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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