International media is inundated with reports, analysis and future projections from two different shocks that are continually shaking the global system. One is political by design, the second a viral outbreak, both with serious human consequences that reach beyond the two epicentres and both may leave lasting effects in their respective paths.
Brexit and Coronavirus outbreak are both symptomatic of a turbulent 21st century which is rigged with shocks and disruptions to the global political and economic systems. The primary challenge to global leaders, is how to work with these unprecedented disruptions and shape a world and society which is progressive. Hence both these events are politically decisive to governments globally. It is in this context that the implications need to be visited from a macro framework on Sri Lanka.
Brexit and its implications
The focus in this article is the deeper and wider impact of Brexit as a major event in the 21st Century, it may become the catalyst of systematically undoing the primary weaving of the geo political West that was conceived in the aftermath of the second world war. The Geopolitical west was anchored on the institutional wiring and connectivity primarily through a security architecture facilitated by the creation of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in April,1949 and secondly by creating the impetus for a stronger Europe through an Economic Union.
The Economic Union was achieved in stages initially through the Coal and Steel union with the signing of the treaty of Paris in 1951, bringing together France, Luxembourg Italy, Netherlands, Belgium and importantly Germany. The union enabled to mitigate the historic adversarial relationship between France and Germany which became the cornerstone of European integration eventually leading to the creation of the EU in 1992. It also provided a new blueprint that the 20th century world embraced as regionalization. The idea of regional integration to gain prosperity for states and markets, became the default templates that was subsequently adopted from ASEAN to SAARC.
The departure of Britain from the most successful project of regional integration in the 20th Century, does have a devastating effect on regionalization mechanisms and provides enough ammunition to an already rejuvenated anti-regionalist sentiment.
Brexit in effect leads to both a weaker United Kingdom and a weaker European Union. The UK in terms of military strength and its security posture was the most powerful provider of security to the Union, at the time when the Union is facing heightened geo-political tension, rejuvenation of Russia and Russian deployment of military assets and Russian influence operations across the borders of Western Europe made British military power a vital deterrent in the Union’s arsenal.
From the British perspective the country will have to negotiate a complex set of trade, tariff and immigration procedures with the EU, which will be a near impossibility to be done by end of 2020. Thus UK will have to reinvent its primacy in many ways, it is not impossible but it will take a lot of effort and in the process the country will feel the heat, especially as some pro ‘Brexites’ claim , London has to re-imagine itself as the Singapore on the Thames.
The contextual analysis of the immediate futures of both UK as a country and EU as a regional mechanism doesn’t look too promising, the systemic crisis that will be born from this will inadvertently lead to further weakening of the liberal democratic heart in the global political landscape.
The Democratic terrain and democratic wave are at its lowest and in already in a crisis mode with waves of nationalism and populism metastasize on democratic politics and political institutions. While this is a result of self-inflicted wounds by political elites who led liberal democracies, the values, norms, institutions that global governance relies on, needs democracy and is as it still is its center of gravity. If the gravity generator stalls and falters the political loss will be catastrophic.
Corona virus and living with existential fears
The Coronavirus outbreak is the first outbreak that the world is witnessing parallel to social media peaking, and more importantly since China’s expansive global engagement in the last decade. China was rapidly building an image of a global China with its allure of attracting investments, research development partnerships and world class education establishment wooing scholars and students from all overt the world. Essentially last decade saw China aggressively expanding its soft power properties parallel to its strategic engagements and hard power projections.
The virus has generated a massive negative image campaign given the nature of social media campaigns, China always managed its social media sphere with a carrots and sticks approach rewarding self-censorship among citizens and aggressively controlling content online, yet it is facing a global netizen community and brunt of a disinformation campaign that depicts negativity, especially on its food culture.
The Wuhan outbreak has exposed a rare chink in the armour of Modern China, especially to the confidence of governance of President Xi Jinping who is accredited with creating and consolidating the 21st Century China on its path to be a great power. Previous outbreaks such as SARS, Ebola even MERS were more potent and had significantly higher mortality rates, Coronavirus is less potent but has the potential to spread more rapidly thus generating an existential fear of a widespread pandemic leading to a global health crisis.
Sri Lanka’s choices
The fallout from both these events will have indirect but far reaching consequences on Sri Lanka, the economic ones are obvious the underlying strategic, security and political ones are less visible yet will create challenges to the new presidency as well as the interim government. Britain will seek to expand its bi lateral relationships globally and it will find deeper interest in the strategic Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka. The recent additions in the British High Commission officer cadre in Sri Lanka, is testament to this interest. Britain will try to revitalize groupings led by its interests such as the commonwealth organization. It will move closer to the American-Indian axis in the Indian ocean, thus Sri Lanka will feel the strategic pressure mounting from this grouping.
China will expect Sri Lanka to honour its long-term friendship, China has come to the aid of Sri Lanka in many difficult times from the rubber rice pact of 1952 to consistent military support to ending the war with the LTTE in 2009. Sri Lankan government while trying to reassure its public concerns about China, China investment, Chinese people’s movements in Sri Lanka should not do it at the cost of aggressively creating a closed-door policy for anything or anyone Chinese. Sri Lanka must politically and diplomatically convince China its friendship is all weather not a selective fair-weather affair.
Brexit came into fruition as a political battle cry that was domestically made and packaged as a foreign policy imperative, thus domestic concerns can have significant international repercussions. Sri Lanka will have to manage its domestic narrative about China and despite the outbreak if not managed and sustained smartly has the potential to blow-back. These days unintended consequences are more damaging than perceived and anticipated threats. Which is one constant in this 21st Century security environment.