Envisioning a stable world order in 2020

As the world enters the third decade of the 21st century, new trends in international relations have emerged. While the opportunities presented by the advancement of science and technology over the last two decades have been phenomenal, the cyber domain is bound to pose new challenges in world politics. Over the last few years, the world order has undergone a major shift. The decline of neo-liberalism and globalization have given rise to protectionism. Nationalist and populist agendas have often subdued ideals of democracy and human rights. The issues of climate change and migration have been challenged like never before.

The rise of China as an economic and military power over the last decade has posed a challenge for the United States in its quest to remain as the undisputed super power. The politics of the Middle East, US-China trade war, North Korean denuclearization issue, US Presidential elections and Brexit are some of the important contours of global politics that will be dominant in 2020.

China’s globalist ambitions

Xi Jinping has turned out to be the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. The Belt and Road Initiative has been the hallmark of his foreign policy that outlines China’s globalist outlook after decades of an inward looking approach. US President Donald Trump’s harsh approach in his economic dealings with China has led to a sharp decline China’s economy as its growth rate of six percent is the lowest in the last 25 years.

The recently signed first phase of a trade deal should come as a respite to China although there is no guarantee that trade disputes would not flare up in the future if interests of the two countries clash. Similarly, the US foreign policy initiative Indo-Pacific Strategy and Trump’s advocacy for a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ have forced China to re-strategize its aggressive posture in the South China Sea. Unless its economy flourishes again, China will have to exercise restraint in asserting its influence in the South China Sea.

From its outset, questions have been raised about BRI’s success due to its ambitious nature and complex partnership mechanisms. The US has accused it to be a form of ‘debt trap’ diplomacy and Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port is widely cited as one of its classic examples. It is certain that the success of the BRI will very much depend on how the US-China relations unfold. The Gwadar Port and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor are extremely important projects for the success of BRI so as to enhance China’s maritime and economic opportunities. The delay in completion of these projects will definitely not help China’s globalist ambitions.

Foreign policy is often seen as an extension of domestic policy. Tense political situation in Hong Kong is likely to cause China to opt for a more guarded approach in its foreign policy. China’s traditional influence over North Korea is well-known. Therefore, it is unlikely that China will allow North Korea to enter into any deal with the US if it feels that its role will be minimized in the regional political and economic dynamics.

Need for consistency in US foreign policy

The US remains as the sole superpower of the world which brings added responsibilities associated with it. Trump’s foreign policy, however, has seen many inconsistencies than the ones followed by previous US administrations. The US President has often chided his allies and tried to cozy up with traditional foes. His protectionist policies have cast shadow on the image of US as the leader of globalization. Mindful of China’s challenge to the US for global supremacy, the IPS can be taken as a countermeasure to BRI in spite of the US denial.

Surprisingly, one of the striking hallmarks of Trump’s foreign policy has been a non-confrontational relationship with Russia given that the Obama administration had considered Russia as the biggest threat to US national security. That is not expected to change during the last year of Trump presidency even if Russian President Vladimir Putin has begun his plans to remain in power in some capacity beyond his current presidential term.

Trump’s efforts to pursue a denuclearization deal with North Korea have not materialized depriving him of scoring a major foreign policy victory. He has backed out of several international agreements including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Paris Climate Agreement and the Iranian Nuclear Deal which have degraded the credibility of the US globally. To make matters more complex, he has been recently impeached by the US House of Representatives for his alleged role in influencing Ukraine to investigate his potential presidential rival Joe Biden.

In world politics, leaders often try to divert the attention while facing adverse domestic political situations. Trump is bound to face a stiff challenge to get reelected as President in November. The timing of the recent killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Commander Gen. Qaseem Soleimani by a US drone attack can be attributed to Trump trying to build an image of a strong commander-in-chief who can take any step to protect the national interests of the US.

It will not be a surprise if Trump wins the presidential elections in spite of his unpopular and unpredictable image. The absence of a strong Democratic presidential challenger might work to Trump’s benefit. As he moves into the final year of his presidency, Trump would likely want to apply maximum pressure on China to seal a long-term trade deal in favor of the US as well as make a tangible headway in achieving a nuclear deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Although it is difficult to predict if Trump is willing to antagonize Iran further, adventurism can lead to a full-blown third Gulf War whose repercussions will have to be faced by the whole world. Soleimani’s death is expected to give rise to a spate of violence across the Middle East. One of the biggest benefactors of Soleimani’s death could be the terrorist group Islamic State which is the common enemy of both the US and Iran. Although Iran will not be able to match the US firepower, it is likely to unleash a series of attacks through its proxies against US allies in the region.

India facing difficult times

South Asian politics has recently been dominated by the uneasy situation in Jammu and Kashmir post its reorganization, protests across the country against the Citizenship Amendment Act and plans to implement the National Register of Citizens. Due to the Indo-Pakistani tensions, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation has remained almost defunct.

The Narendra Modi led government has been facing political as well as economic challenges in its second term. Critics have accused the Bharatiya Janata Party of demeaning the rights of minorities and working towards a gradual push for ‘saffronization’ of India. The Indian economy has been faring very poorly in recent times with the economic growth rate projected below five percent which is the lowest in more than six years. Therefore, the domestic political and economic climate does not seem to be too favorable for Modi and his government.

In spite of several meetings between Modi and Xi, the fundamental political differences between the two countries have not been mitigated. India has not supported the BRI claiming that the CPEC undermines its sovereignty. New Delhi is also not pleased with Beijing’s support to Pakistan for raising the Jammu and Kashmir issue at the UN Security Council.

Modi’s ‘neighborhood first’ policy has not been as effective as anticipated. Seeking strict reciprocity from its smaller neighbors will not yield the desired outcomes in favor of India. As the economic indicators have shown decline in its economy, India will have to rework its foreign policy that seeks to engage more constructively with its neighbors to enhance its own standing in the neighborhood.

In terms of its relations with major powers, India will have to continue maintaining a fine balance its relations with traditional ally Russia and the United States. Even though the US sees India as a vital cog in the IPS, India will really have to plan its moves so as to not antagonize its next door neighbor China. Furthermore, Russia is sure to use its sway over India not to let it be a part of the IPS wholeheartedly.

Clarity needed in Nepal’s foreign policy

Nepal’s foreign policy has always been primarily focused on relations with two of its immediate neighbors, India and China. With stable governments in both the countries, Nepal and India should try to create win-win partnerships so that their ties can be consolidated further. India is well aware of China’s growing influence in Nepal. The strategic rivalry between India and China should ideally spur economic prosperity in Nepal as both will be enticed to invest in Nepal. However, it is up to Nepal how it orients its foreign policy for gaining benefits from its immediate neighbors. Nepal should do away with its tendency of leaning on to China only when its relations with India get sour.

Kathmandu should also enter into concrete deliberations with Beijing to finalize projects under the BRI in such a way that its national interests are secured. The border dispute between Nepal and India at Kalapani flared up once again towards the end of 2019. The issue is a longstanding one that requires careful and mature negotiations rather than rhetorical statements. Nepal should push for the reorganization and revitalization of the mechanisms that are in place to sort out border disputes for getting concrete results as it can fairly be assumed that India would not be too interested in dealing with the issue.

One of the fundamental guiding principles of Nepal’s foreign policy has been its unflinching commitment to the principles of non-alignment. Ever since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1947, the US has been one of the most important development partners of Nepal. As Nepal has now entered into a phase of political stability, it is economic development that should be the prime agenda of the Nepali government and political parties. The domestic politics of Nepal has seen heated debates in recent times over the issue of accepting an American grant of 500 million dollars under the Millennium Challenge Corporation agreement.

Some of the leaders of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) have argued that Nepal should not accept the grant as MCC is part of the IPS that has been formulated to contain China. There is no doubt that Nepal’s foreign policy shuns being part of any military alliance or supporting alliances that are aimed against its immediate neighbors. However, accepting grants for the purpose of developmental needs if it does not possess any hidden military and strategic motives should be welcomed without inhibitions. The clarification from the US Ambassador that the MCC does not have any military component attached to it should clear doubts about its intentions.

Hopes for a stable world order

A peaceful and stable world order is the need of the hour. Rivalries between great powers can destabilize the whole world. It is essential that the US and China do not enter into the ‘Thucydides Trap’. Issues such as terrorism and climate change pose one of the biggest threats to human security. Therefore, the major powers should devise strategies to fight against these issues rather than engage in geopolitical rivalries.

The Middle East will continue to remain as the most volatile region in the world in terms of security. Stagnation of major economies like China and India can have ramifications for the global economy. India will have to find its own means to deal with China’s ever increasing influence over South Asian countries. International relations is always in a state of flux. As the world enters into the third decade of the 21st century, the ever changing nature of global challenges will have to be met with concerted efforts of the global community.


About the author

The writer is President and Managing Director of Nepal Forum of International Relations Studies (NEPAL FIRST).

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