How the world has moved in the first quarter of 2021

The first quarter of 2021 has been unusually busy, with many key developments playing out in the geopolitical sphere. We caught up with Sundeep Waslekar to decipher the implications

Founding Fuel

Much has shifted in geopolitics since the time we did the Masterclass on The World in 2021 in November 2020—soon after Biden was elected US President—with Sundeep Waslekar, Frank Richter, Niranjan Rajadhayaksha and G Venkat Raman.

We caught up with Waslekar, president of Strategic Foresight Group, to shine a light on the important developments and what they mean for India and the world. In fact, Waslekar has agreed that at the end of every quarter, he will help the Founding Fuel community make sense of The World in 2021, from an Indian lens. (Subscribe to our newsletter to get updates on this.)

Very briefly, here’s what has changed in these three months

  • We are beginning to see the world dividing in two camps, led by the US and China. And that has dangerous implications.
  • Multilateralism seems to have a new champion in the European Union, led by Germany under Angela Merkel.
  • However, even though the New START treaty (the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) was a positive move, Britain has decided to remove its caps on nuclear weapons and deployment.
  • There is a pivot to Asia in America’s policy to contain China. And this is reflected in the recent naval exercises by the Quad (the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal strategic dialogue between the United States, Japan, Australia and India). But what is its significance vis-a-vis RCEP (the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a trade deal between ASEAN nations)?
  • Meanwhile, pandemic politics mirrors the world-in-two-camps. While the US and China are focused on who did wrong last time, the EU has come out with a proposal to make sure how everybody gets it right next time. 
  • The other surprising, but positive, development is the India – Pakistan ceasefire.

Highlights from the conversation

1. The US-China rivalry: A division of the world in two camps

The news:

Waslekar’s take:

“We are seeing the beginning of the division of word into camps. [The last time this happened was] just before the first World War, more than 100 years ago.

“On the US side you have Britain, France, and Asian partners—India, Japan, Australia, potentially South Korea, Vietnam. So, most of the American camp is made of the Asian partners.

“On Chinese side, It's quite predictable. They have Russia and Iran, and are trying to cultivate Turkey.

“This is dangerous. Whenever the world is divided into two camps, there is bound to be some kind of a confrontation at some stage. It could be just economic, or ideological. But if it gets translated into military confrontation, the word will have a very major challenge.” (Listen from 06:25 )  

2. A non-aligned Europe

The news:

  • In December 2020, the European Union signed a comprehensive agreement on investments. Though In March the deal seems to have run aground due to sanctions.

Waslekar’s take:

“The European Union, led by Germany under Angela Merkel, is trying to take a relatively neutral stance [on strategic matters]. They would not like these schisms to go deep, both with Russia and with China.

“Some time back, the EU entered into a major economic deal with China. Now we will see European investments flowing into China at a faster pace. The Chinese have kind of agreed to give them a red carpet and ease many of the restrictions for which the Chinese bureaucracy is notorious.

“By and large, you will see some kind of a new non-alignment coming up in Europe.

“What we don't know is what will happen in Germany once Angela Merkel steps down. There is a lot of smog about who would really replace her and what impact it will have." (Listen from 10:35)

3. Nuclear weapons: Britain wants to assert its place in the world order

The news:

Waslekar’s take:

“Boris Johnson's Britain is a totally confused country. They want to have new allies in Asia, to replace Europe. And they can talk about India for sure, in this context, and they can talk about Japan. And they would like to have the economic benefits of a relationship with China, but they're very much with the US in their assessment of strategic competition with China, so they also look at China as a threat.

“In fact, when Johnson announced his expansion of nuclear weapons and the decision to deploy them, one of the justifications he offered was the threat from China.” (Listen from 14:06)

4. The shadow of pandemic; the lack of a common global strategy; and India and China’s vaccine diplomacy

The news:

  • In March, US President Joe Biden hosted the first-ever Quad (short for Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) summit with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
  • The meeting marks an important milestone in the development of the ‘Quad’ as a regional mechanism.
  • In addition to naval exercises, the four leaders committed to 1 billion doses of vaccine to Southeast Asia by 2022, the region most directly exposed to Chinese pressure and expansionism.
  • Though, both India and China are finding vaccine diplomacy tricky—with China insisting visitors must get the Chinese vaccine, and India struggling with domestic demand as Covid-19 cases surge again.

Waslekar’s take:

On pandemic politics: “The global geostrategic game is also mirrored in international pandemics politics. You have a very clear schism being developed between the US and China. For example, WHO has certified again and again that Covid-19 originated from animals and that maybe China mishandled the man-animal relationship. The US doesn't agree with that assessment and is pressurizing WHO to investigate if the virus could come from now a laboratory in Wuhan.

“So, there is competition on the narrative of this pandemic.”

On vaccine nationalism and diplomacy: “More than vaccine nationalism, it has become a vaccine mega mess.

“Russia, China and India made their own vaccines, and all three are exporting or giving them away. (But, I don’t know whether India—and China—have commercial obligations to export the vaccine. Covishield is made by the Pune-based Serum Institute with a lot of international support and investments. Similarly, some of the vaccines made in China were also developed at Oxford…. Frankly, at the moment, I don't care. My priorities as a citizen is that we have to vaccinate as many people as possible in our country and all over the world.)

“The Chinese are now using it to create entry barriers for visitors to China. Only those who had the Chinese vaccine can visit without much of a bureaucratic process.

“But for China, [vaccine export is part of how it has] been using soft power for a long time in different ways. They have been exporting the Chinese language, culture, and traditional medicine.” 

On Europe’s move for a treaty to prevent future pandemics: “[Here too] Europe is emerging as a neutral player. 

“The European Union has called for a new international treaty for international cooperation to prevent future pandemics. This call has been endorsed by 23 countries, and all the three big European countries—France, Germany, and UK.

“So, while the US and China are focused on who did wrong last time, the EU has come out with a proposal to make sure that everybody gets it right next time.

“Now, it's quite characteristic of India that the question of vaccine nationalism, the issue about whether Covid-19 started in a laboratory or not—these issues have attracted a lot of space in the Indian elite discourse. That there is now a movement growing for an international treaty to prevent such pandemics hardly seems to have been covered in the Indian media.” (Listen from 16:03) 

5. Developments in the Indo-Pacific region: How significant is the emergence of the Quad?  

The news:

Waslekar’s take:

On the Quad signalling an Asian pivot for America: “I would go back to what I said earlier, that there is an emergence of two camps. Quad is very much at the core of the US camp against China.

“At the moment, it is posturing. I don't think it will have military consequences. Because the US can only act against China militarily if China tries to take over Taiwan. But Chinese will not be stupid enough to attack Taiwan and invite a war with the US.

“There has been a lot of talk about South China Sea. But you know, again, there has been no military confrontation.

“At the moment, the Quad has a military format. But I don't think that it is going to be used in any military circumstances. Naval exercises are part of the posturing

“But mind you, we currently see Quad in its military avatar, but it is a much bigger concept. It was first created in 2004—and not in 2020, or 2021. It was created in 2004 in response to the tsunami.

“If you remember, much before Trump, Obama formally announced that there will be an Asian pivot. Quad is very much kind of a dressed-up version of an Asian pivot.

“Trump continued with looking at China as a strategic rival, and therefore building alliances with India, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, etc. But he did in a crude way. And he took the lead in forming the Quad and the military exhibitionist, with the naval exercises.

“Biden has very clearly indicated that he looks at China not perhaps exactly as an enemy, but as a rival. And therefore, Quad is very much necessary and they will try to expand that quad.

“It was important to realize that Biden had made that policy of continuing with alliance formation.” (Listen from 27:30) 

On Quad vs RCEP:Comparing Quad and RCEP is like comparing apples and oranges—or maybe apples and bananas.

“RCEP is an economic arrangement. And, and they're all taking advantage of it, because it will help create supply chains across Asia.

“Quad is a military formation—even a cultural one because they even discuss vaccines.

“You can say Quad is more political, because their military version is not going to be very operational.

“Also, countries are not bound by tight alliances. [Within the broad division of the world in two camps] a lot of other things happen. I wouldn't be surprised if within the next few months, India, China and Pakistan come together for military exercises or training exercises on counterterrorism.

“Because countries think of their interests, and their strategic choices.” (Listen from 33:00)  

6. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the ceasefire between India and Pakistan

The news:

Waslekar’s take:

On US withdrawal from Afghanistan: “[The US withdrawal from Afghanistan and India-Pakistan ceasefire] are parallel developments. The US wants to get the hell out of Afghanistan: they never really achieved anything very concrete there. And before them, the Soviets didn’t either.

“I think the Americans would like to walk out of there realizing that they have to make some kind of a deal with the Taliban. And the Taliban's main supporter is Pakistan. But they would feel more assured if India also has a role somewhere. And the Afghans, frankly, trust India; they don't want Pakistan. So, there is interest in Washington, DC for India to play a role, which is a lot more pronounced now than it was earlier.” (Listen from 41:40)  

On India – Pakistan ceasefire: “I was a little surprised by the ceasefire agreement.

“Secondly, within weeks of the ceasefire being announced, Pakistani Chief of Army Staff made certain statements in public forums saying that Pakistan was keen on building a positive relationship with India and was even open to giving Indian access to the Pakistani territory for economic pathways to Central Asia.  (In fact, General Bajwa, the Pakistani Chief of Army Staff, openly said that for this ceasefire to work and for a new era in India – Pakistan relationship, it is important that we don't interfere in neighbouring countries. Now, somewhere we will see some violence sometimes. The ISI has many freelance operators, and they can sponsor some violence—that will be possible. But obviously, what we are hearing from Rawalpindi is that they will not be officially sanctioned violence.)

“But if you ask me why it happened, how it happened, I frankly have no answers.

“What is very obvious is that it happened within a month of the Biden administration taking charge. And it also happened at a time when India and China decided to de-escalate border tensions. It wouldn't have happened without China’s blessings or America's encouragement.

“We can have a little bit of breathing space for the time being.” (Listen from 34:50)  

On India – China relationship: “The trade between China and India is booming. While there are all kinds of people saying we should boycott Chinese goods, we are importing more than $50 billion of Chinese goods.

“Chinese companies are even getting contracts from all kinds of entities in India.

“[Banning some apps] is just a symbolic political exercise.”

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