Global Advocacy for African Affairs
Democracy/Politics

COVID19 and the middle power moment in global politics

HARSH V. PANT

The deepening of the COVID-19 crisis is generating an intense discussion about the consequences of the still unfolding crisis on the emerging global order. On the one hand, the pandemic seems to have underscored the constraints in the willingness and ability of the US to provide global public goods. On the other hand, though many believe that China’s initial opaqueness and cover-up escalated COVID-19 outbreak to the level of a global pandemic there are suggestions that Beijing’s attempt to package itself as a global leader in pandemic response could establish its pre-eminence in the world politics. There is a tendency to increasingly approach the impact of COVID-19 on the international order from a G-2 i.e. US-China prism. Yet while COVID-19 has adversely impacted all major economies, there seems to be no serious imbalance in the distribution of capabilities. As a result, hasty assumptions about the current world order could lead to erroneous conclusions.

While China has indeed emerged as a dominant player in international politics over the last few decades, it has been accompanied by the rise of other regional powers such as India, Japan, Australia, France, Germany, and South Korea. They have the substantial capacity and willingness to influence material and ideational dimensions of international politics. Their response to the COVID-19 pandemic and their subsequent regional outreach, in the absence of any great power coordination, corroborates the aforementioned point. Therefore, any analysis of the coming world order without factoring in these regional powers runs the risk of being lopsided. There is a need to examine the humanitarian response projection ability of regional powers and to look beyond the US-China framework.

India’s response to the corona pandemic underscores its political will and ability to safeguard its interest along with that of its neighbourhood. For instance, New Delhi has set up a USD 10 million SAARC COVID-19 emergency fund. Despite the concerns of limited medical supplies, it has dispatched tonnes of vital medical supplies not only to the neighbouring countries (including China) but also in West Asia & Central Asia, South America, UK, and the US. New Delhi has also played a crucial role in evacuating stranded Indians as well as foreign nationals. Rapid deployment of C-17 Hercules transport aircraft indicates India’s growing response projection capability and a matching appetite to carry out responsible regional leadership.

Similarly, Japan is taking initiatives for regional outreach to assist countries to limit the spread of Corona pandemic. Notwithstanding the intense economic interaction/supply chain dependency on China, Japan has managed to contain the COVID-19 pandemic in a relatively effective manner. In addition to the domestic response, it is supplying essential medical supplies and personal protection kits to countries such as Cambodia. Tokyo has also pledged USD 18.6 mn in aid to Vietnam to help fight COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier, members of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party voted to donate a part of their salary to assist China to fight the corona pandemic. Besides, Japan has reportedly offered anti-flu drug Avigan for free to almost 20 countries ranging from Southeast Asia, Middle East, and Central Asia to help them deal with COVID-19 pandemic.

Other East Asian countries such as South Korea and Taiwan are being hailed as model case studies in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. In consonance with the “Taiwan can help” slogan, it has donated PPEs and related medical equipment to the US, EU, New South Bound Policy nations, Latin America, and the Caribbean islands. Additionally, it is willing to share the domestic electronic quarantine system for exact contract tracing. Similarly, South Korea has emerged as a key supplier of the Coronavirus testing kits and PPEs with almost 150 countries including the US approaching it for assistance.

Speaking of the Pacific powers, Australia and New Zealand have pulled a commendable performance in containing the COVID-19 pandemic. They are trying to complement domestic effort with regional diplomacy by assisting pacific neighbours in handling the COVID-19 pandemic. Australia is assisting Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, and Fiji with personal protection equipment and medical supplies. Its Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security has deployed advisors to work in tandem with ministries of Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, and Tuvalu. Similarly, the New Zealand government has offered to test samples from South-Pacific littoral countries for free. It has also deployed a team of experts to Cook Islands, Tokelau, and Niue to assist in COVID-19 preparedness. New Zealand is also assisting S.E. Asian states such as Indonesia to ramp up their testing capacity. Both Australia and New Zealand are jointly funding the World Health Organizations regional coronavirus pandemic plan. Further, Australia, New Zealand, Brunei, Laos, Chile, Myanmar, Singapore, and Uruguay, joined hands/affirmed collective commitment to maintaining supply chain during COVID-19 pandemic. Demonstrating their commitment to free and open sea lines of communication during the pandemic.

While several EU states have been at the receiving end of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has also provided an opportunity for states like France and Germany to project their humanitarian diplomacy. French humanitarian organizations such as MSF have set up hospitals across the EU states to support critical health infrastructure. France has also announced ‘COVID 19-Health for all’ a € 1.2 bn initiative to assist African countries against the corona pandemic. Germany has been treating ICU patients from Italy, France, and the Netherlands to help them decongest their critical health infrastructure. Further, It has supplied massive food aid for the Sahel region in Africa where millions of people face the risk of starvation due to the pandemic. Both France and Germany have launched the “alliance for multilateralism,” a 25 nation bloc including India aimed at boosting rules-based order, reformed multilateralism and international cooperation amidst the pandemic.

All of this is indicative of the rise of regional powers with substantial capacity and appetite to influence if not set the global agenda. Regional powers are safeguarding their interest in their immediate and extended neighbourhood by providing public goods without being dependent on the US-China binary. This trend in the international system underlines the growing role of emerging regional middle powers. However, by definition such a shift might lead to a structure where the dangers are diffused, responsibilities unclear, and definitions of vital interests obscured. Therefore, it will be imperative for regional powers to build upon their recent success in terms of providing public goods by expanding and clearly defining their zones of responsibilities and vital interests through sustained multilateral interactions.

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