The Corona-Led Rise of Middle Powers on the World Stage

By Paras Ratna, Research Associate – Strategic & Foreign Relations Practice at Rashtram

This article was published in the Livemint.

The source of the image is Vision India Foundation

The deepening of the covid crisis has generated an intense discussion about its effect on the emerging global order. On the one hand, the pandemic seems to have underscored constraints in the willingness and ability of the US to provide global public goods. On the other, though many believe that China’s initial cover-up and opacity escalated the covid outbreak to the level of a global pandemic, there are suggestions that Beijing’s attempt to present itself as a global leader in epidemic-response could establish its pre-eminence in world politics. There is a tendency to approach the impact of covid-19 on the international order from a US-China prism. Yet, while the disease 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, this has been accompanied by the rise of other regional powers such as India, Japan, Australia, France, Germany and South Korea. They have the capacity and willingness to influence the material and ideational dimensions of international politics. Their response to the pandemic and subsequent regional outreach, in the absence of any great power coordination, corroborates the point. An 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 demonstrates the political will and ability to safeguard its interests, along with those of its neighbourhood. For instance, New Delhi has set up a $10 million covid-19 emergency fund for south Asian countries. Despite concerns of limited supplies, it has dispatched tonnes of vital medical supplies not only to neighbours (including China) but also to the West and Central Asia, South America, the UK and US. New Delhi has also played a crucial role in evacuating stranded Indians as well as foreign nationals. Its rapid deployment of C-17 Hercules transport aircraft indicates a growing response-projection capability and a matching appetite to take on the responsibility of regional leadership.

Similarly, Japan is taking initiatives for regional outreach by assisting countries in limiting the spread of the coronavirus. Notwithstanding its economic interaction with and supply-chain dependence on China, Japan has managed to contain the pandemic in a relatively effective manner. In addition to its domestic response, it is helping countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam and even China. Other East Asian countries, such as South Korea and Taiwan, are being hailed as case studies in combating covid-19.

As for Pacific powers, Australia and New Zealand have pulled off a commendable performance in containing the pandemic. They are trying to complement domestic effort with regional diplomacy by assisting Pacific neighbours in handling the outbreak. Australia is assisting Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, and Fiji with personal protective 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 preparedness. New Zealand is also assisting Southeast Asian nations such as Indonesia to ramp up their testing capacity.

In Europe, while several European Union (EU) states are among the world’s worst affected by covid-19, the pandemic has also provided an opportunity for countries like France and Germany to project their humanitarian diplomacy. French 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 billion initiative to assist African countries against the pandemic. Germany has been treating intensive-care 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. France and Germany have launched an “alliance for multilateralism”, a 25-nation bloc that includes India and is aimed at promoting a rules-based order, reformed multilateralism and global cooperation amid the pandemic.

All of this is indicative of the rise of regional powers, with significant capacity and appetite to influence if not set the global agenda. Regional powers are safeguarding their interests in their immediate and extended neighbourhoods 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 would be imperative for regional powers to build upon their recent successes in terms of providing public goods by expanding and defining their zones of responsibilities and vital interests clearly through sustained multilateral interactions.

Harsh V. Pant and Paras Ratna are, respectively, professor of international relations at King’s College London, and a research associate at the Vision India Foundation, New Delhi

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