How A Deadly Virus And A Tweet Resurrected The Bipolar WorldBloombergQuintOpinion
BRICs, an acronym defining Brazil, Russia, India, and China, was the hottest geopolitical phenomenon in the noughties. It was coined by Jim O’Neill, the Goldman Sachs economist, in the chaotic aftermath of 9/11. It was then widely believed that Al Qaeda’s attack on New York’s twin towers in 2001, followed seven years and four days later by the Lehman collapse in 2008, had dethroned America as the king of the world. The unipolar world had given way to a multipolar one in which BRICS – the plural ‘s’ had given way to the capitalised ‘S’ in 2010 as South Africa joined the foursome – would relegate America to a mere first among equals.
In fact, the ‘rise of the rest’ got cemented when the next three biggest emerging markets, viz Mexico, Indonesia, and Turkey, added to the heft of BRICS, putting these seven ‘new economic powers’ ahead of the traditional G7 advanced economies in terms of GDP measured in purchasing power parity.
This ‘multi-polarisation of the world’ gathered momentum through to 2016, as the Chinese and Indian economies recovered and accelerated, while America and Europe lumbered in the slow lane. There was much bonhomie between China and India, with invocations of the spirit of Ahmedabad and Wuhan (before Wuhan became infamous for unleashing Covid-19) strengthening the urge for multipolarity.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a walk alongside the East Lake in Wuhan. (Photo Courtesy: MEA)
There were some creeping fears about China breaking away from the pack to become a hegemon, but nobody was that alarmed.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump scripted a shocking victory and made a disruptive entry into the White House. He turned America inward, either pulling out from or weakening its leadership of global alliances. From climate change to Iran to NATO, America signaled an unexpected retreat.
At the same time, President Xi Jinping accumulated vast powers and ambition in China. He struck an aggressive alliance with a militarily resurgent Russia. He used China’s awesome economic muscle to penetrate dozens of third-world economies. Unfortunately, around the same time, India’s economy began a rapid descent, with GDP growth falling from a robust 8%+ to 4%. Galloping alone, China was soon emerging as a new pole in world politics.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic struck, causing mayhem across the world. Almost every country was devastated by double-digit GDP contraction, except China, which controlled the virus and managed to grow at 6%. So, it was only a matter of time before multipolarity died a natural death. Its dirge was sung in the first week of July 2021.
On the first of July, President Xi abandoned diplomatic niceties to prance like an all-conquering, unbeatable Bollywood hero who single-handedly destroys a gang of 20 thugs shouting “dishum, ek ek ko chun chun kay maroonga, dishum” (I will pick and clobber each one). More accurately, Xi said that anybody who tries to bully China “will face broken heads and bloodshed in front of the iron Great Wall of 1.4 billion Chinese people”. In a cruel irony, just 12 months earlier, this imagery was brutally on display as dozens of Chinese and Indian soldiers had bludgeoned each other at Galwan. But on the first of July, Xi was clearly doing a disproportionately aggressive tit-for-tat to Nato’s missive reprimanding “China’s stated ambitions and assertive behaviour (that) present systematic challenges to a rules-based international order”. Xi had chosen the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party to angrily hurl and stake his pole on earth. India responded with a stony silence, without even a perfunctory greeting on the 100-year celebratory milestone.
L)ive news broadcast of Chinese President Xi Jinping at a ceremony marking the centenary of the Chinese Community Party, taking place at Beijing's Tiananmen Square, in Shanghai, China, on July 1, 2021. (Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)
Three days later, on the fourth of July, Prime Minister Modi sent a warm, cuddly tweet to President Biden on America’s 245th Independence Day:
With one stroke, the multipolar world was struck down. BRICS became as much of a vacuous showpiece as the Non-Aligned Movement, which India had tried to spearhead during the cold war era as the ‘third pole’.
It’s now China, Russia, and their satellites in the red corner; and a “quad of democracies”, led by America, in the blue corner. Despite outer trappings of professed neutrality, India is now effectively aligned.
What was fragmented by a few hijacked airplanes in 2001 has been resurrected by a deadly virus in 2021. Welcome to the new bipolar world.
Raghav Bahl is Co-Founder – The Quint Group including BloombergQuint. He is the author of three books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’, and ‘Super Century: What India Must Do to Rise by 2050’.