There is no blueprint for a post Covid-29 economic and political order. The pre-existing trends towards deglobalisation (or a different form of globalisation) and the rise of sovereignist forces is accelerating as a result of Covid-19, but how will this recalibrate the world?
In all these contexts — disenchantment with the China model, deglobalisation and relocalisation and multilateral engagements on critical issues — India’s comeback from Covid will be closely watched.
Heads of state worldwide have spoken of the shape of things “on the other side” of the pandemic. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has urged “self-reliance”, France President Emmanuel Macron has touted “independence” for his country’s agriculture and industry and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has stressed on economic “sovereignty”.
The mantra of sovereignty and self-sufficiency is finding purchase the world over. At the same time, there is no denying the need for greater multilateralism in tackling critical issues like climate change and security in the years ahead.
That said, there is no blueprint for a post Covid-29 economic and political order. The pre-existing trends towards deglobalisation (or a different form of globalisation) and the rise of sovereignist forces is accelerating as a result of Covid-19, but how will this recalibrate the world?
In recent decades, we have witnessed two broad approaches to economic development. The manifest limitations of the 1989 Washington Consensus and its market-democratic paradigm led, from the mid-2000s onwards, to a valorisation of the ‘China model’, dubbed the Beijing Consensus, as a robust alternative for developing economies.
Presented as a pragmatic and flexible strategy for rapid development, it gained currency in Africa and South-East Asia, helped in great measure by China’s “gift diplomacy” and no-strings-attached loans. It is seen as being more respectful of self-determination than conditionalities-laden aid from the IMF-World Bank.
The elephant in the room is obviously China’s authoritarian system. Some pundits have gone so far as to propose that the decoupling of capitalism and liberal democracy is advantageous; since Chinese officials do not have to cater to disparate political lobbies, they are better able to implement policy. Good governance and economic success promote the common good, never mind civil liberties and media freedoms (thereby debunking the “end of history” hypothesis, which sees liberal democracy as the final stage in the ideological evolution of humanity).
The fatal flaw in this reasoning has been exposed, rather dramatically, by the pandemic. The global media has red flagged China’s proactive suppression of the extent of the epidemic, resulting in class action lawsuits or demands for compensation from Germany, Australia, the UK and the US.
By that logic, China’s political illiberalism and the tight state control over information flow that it entails, has imperiled the lives of millions. Outside the Chinese bloc (of client nations) its model may lose its glitter.
A third approach to development, the Mumbai consensus, was proposed in 2010 by Lawrence Summers, then Chairman of the United States President’s Economic Council.
He said, “By 2040, discussions will be less about the Washington consensus or the Beijing consensus than about the Mumbai consensus”. Described as “people-centric economic development”, its main features were described as: pluralistic democracy; a domestic demand-driven and services dominated economy; decentralisation, grassroots development and empowerment; private entrepreneurship. And, unlike China, a resolutely non-expansionist outlook.
India’s resilience vis-a-vis the worldwide recession at the end of the 2000s testified to the viability of its growth model. However, given cash-rich China’s aggressive outreach and massive overseas investments, it remains far less established than the Beijing Consensus. In the current crisis, India’s rigorous containment policies, without resorting to extraordinary suspension of civil liberties, have shown the efficacy of its political model.
Coming to geopolitics, public opinion worldwide may be unforgiving of China, but governments cannot afford to be. The accelerated exodus of manufacturing from China does not take away from the fact that it will be a critical player in the post-coronavirus world. For instance, as the largest emitter of green-house gases (GHGs) globally, the country’s participation in climate agreements is essential.
Besides, the Asian giant has established vast spheres of influence and enjoys great clout in international forums (for example, Taiwan is excluded from WHO because of China). Its aggressive propaganda juggernaut and outreach to coronavirus-hit countries such as Serbia, has met with considerable success.
Last week, the New York Times reported that China had strong-armed the European Union into deleting paragraphs related to China’s negligence in its report on the pandemic. To be fair, this says more about the fraying of the EU than China’s capacity for aggression.
When the world hits the reset button, it seems unlikely that it can pick up where it left off on January 1, 2020. The pandemic almost brought the EU to the brink, with north and south at loggerheads over coronabonds (debt pooling). A deep divide between what economist Michael O’Sullivan calls the “Levellers” (states that prioritise rights and liberty) and “Leviathans” (state-run economies with limited freedoms) threatens to emerge.
As Macron said earlier this month, sovereignty is important, but so is promoting multilateralism in key areas like health, education and most of all, climate. Across the world, people are asking whether it is possible to reboot the economy without greenhouse gases. Whether blue skies, clean rivers and peaceful coexistence with nature is possible.