By (Mrs) Amb Narinder Chauhan
The year-end World Review of 2021 cannot but begin with a country that mattered the most, i.e., China. Its President Xi Jinping acquired a personality cult as he perpetuated himself in power; under him China grew even more expansionist abroad. China turned into a powerful state determined to challenge the US on every front. A rare bipartisan consensus in the US accepted this challenge. The new Cold war between the US and China threatens to become hot over Taiwan. Mao had given China 100 years to reclaim Taiwan; Xi is not willing to pass the problem from generation to generation, though no date has been set to resolve it. The US is exploiting China’s overstretch that comes from China’s forcefully expanding its perimeters. Extravagant Chinese claims in the South China Sea have increased anxieties in the region: witness Australia’s unexpected alignment with the Americans and the British on the nuclear submarine, as well as India’s expanded cooperation with Indo-Pacific allies. Central Asians have heeded the voices of Tibetans and the Uighurs. Debt traps, environmental degradation, and onerous repayment terms soured recipients on the BRI’s benefits. American unipolarity may end up not with a precarious US-China bipolarity but with a multipolarity that restrains China by making self-assertiveness defeated. This has required the US to maintain formidable conventional forces in East Asia to persuade Beijing that a clash of arms would at best yield a pyrrhic victory. Further, there is an effort to rally the Americans in support of US’s democratic allies as Biden has tried to do through its Democracy Summit. Democracy is not self-repairing; it requires constant attention. Democracy is poised to come back.
The year saw the emergence of the Indo-Pacific as a concept like never before. It highlighted the crucial linkages between the security of the different stakeholder countries. The developments in the Senkaku islands, the South China Sea and the Himalayas are clearly intertwined. Any alteration in the balance of power in one subregion will have a ripple effect in other subregions within the Indo-Pacific. The overarching security architecture will be an amalgamation of various security frameworks, where the Quad will have a crucial role. In the first ever Quad leaders’ summit on 12 March 2021, the joint statement committed to ‘promoting a free, open, rules-based order, rooted in international law to advance security and prosperity and counter threats to both in the Indo-Pacific and beyond”.
From an investment of $11 trillion to a total US/NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan culminating in the reestablishment of the Taliban government 20 years after the 9/11 attack – must rank amongst the most tragic events of the year. The withdrawal not only ensured a walk over victory to the Taliban, it provoked a mass exodus of Afghans from the country. The botched pullout is rated as the biggest debacle that NATO has suffered since its founding. The Trump years, the Covid 19 pandemic and Biden’s Afghan pullout all served to damage the structure of transatlantic relations. There was a cry for a vigorous debate on what went wrong in Afghanistan. The lesson from Afghanistan is that success in long term strategic competition requires getting the details right. A light footprint and a sustained intervention would have perhaps been the best approach on Afghanistan.
The US policy of alienating Russia from its neighbors finally hit the wall. After an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Putin, Biden in early December conceded that he would not send troops to protect Ukraine; Putin demanded guarantees from NATO that it would not expand into the former Soviet space and that US and NATO curtail activity in East Europe if the Ukraine crisis were to be defused. Little changed for Russia and the US seeking to undercut each other around the world. Joe Biden’s sweeping new sanctions on Russia were met with threatening postures from Putin including threat of new intervention in Ukraine, testing of hypersonic missiles, and cutting off all ties with NATO. Putin thrives on confrontation from which everyone else is losing. As for Ukraine, it is emerging from the turmoil more vulnerable to Russian aggression than it was at the beginning of the year.
Covid 19 wave hit at a very inauspicious geopolitical moment. An era of rising nationalism and populism made it frustratingly difficult to mount a collaborative response to a global pandemic. The world leaders exhibited parochialism and political insecurity, which caused them to downplay the Delta variant crisis, ignore the science, and reject international cooperation. At least 3 and half million people died, and the loss is estimated at $20 trillion. Vaccine development has been one of the few bright spots in this pandemic. Pharma and biotech companies worked with governments to make new vaccines in record time. Although the creation of the vaccines was a triumph of international cooperation, their distribution has been anything but. Rich nations bought the vaccines many times over, cornering the vaccine market, as if the product were a commodity. Pointing out that 75% of vaccine doses had gone to just 10 countries, WHO called the distribution a ‘scandalous inequity that is perpetuating the pandemic’. In the absence of global coordination for the purchase and distribution of vaccines, governments struck bilateral deals, leaving some countries with less effective or untested vaccines. India’s devastating surge reduced exports of its locally produced vaccines, leaving the countries that were dependent on them, such as Bhutan, Kenya, Nepal, and Rwanda with inadequate supplies. The looming Omicron variant shows that even if every human were to be vaccinated tomorrow, the virus would still live on in multiple animal species; in Denmark, over 200 contacted from minks. The dream of herd immunity also died. Variants are an unavoidable byproduct of the pandemic’s exponential growth. Figuring out how to build an enduring system to mitigate and prevent the next one will be the most meaningful challenge of our time. People are waiting for the long nightmare to be over.
The digital powers showed how they can shape the world like never before. Digital technologies enabled new instruments of repression with governments to intimidate political opponents; Pegasus spyware is a case in point. Western technology companies were once the self-proclaimed champions of openness, now many are capitulating from pressures from their home countries to remove content and tools that could be used against the regime. Just before the Russian parliamentary elections in September 2021, Russia convinced Apple and Google to remove an application developed by supporters of the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny that was designed to help coordinate the opposition vote. Extremists can network and reach audiences like never done before on platforms such as Facebook and twitter, which are designed to attract people’s attention and divide them into affinity groups. Russia is said to have weaponized this technology against the US. ‘The tech utopians capitalize on widespread disillusionment with governments that have failed to create prosperity and stability drawing netizens into a digital economy that disintermediates the state’. For the moment, US-China rivalry creates complications for the global tech firms as the two giants keep sanctioning each other’s apps. Unable to keep pace with technological innovation, regulators accept that governments will share sovereignty over digital space with tech companies. This may yet give Europe a chance to reassert itself as a savvy player capable of designing the rules that allow technology companies and governments to share sovereignty in digital space.
The greenhouse gas emissions continued to grow, and extreme weather events became more frequent, the urgency to move beyond fossil fuels grew, as evidenced in the COP 26 Summit. The geopolitics of oil and gas remained as fraught as ever. With Europe in the throes of a major energy crunch, Russia leveraged its gas reserves by completing the Nordstrom gas pipelines bypassing Ukraine. The process of transition to clean energy promised new forms of competition and confrontation; this also signaled a push against globalization and towards protectionism by rejecting dependence. Moving towards a net zero global economy requires international cooperation but will also lead to conflict and produce winners and losers. China and the US, for instance may win, but Russia, for sure, will be worse off, altering the balance of power, while it may bond the US with the EU further.
Myanmar reached a point of no return. The February 2021 coup meant to surgically shift power within the existing constitutional framework, has instead unleashed a revolutionary energy that will be near impossible to contain. Protests and strikes continued despite the killing of more than 800 people and the arrest of nearly 5000. In 1937 the British partitioned Burma from India based on perceived racial differences. Independent Burma tried to incorporate those non-Burmese who were also deemed indigenous such as Karen and Shan; those characterized as aliens such as 700,000 Rohingyas were expelled to Bangladesh. Myanmar’s nation building has failed resulting in armed conflicts and a country that has never been truly whole. There is no magic move or a single set of policies that will solve the Myanmar crisis.
The Civil war that broke out in Ethiopia plunged the country into a humanitarian crisis and destroyed infrastructure, such as roads, factories, and telecommunication equipment, apart from eroding the fabric of national identity. 13 ethnic groups are demanding either greater autonomy or regional status. Resolving these tensions is challenging not only because the central government has in practice refused to allow their right to secession, while the constitution gives them in theory, but also because their claims are contradictory. Tigray and Amhara, for instance, claim parts of each other’s territory and have been locked in long running border disputes. To prevent the disintegration of the State requires negotiating and securing lasting peace, reconstructing Tigray and the other parts affected by the war, and forging a consensus on the idea of Ethiopia.
India’s seat in United Nations Security Council and its month-long presidency of the Council highlighted the three-point agenda of maritime security, threat of international terrorism and importance of peacekeeping. The Taliban victory in Afghanistan and China’s aggression into Ladakh added new geopolitical challenges. The Summit meetings with Biden and Putin acquired new urgency; the Central Asian region was reengaged, as was Quad. India stumbled in the wake of the new Covid variant, it also made history through record vaccinations. Foreign venture capitalists poured money into India’s digitech startups in cloud computing, education, entertainment, finance, payments, tourism, bringing these ‘unicorns’ to nearly 70, more than any other country except US and China. 2021 was also the year when Indians were taking over coveted leadership roles, Parag Aggarwal as CEO of Twitter and Leena Nair, CEO of Chanel. Team India’s best Olympics performance at Tokyo ignited hope for the young.
(The author is a former Indian Ambassador. She tweets @nchauhanifs Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).