The passing of a year and the heralding of a new one has traditionally been done with great revelery and fanfare. Images of the iconic fireworks display in Sydney is what many of us wake up to in India. This year the fireworks are expected to be longer and more colourful, as if in relief that 2020 is now consigned to the dustbin.
Few are likely to mourn the passing of 2020. If tears are shed, they would be with hope and expectation that 2021 would be hugely different and that 2020 was a nightmare and an aberration.
Many events happened through the year but a few were most impactful. I will be kind and avoid referring to India’s record-breaking second innings batting performance in the first Test!
This is surely the single story globally that has kept us preoccupied. It affected our emotional and physical wellbeing, crippled economies, took lives and put the world on pause-button. Continued uncertainty, fear and panic were the dominant emotions for the better part of the year. Pandemic fatigue has set in.
Promise of a vaccine has raised hopes but new strains of the virus, especially the one presently detected in the UK, suggest this would be a hard and long battle that would impact 2021 adversely as well. There were also stray reports that China had detected a new virus strain but, characteristically, the report disappeared quickly and was possibly suppressed by the Chinese government. Uncertainty and anxiety are, consequently, not likely to disappear.
For many, this is a year of mourning and of deep loss. Many have lost friends and family to the virus. At the time of writing, the total number of recorded deaths from the virus, globally, is in excess of 1.8 million. The figure is credibly expected to be much higher in view of misreporting and data suppression. The bereaved stay enveloped in the silence of grief unable to understand what truly happened and why. Closure would not be easy to come by.
What started off as a health sector grand challenge soon impacted multiple verticals from education to the economy and beyond. As travel restrictions, social distancing, work-from-home and other health protocols came into place and were strictly enforced, the informal economy was the first to collapse followed by small and medium business. People were unable to pay off loans and found themselves mired in debt. Depression and mental health issues came to the fore. Some committed suicide. Millions lost their jobs and the plight of the migrants, as they decided to trek back home, covering almost a thousand kilometres, remains a matter of national horror and sorrow. Many died on the way.
The global economy is in a state of free fall. After almost two decades of robust growth, the Australian economy is stuttering. The US has just approved injecting US$900 billon a part of a stimulus package. The latest issue of The Economist magazine on ‘The World in 2021’ predicts that the Indian economy, which was ill before the pandemic isnot likely to recover in 2021. This is seriously disappointing news for small and medium enterprises, the informal economy and the rapidly growing middle class.
In my view, 2021 would be a challenging year with continued economic hardship and misery. Uncertainty would remain as the dominant sentiment.
The China Virus and Accountability
Given the above grim and devastating scenario that impacted millions across the globe, it is a legitimate demand that the cause of the outbreak be established, so as to take corrective measures to avoid recurrence. Data establishes that the virus emanated from a scientific laboratory in Wuhan. The Chinese government that was aware of the virus in November 2019 withheld information and shared ‘some concerns’ around end-December 2019 with the World Health Organization and we have a formal declaration of a pandemic only in March of 2020 by WHO.
The Australian government has officially asked that they would like this investigated to pin responsibility on China for causing global chaos, death and economic downturn. Germany has, similarly, asked for financial compensation. The US used the phrase ‘China virus’ to describe the pandemic. Naturally, China rejected such charges as malicious allegations and imposed retaliatory measures on these countries. It has, simultaneously, upped its financial support to WHO – when the US under President Trump called its competence into question. Given the lacklustre performance of WHO officials this year, there is a credible crisis in confidence on WHO’s objectivity.
The question on the origin of the virus and the credibility of the WHO are not likely to go away. President Trump was withdrawing financial support but it is widely anticipated that while President-elect Biden would reverse this decision, he would task the WHO with a greater show of competence and critical thinking. China will remain belligerent and this could see continued animosity. Conclusive evidence is not likely to be available to indict China, as collection of such data would be prevented by Beijing. Obfuscation would create further uncertainty and China will capitalize on its ability to kick-start the moribund global economy. It is likely to receive support from the business community, who would be happy to let the China role in the pandemic pass, if it helps business to grow.
Yet again, China would go scot-free, simply through the extraordinary drawing power of its economy and manufacturing sector. Some tragedies simply repeat themselves.
The US elections
Joe Biden’s election as the next US President had all the makings of a blockbuster soap opera. While the challenge to his ascendancy, from his predecessor, might have all but dissipated, President’s Trump’s supporters have not been won over and are likely to aggressively undermine the Biden Presidency and Administration. It would, undoubtedly, be a tough year for Biden.
This led many to believe and with good reason that Biden would be so preoccupied with domestic affairs that he would consider external challenges a distraction and leave the firefighting to his advisors. Consequently, the global role that Washington occupied would be vacated and China would move in to occupy top spot. US allies and well-wishers would find this a seriously disturbing development. There was also concern that Biden would opt for a more moderate stance while dealing with Beijing’s combative and hegemonic approach.
Two interesting and significant developments happened over the past couple of days. First, President Trump caused a major stir in Beijing with his views and indeed, legislation on the Dalai Lama and the decision of the US government to open a Consulate in Lhasa. The Tibet question has been a matter of great sensitivity to China. Consequently, the Trump move caught Chinese officials confused and combative. Second, Biden fired off a no-nonsense message to Beijing on multiple issues, ranging from human rights to intellectual property theft.
In my view, while tough intent has now been established, it remains to be seen as to how willing Washington is to go all the way. Biden would be under pressure from his key advisors to follow a tough line on China and he is likely to acquiesce. Whether that tough line would align with India’s interests vis-a-vis China remains to be seen.
Including internal affairs in the foreign policy dialogue
Several interesting diplomatic shifts have occurred over the past few months that lead us to believe that the contours of acceptable diplomatic concerns is likely to undergo a major shift.
US Senators, even during the Trump Presidency, including President Obama during an official visit to India, have raised concerns with regard to communal tensions, the change in status quo in Kashmir etcetera that we argued were part of our ‘internal affairs’, which have, till now, been outside the purview of the time-tested traditional terms of diplomatic engagement and protocol. We even summoned the Canadian High Commissioner and read chapter and verse to him for raising objections to the government’s position on protests by farmers. Earlier, the External Affairs Minister refused to attend a meeting in the US, if a particular Indian-origin Senator was present.
In my view, this is set to dramatically shift. The maturity of our diplomacy would reflect the speed with which we adapt. Issues like ‘love jihad’ will certainly be raised and we cannot take shelter behind ‘internal affairs’ if we don’t wish to alienate friends.
We also need to recognize that there would be doublespeak. For instance, this week, Nepal’s Prime Minister welcomed a delegation from the Chinese Communist Party to intervene in the on-going political crisis that might see his ouster. This is a clear indication of interference in internal affairs. If Indian advisors attempted to broker a deal, there would be a hue and cry in Nepal on New Delhi’s hegemonic interference!
In my view, diplomacy will embrace internal affairs when required. This would herald the dramatic expansion in the scope of diplomacy.
Chinese incursion into Indian territory
Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jining had agreed that 2020 should be marked by a grand celebration of seventy years of India-China relations. True to character, Chinese troops entered Indian territory and while they were rebuffed, latest reports indicate of a ‘massive’ military build-up by the Chinese military.
India has opted to go along its traditional path of dialogue and negotiations, as opposed to confrontation and armed response. So far, talks have been inconclusive and immediate reconciliation or solution is not anticipated. At the same time, Beijing has also understood that if India is required to respond militarily, it would do so.
In my view, tensions would continue for the better part of 2021. This should not be a cause of great anxiety, as it is highly unlikely that Beijing would up the ante beyond what it is able to control. The global community, furthermore, does not have an appetite for a major escalation between India and China that would further destabilize the global economy. China realizes this.
What India can afford to do is to continue to push for dialogue at all levels, other than between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi, while joining President Trump’s support on Tibet and also more openly reaching out to Taiwan. If we were to embrace the ‘internal affairs’ shift, a statement on the Uighurs would be very much within our purview.
In Lieu of a Conclusion
This has been a year of mourning for many, especially when you consider the hard statistic that there have been 1.8 million dead from the pandemic. More deaths are expected and 2021 is likely to continue to be turbulent and uncertain.
It is also not likely to be a year when we take stock of lessons learnt. WhatsApp and other social media messages pray for a kinder and gentler world. But, as we all learnt, the two World Wars taught us nothing, despite the brave words ‘Never forget’. We will continue to ravage nature and the environment. Human life would remain a statistic. In our quest to help the economy recover, we will embrace consumerism and forget the consumer. After all, the biggest problem for the human race is humans.
Many prominent public figures, in India and abroad, lost their life. Pranab Mukherjee, who could have been Prime Minister but had to settle for being the President; great artists like Astad Deboo and Pandit Jasraj; iconic designers like Wendell Rodricks and Pierre Cardin; legendary soccer player Paulo Rossi; spy novelist John le Carre and the British spy, who was a Russian mole, George Blake; the one and only Sean ‘Bond’ Connery; to name a few. But our hearts go out to the millions, who died unsung. May they Rest in Eternal Peace!
[Amit Dasgupta is a former Indian diplomat.]