Multilateralism in the new cold war

India can set the world response, also using the opportunity to recover its global thought leadership

Published - June 03, 2020 12:02 am IST

In the new cold war, defined by technology and trade not territory, non-alignment is an uncertain option; India should craft a global triumvirate.

To benefit from global change, countries must have a bold vision and make the right strategic choice. Britain quickly built the largest military in the Subcontinent using the land revenue of Bengal, and over time conquered India. The United States fixated on splitting the Communist bloc ended up with China challenging its dominance.

As chair of the Executive Board of the World Health Assembly (it is the decision-making body of the World Health Organization), India can set the global response in terms of multilateralism, not just medical issues. In September, the United Nations General Assembly will discuss the theme, “The Future We Want”; in 2021, India joins the UN Security Council (non-permanent seat) and chairs the BRICS Summit, and in 2022, hosts the G-20, a rare alignment of stars for agenda-setting.

At the online summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, in May, Prime Minister Modi called for new principles for the international system. His new globalisation model based on humanity, fairness and equality has wide support in a more equal world as, for the first time since 1950, everyone is experiencing the same (virus) threat.

It is in this changed context that India should look upon its own reemergence, China losing influence and the dynamics in its relations with the United States as Asia again becomes central to global prosperity, with global governance, economy, scientific research and society in need of being re-invented.

We should use this opportunity to recover our global thought leadership, think Nalanda, astronomical computation, the zero, Ayurveda, Buddhism, yoga and Ahimsa as well as clothing the world for millennia.

Clash of values

The clash between China and the U.S. at the just concluded World Health Assembly in May marks the end of the multilateralism of the past 70 years. The donor-recipient relationship between developed and developing countries has ended with China’s pledge of $2-billion. The agenda-setting role of the G7 over UN institutions and global rules has also been effectively challenged by WHO ignoring the reform diktat of the U.S. leading to its withdrawal, and characterisation of the G7 as “outdated”. The U.S. has also implicitly rejected the G20 and UN Security Council, for an expanded G7 “to discuss the future of China”. China’s Global Times characterised the exchanges as “two different visions”; The Washington Post carried the headline, “The post-American world is now on full display” and The Wall Street Journal argued, “India Is a Natural U.S. Ally in the New Cold War”.

The clash marks another seismic shift within the UN. After World War II, the newly independent states were not consulted when the U.S. imposed global institutions fostering trade, capital and technology dependence, ignoring socio-economic development. Social and economic rights have emerged to be as important as political and procedural rights and China’s President Xi Jinping deftly endorsed the UN Resolution on equitable access to any new vaccine.

The U.S. faces an uphill task in seeking to lead a new multidimensional institution as China’s re-emergence is based on technology, innovation and trade balancing U.S. military superiority at a time of declining global trust in free-market liberalism, central to western civilisation. With the West experiencing a shock comparable to the one experienced by Asia 200 years ago, the superiority of western civilisation is also under question.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the shift of global wealth to Asia suggesting an inclusive global order based on principles drawn from ancient Asian civilisations. Colonised Asia played no role in shaping the Industrial Revolution; the Digital Revolution will be shaped by different values. It is really this clash that multilateralism has now to resolve.

Non-coercive form

For India, the strategic issue is neither adjustment to China’s power nor deference to U.S. leadership. China has come out with alternative governance mechanisms to the U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organization with its all-encompassing Belt and Road Initiative. The U.S., European Union and Japan are re-evaluating globalisation as it pertains to China and the U.S. is unabashedly “America First”. The world is questioning both U.S. and China’s exceptionalism.

The global vacuum, shift in relative power and its own potential, provides India the capacity to articulate a benign multilateralism as a NAM-Plus that resonates with large parts of the world and brings both BRICS and the G7 into the tent. This new multilateralism should rely on outcomes, not rules, ‘security’ downplayed for ‘comparable levels of wellbeing’ and a new P-5 that is not based on the G7.

China, through an opinion piece by its Ambassador in India, has suggested writing “together a new chapter” with “a shared future for mankind”. The U.S. wants a security partnership to contain China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations trade bloc — with the U.S. walking out of the negotiations — is keen India joins to balance China. With a new template. India does not have to choose.

First, the Asian Century should be defined in terms of peaceful co-existence, freezing post-colonial sovereignty. Non-interference in the internal affairs of others is a key lesson from the decline of the U.S. and the rise of China. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter rightly observed that while the U.S. spent $3 trillion on military spending, “China has not wasted a single penny on war”.

National security now relies on technological superiority in artificial intelligence (AI), cyber and space, and not expensive capital equipment, as India’s military has acknowledged. Instead of massive arms imports we should use the savings to enhance endogenous capacity and mould the global digital economy between state-centric (China), firm-centric (the U.S.) and public-centric (India) systems.

Second, a global community at comparable levels of well-being requires new principles for trade, for example, rejecting the 25-year-old trade rule creating intellectual property monopolies. Global public goods should include public health, crop research, renewable energy and batteries, even AI as its value comes from shared data. We have the scientific capacity to support these platforms as part of foreign policy.

Third, ancient civilisational values provide the conceptual underpinning, restructuring both the economic order and societal behaviour for equitable sustainable development, which a climate change-impacted world, especially Africa, is seeking.

Mukul Sanwal is a former UN diplomat

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