its $400 million is better spent on the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in Africa, Médecins Sans Frontières, the Red Cross and other frontline health workers is not without merit. Yet, the argument also goes that it was America’s inattention while inside the WHO that allowed the body to be practically hijacked by China and other vested interests (‘The Health of Nations’, June 1). Thus, how will taking the US out of the WHO help reform the agency and restructure it?
Pompeo is right when he says this is a CPC different from what it was 10 years ago. He may also be right that the US has a president determined to push back against the threat posed by China. Behind the clichés of ‘America in decline’, lie formidable developments since the zenith of US power in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union. Trump is the first US president to break from the ideological crusade of ‘liberal hegemony’ that Washington had pursued beginning with the Clinton presidency through George W Bush and Barack H Obama. Yet, that has not meant a return to Nixonian realism or even that of George HW Bush. Instead, there have been decisive actions followed by u-turns, or even confusion, and then another set of announcements signalling another radical departure. Those breaks from the past, if executed, would mean a reshaping of the world order. But the administration’s troubled relations with its own allies have complicated matters.
Declining powers need to retrench to gain back their pole position at a later date. But there’s no evidence of the US retrenching. Rather, the Trump administration, at best, has been seeking a rebalancing of American interests vis-à-vis those of its allies and adversaries. At worst, the US has unravelled abroad just as it appears to have unravelled at home. If India finds it difficult to grab and grasp opportunities in such circumstances, it will not find itself alone. But that’s no consolation.