Is the rise of China going to give birth to new bipolar world order?

Image source: CGTN

Speculation and predictions have begun about what the world system will be like in the aftermath of the corona epidemic. From political scientists to diplomats, politicians, businessmen, researchers, academicians everyone has started giving different interpretations of this issue. The question is whether the existence of the unipolar world order we have seen since the end of the cold war is in jeopardy. In the aftermath of the corona epidemic, the majority of experts are convinced that the United States will not be able to remain at the centre of world power. In particular, the possibility of a new China-led unipolar world order in the future cannot be ruled out. If a bipolar world emerges again tomorrow after the end of the corona epidemic, it is certain that China will be at one of the world’s poles. The idea of such a bipolar world in the aftermath of the corona epidemic in the wake of Ladakh issue and Nepal border issue is pervasive in the minds of some section of Indian Politicians and diplomats. 

Universal events like two world wars or several epidemics have changed the course of world’s power in the past. Epidemics such a Spanish flu, yellow fever and plague have been seen all over the world. In particular, the plague has become the most frequent epidemic. Ironically, the plague’s contribution to the history of the world is equal to that of the famous rulers such as Alexander and Napoleon and ideologies such as liberalism and Marxism. Every time the plague has appeared in the past, it has taken the lives of many people and shaken foundations of the entire state system. The plague has brought down many ancient civilizations, the most notable of which is Athenian City-State, the world’s oldest democracy.

Peloponnesian War illustration/ Image source: Tes

In 431 BC, at 27-year Peloponnesian war broke out between the inhabitants of Athens and Sparta, two city-states in Greece.[1] That same year, the plague broke out in Athens. A quarter of the people in Athens died of the plague. Pericles died of the plague three years after gaining the omnipotence of Athens. The Peloponnesian war ended with the conquest of Athens by the Spartan Admiral Lysander. With the end of the Peloponnesian war, Athenian democracy officially came to an end. Although the fall of Athens was officially the result of the Peloponnesian war, the main reason for its fall was the plague epidemic. The plague completely ravaged the economic, social and political structure of Athens. The history of the Peloponnesian war was written by the renowned Greek historian Thucydides, who himself was one of the generals of this war. His vivid and eloquent account shows how the plague plunged the Athenians into death and self-centeredness.

The Greek city-states are considered to be the earliest forms of modern democracies and liberal States. Duties and responsibilities of citizens were the mainstays of democracy in the Greek city-state system. Responsibilities and duties could only be fulfilled in a united civic life. Athenian Greeks at that time believed that democracy was the best way to improve the quality of human life. Pericles, known as ‘the first citizen of Athens’, was himself a patron of liberal ideas. He emphasised on the development of independent and free-thinking of the individual. But the plague in Athens set boundaries between the people, weakening the very idea of a United life, as the mainstay of democracy. Later, Roman democracy with the opposite characteristics of the Greek city-states was formed, the main basis of which was law. The idea of democracy in the Roman empire was that the rights given to citizens by law could be transferred through delegates, due to the continuous transfer of power in the Roman Empire, the rights one day fell into the hands of the emperor, destroying the free spirit of democracy. According to some historians, the Roman Civilization, like the Greek Civilization was also destroyed by the epidemic. History bears witness to the fact that epidemics played a significant role in the collapse of most civilizations.

Just as the plague hit Athenian democracy two and a half thousand years ago, COVID-19 is hitting the foundations of hundreds of years of liberal democracy today. Europe, the birthplace of the enlightenment, has become like an isolated Iceland, detached from the rest of the world. The European Union is also on the verge of collapse. Ever since Donald Trump took over the presidency of the United States, he has severed ties with US’s old allies one by one. The US-led alliance that once controlled the entire world system are virtually obsolete today. Today, almost every country in the world is building a fence of sanctions around itself to prevent coronavirus from entering. Today, the idea of globalisation has been shattered by the dreaded coronavirus, ignoring globalisation, protectionism is on the rise again, with each State withdrawing from participating in the global system. Democracy is in crisis in almost every country. Now the question arises that if the COVID-19 epidemic continues, how will the elections be held, how will the people participate in the voting process? What is the future of international politics? To prevent coronavirus transmission to humans, States are banning physical social interactions, imposing lockdowns. States are becoming economically weak as a result of prolonged lockdowns.

PLA China/ Image source: CNN

At a time when liberal democracies are in such dire straits, China has quickly stepped in to show its military might by controlling the coronavirus through its authoritarian one-party rule. China is making it clear by its actions that it will never stop taking advantage of opportunities. At a time when other countries are struggling to cope with the onslaught of the coronavirus, China sees this as a great opportunity to show its superiority in world politics. China’s attack on India on the Ladakh border is a manifestation of this policy. China has pursued this policy with one country after another in the South China Sea. China is unreasonably displaying its militancy prowess in expanding its borders. Occupying South Asia by isolating India has now become one of China’s goals.

China’s provocation is evident in the new map recently passed in the parliament of Nepal, which includes three regions of India. China is determined to harm India, China’s biggest enemy in South Asia. China’s role in opposing India’s bid for permanent membership of the Security Council of the UN or its role in opposing India’s demand to declare Masood Azhar as ‘global terrorist’ reflects their anti-India stance. Not only that China is also obstructing India to carry out any infrastructure in its border areas. Diplomats are not willing to see any of these as isolated incidents. According to them, all these are part of a huge plan of China. All Southeast Asian Nations, including Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippine are witnessing China’s massive aggression in the South China Sea. Experts say China’s mighty muscle bragging has just begun during the corona episode, only time will tell where it will end up tomorrow. Even in the current pandemic situation, the way in which Chinese President Xi Jinping instructed the People’s Liberation Army of China to prepare for war is alarming enough to the world. This instruction from Jinping is an indication of the direction in which the post-epidemic world will move.


[1] Thucydides. 1921. Thucydides: the History of the Peloponnesian War.  Vol I, II. C F Smith, trans. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Rahul Das

Rahul Das is an M.Phil Scholar of International Relations at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He's a gold medalist of Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata.

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