The most interesting and complex classroom is the world that comprises of a large number of boys of various hues, temperaments, sizes, wealth, strengths and ages with differing backgrounds, history and upbringing. I often wonder who has the greater advantage, the biggest boy in class or the richest. On reflection, I realised that especially in today’s environment both ‘big and rich’ are equally important to have an edge in the class. By mutual consensus, China is the fastest growing rich big boy in class, as existing biggest boy, who’s also the Headboy (USA), is no longer growing fast (some would say it has stopped growing). The rest of the class comprises of one large boy (Russia) who was once a peer contender of USA, few mid-sized and many smaller boys that are mainly poor and individually don’t pose much competition. Some mid-sized and small boys have formed a boy’s fraternity club (EU), with the aim of projecting a richer and bigger size than their individual personas.
The biggest boy has attracted large number of other boys including the fraternity club on his side with a mix of help, persuasion, coercion and his approachable friendly nature. He has also influenced the ‘Management’, ‘Principal’ and most ‘Teachers’ (Bretton Woods institutions, UN and its associated institutions, WTO etc.) who think they set the rules in the school and class. In reality, the biggest boy and to some extent the fraternity club have actually set the rules and traditions, but allow the management to think otherwise. To ensure domination, the Headboy has strategically made friends with groups and even individual boys with the assurance of mutual help whenever required.
China, the fastest growing rich big boy has always been different from his birth; low key, unconventional, treading his own path to the consternation of the majority. In spite of being a loner and introvert, he had the advantage of being born to an old illustrious family with a rich history and tradition. His quiet determination and focus have been rewarded handsomely by increasing wealth (maximum savings) and becoming the second strongest boy in class. From his usual reticent self, he is slowly transforming into a confident, abrasive, aggressive boy and feels it is time to step out of the shadow of USA, and dominate his side of the class.
Russia, the original bad boy, who had a special dislike for USA for being the Headboy has stopped growing and is actually shrinking, is now another interesting student. Due to his nuclear arsenal and oil he can still play the spoilsport by influencing some boys and exploit any eventuality / opportunity which comes his way. A few upstarts, small but ambitious (North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, Venezuela and some more), want to create space for themselves both by association and being even more unconventional (willfully rogue or irrational), and generally gravitate towards China after initially being enamoured by Russia.
Change being the only constant, like declining fortunes of Russia at present, the US and China are battling it out to be the Headboy in the world’s 2020s class. China, also referred to as ‘Dragon’ has friends and a permanent coterie by providing generous assistance to mainly unconventional boys, and Russia got a spurt of energy (literally speaking), and both found that with intelligent manoeuvres and friendships and exploiting situations they can walk taller. Maybe they could even become true friends, which is unlikely given their ambitions, uncompromising nature as also past frictions. This collection of disparate students makes for a fairly noisy, feisty, argumentative and unruly batch with frequent one-upmanship, petty quarreling, monopolizing resources, sharing discriminately, using tricks to subdue adversaries with rare moments of harmony. Even if they did appear to get along for a common cause the big boys made sure to create enough centripetal force to ensure their friends stayed close to them.
Let’s be clear, the democratic, capitalist strongest boy USA was by no means ‘ever benevolent’. To ensure he remains the Headboy, he too would resort to any means, democratic or otherwise. He never hesitated to make strong friendships with the headstrong, even unstable boys (Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia, even China till very recently) to achieve his aims. In fact, the onus of making China strong vests solely on him, as he created conditions for making China the counterbalance to rival Russia.
Remaining as the Headboy takes its toll specially on wealth and strength, and a new inconsistent, immature and some would say unreliable USA slowly started losing interest, wealth and thus clout due to his continues manoeuvring to remain on top, allowing other boys to occupy the strategic space vacated. His new philosophy of ‘America First’, ironically has impacted even his closest friends let alone the groups he promised to protect (UK, EU, Japan, South Korea) making them feel vulnerable and cheated. This has impacted their stance and reactions towards China (irrespective of their inclinations).
America always had his favourite adversaries, but the current villain China has become a peer competitor and is threatening the status quo. For the first time ever, his dominance in the world and homeland America is being challenged (he likes to say threatened) credibly. The established class order and structures are unstable, and all the boys need to dynamically adjust their relationships. An apprehensive USA realises that his holding on to the post of Headboy is slippery, and he has two options open to him– First, to continue fighting his main rivals Russia and China in every way possible; Second, to allow them their spheres of influence and friends and reach some sort of understanding of rules of engagement/conduct where all three maintain status quo within their zones. Secretly, all three, especially the US knows that the second option is unworkable/unrealistic as allowing space will only embolden each of them to manoeuvre and increase their influence leading to degradation of other rivals. This open and discreet juggling has led to further instability.
Within this class, there was also a quiet, innocuous, disciplined, economically poor but big boy India with a rich history and culture, who was considered insignificant, except to provide some succour or seek help purely to make up numbers. India sermonised peace and chose to be neutral like Switzerland and formed a very small peaceful non-aligned group. He did surprise the big powers by firmly resisting to take sides. He did what everyone else including the US and China are doing now; ‘a fine balancing act’. Initially, India didn’t count for much, but his non-partisanship, maturity and consistency became noticeable to many, and what impressed and surprised them was India’s readiness to help everybody irrespective of group and without an agenda, providing him formidable soft power (ironically this softness has also caused him many a hardship!). Status of a nuclear weapon state also supplemented his strength.
Unfortunately, at least initially, India failed to make good friends of the bench mates around him (immediate and regional neighbourhood), as he was much bigger but also perceived as harmless. We all know that boys do not think much of other boys who are perceived as weak, meek or harmless. Two benchers China and Pakistan, for many reasons were perpetually implacable to India and are constantly trying to bring him down, by not allowing him any space. China seeing a potential threat to his ambitions, and Pakistan being born of the same mother but being ‘different and small’. Naturally, they became steadfast friends with a common cause of stymieing India’s rise. Fortunately, a more confident, decisive and focussed India has emerged, who has learnt to ‘run with the hare and hunt with the hounds’.
Suddenly, into this unstable cauldron of a class came a new dangerous virus and the disease called ‘COVID-19’ by the end of 2019 which is threatening to totally upend the class, its dynamics, the tenuous relationships and even ravage death and destruction (in all ways including economic) if not fought both collectively and individually. There are serious differences in the class (leaders, organisations, medical authorities and even citizens) on how to deal with the pandemic. One fact which has emerged is that it will not go away in a hurry and can only be stalled once a vaccine is introduced. Even the methodology of control varies, but the most discussed and analysed aspect is the lockdown, both inter and intra-state. The desperation is heightened by the fact that while lockdown would establish some degree of control over the virus, it would concurrently destroy the economy in varying degrees within the class, which in turn could totally change the dynamics and power structure of the class.
Naturally the class has got seriously disrupted and disunited instead of getting together to fight and defeat this COVID-19. China is emerging as ‘the bad boy’ for creating/or being willfully instrumental in creating a dangerous virus and the pandemic. Many rumours and theories are doing the rounds causing pandemonium amidst the growing pandemic. A truly disturbing rumour that a lab created the virus in China and/or China kept hidden vital information about the virus from the class to ensure that all get infected and thus weaken them, with the strategic aim of becoming the dominant boy of class is sounding increasingly tenable. China, having stemmed the onslaught of the virus through self-discipline appears to be surging ahead in helping others in many ways, which boys suspect is not truly altruistic. This is causing severe heartburn to the US who naturally is not pleased, and is making loud threatening noises but is presently battling the Coronavirus which has hit it particularly harshly due to a mix of poor leadership and mismanagement.
India, the ponderous elephant of the class, has surprisingly done well so far by acting early, with focus under a strong leadership and with a public willing to cooperate. India understood far-reaching implications both in terms of the pandemic and the strategic space that would result if it handles the crisis well.
Many observers and self-styled experts watching the class, both passionately and dispassionately are predicting many outcomes and making numerous recommendations based on their observations / perceptions / biases and alliances on how the class will fare, who will come out on top, what new alignments will take shape, which ideology will emerge dominant, who will be winners and losers, how the class composition will be like, or whether China will emerge the dominant player. The future is uncertain and nobody can predict with surety. One aspect is certain, the class will change irrevocably, it’s an opportunity for India to play its cards well and emerge more confident and stronger with a respected standing in the class. Only time will provide the answers.