For those keeping tabs on happenings abroad, the past week has been disconcerting. No, it isn’t about the Omicron variant (initial ‘fear’ about which is now turning into ‘hope’). It is related to worries about a potential war breaking out between Russia and Ukraine on the borders of Europe, besides indications that U.S. and China are now increasingly misreading each other over Taiwan.
If the US establishment is to be believed, Russian President Vladimir Putin is all set to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine next month. Classified US intelligence has been leaked to newspapers, in an attempt to dissuade Russia from its adventures. European leaders are alarmed about a war whose fallout is going to pull them in, disturbing the longest spell of prosperity in Europe’s recent history.
Then there is Taiwan, the defense of which US deems as its duty, whereas China has long-sought re-unification with that island. China’s increased military posturing of late has DC worried that a rehearsal for invasion must be in progress. Previously, Chinese President had reassured President Biden that Beijing was “patient” on the question of re-unification as it wanted it to be done peacefully.
There is a common current that is running through both the Ukraine and Taiwan situations. It is the ‘emboldening effect’ that America’s messy and ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan has on US rivals. The US appeared weak. Now competitors expect Joe Biden to further scale back from conflicts abroad, as the American public is tired of what politicians have branded “forever wars”.
A few months ago, prevailing theory among Western commentators was that Russia and China were just testing the waters, to see if the US would react. But now, it appears that, at least Russia, with all its military might posted at the concerned border, is looking to alter the status quo in Ukraine. Some observers are still optimistic that Putin will back off after driving a hard bargain over NATO’s presence on Russia’s borders and asking for relief from American and European sanctions that have built up.
Let’s hope the optimism pans out and all sides can take steps to de-escalate the threatening situation. A large-scale war will play havoc with energy markets at the peak of winter. It will deal a blow to much-needed coordination among big powers on critical issues of pandemic containment, climate change and humanitarian cooperation in crisis-hit countries. It will also have the potential to divide the world into security blocs, with negative ramifications for global and regional trade and investment.
The world is already on a course towards de-globalization. Global trade currently has the lowest share in world GDP since early 2000’s. Immigration flows have been curtailed in many Western countries. Value of foreign content in local manufacturing is on the decline among economic powerhouses like US and China. The pandemic has hastened Western governments’ shift towards prioritizing domestic manufacturing and local procurement. Great-power conflict is the last thing the world needs right now.