Covid-19: Withdrawal of Globalization or Dawn of a New World Order?

Coronavirus testing kit
Coronavirus testing kit

Covid-19 is tearing the world apart and threatening lives all across the world. From destabilizing markets to power shifting in global affairs, a microscopic virus can have far-ranging consequences. Amidst this uncertainty, there are apprehensions about further strengthening of the states, stringent territorial restrictions and its repercussions on the broader maze of international relations. Among a myriad of questions, there are two that are dealt with in this article. One, what effect would the crisis have on globalization in the days to come and two, what does the crisis indicate about the possibilities of a China-centric world order in the near future?

A death-knell for globalization?

History has witnessed that despite epidemics being undeterred by borders and demanding greater global cooperation for their eradication, distrust and skepticism have invariably characterized the international system during such times. According to analysts, the current pandemic will be adhering to the same trend. It was assumed in the early days of the outbreak that the impact would be limited and short. But as it developed into a full-blown crisis, it’s being realized now that the aftermath would be an enduring one that may prove to be the nail in the coffin of globalization. The pandemic is providing legitimacy to the national restrictions on global trade and companies are realizing the risk of relying on the complex global supply chains. In other words, the travel bans and imposed restrictions are making the economy much narrower and nationalistic. And if the present momentum of Covid-19 continues to persist, globalization would take a backseat.

It seems to affirm the realist viewpoint, according to which, states tend to fear that others may not abide by laws and adhere to their commitments and thus their overriding concern about relative gains as against absolute gains hinders cooperation. The theoretical lens of realism does not pay much attention to such outbreaks or pandemics and has hardly anything to say about interspecies viral transmission or epidemiology. However, realism reminds us that states are still the main actors in international politics and the emergency arising from Covid-19 just reaffirms that point. Citizens of every state are seeking protection against the crisis not from non-state actors, but from their own respective national governments.

All hope not lost for globalization

Not all analysts, however, are pessimistic with regard to the prospects of globalization. The crux of their arguments is that the globalization process is so deeply entrenched that a mere virus cannot undo the years of interconnectedness that the world has gotten used to. In addition to the economic component, globalization also has a socio-cultural component and transnational networks in science, health, and entertainment aided by the rapid rise of digital connectivity cannot be quarantined. Just as the disease spread at a whirlwind pace due to the unprecedented levels of physical interconnectivity, experts are hopeful that its cure will also come in the same manner, i.e. through collective action based on information sharing among states with a greater role of global governance. Hopes have been placed on international agencies to lead the battle against the disease. G20, for instance, pledged 5 trillion USD to the global economy as an attempt to forge a ‘united front’ against the pandemic. However, such efforts have been sporadic and clearly lacking in intent to form a truly global alliance.

A new world order?

Another major theme to emerge from the different analyses of the crisis is that it would not fundamentally change the global economic directions, instead, it would only accelerate the already existing trend of moving away from a US-centric globalization to China-centric one. Trump led USA’s unpreparedness to lead a global response has dealt a body blow to its carefully crafted image of a global order not just militarily but also as a provider of global public goods. The possibility of China stepping in and filling the vacuum of global leadership has raised the talks of an imminent reshaping of global order.

It will be the first crisis in about eighty years where the USA has consciously taken a back seat in coordinating the global response. China has duly intervened by lending a helping hand to Italy, Iran, the Philippines, Spain, Cambodia, and a host of African countries. China stands at a natural advantage as it already happened to be the largest exporter of medical supplies including masks, respirators, and antibiotics and as such, it should not be a surprise that it is trying to turn a health crisis into a geopolitical opportunity. Filling in the role of a global donor can be seen as an attempt on its part to solidify the claim of its ‘peaceful rise (or development)’. However, claiming that the current pandemic heralds China’s ‘rise’ is premature, due to two broad limitations.

First, it has already been accused of concealing information about the virus at the very initial stage, which allowed it to snowball into a worldwide catastrophe. Consequently, its efforts towards counter-pandemic aid and sending kits and emergency medical provisions to other countries have been perceived in a dubious light. It is obvious therefore that the other states would look at China’s counter-pandemic activities as a cover-up of its initial concealment. Furthermore, this crisis has revealed how China is using its increasing clout to maneuver international organizations like WHO as questions have been raised about WHO’s independent functioning. Thus, China gaining legitimacy as a responsible world leader from the international community remains elusive.

The second limitation to the claims regarding China’s ‘rise’ takes us back to the question of globalization. Since the whole concept of its peaceful development is predicated on a well-oiled model of economic globalization and as the future of globalization itself is shrouded in darkness, it’s too early to proclaim that a changing of the guard moment has finally arrived. 

It will take time for the world to reinstate its faith in the interconnectivity and free flow of people, goods, and services across borders. And given the unfolding of the social crumbling and economic setback coupled with the citizens’ reliance on their respective governments, it is unlikely that the world would immediately go back to being more open and free once the crisis is over. In the wake of widespread travel bans and sealing off of borders, the pandemic is not just a health issue but is also proving to stoke up the xenophobic tendencies which had already gripped the world. If Covid-19 is used by world leaders as a justification for their increasingly xenophobic policies and strict migration restrictions thus acting as political fodder for the nationalists, it is time to rethink and introspect. Undisputed commitment to sovereign territoriality has hardly favored mankind and it is certainly not an antidote to the pandemic; global solidarity is.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.