Maj Gen SB Asthana, SM, VSM (Retd) Writes :
The outbreak of COVID-19 has demonstrated the destructive potential of virus as a weapon of mass destruction.
The strategic competition amongst major powers has already pushed the world into undeclared third world war with changed dimensions and instruments.
COVID-19 has changed the intensity, dimension and trajectory of Ongoing undeclared Third World War, with a possibility of change in global order after the pandemic.
In a global tug of war, COVID-19 has added a new dimension to alter the global strategic balance and triggered another chain of event for global strategic dominance, besides unprecedented human sufferings. During First and Second World War eras, use of military forces and declaration of war was considered as a basic essentiality to call it a War. War was defined to be a state in which a nation prosecutes its right by force. Similarly, as per Collins English Dictionary, a World War is a war that involves countries all over the world. The meaning of ‘Force’ in the modern era has grown way beyond hard power alone, along with various dimensions of application. During earlier world wars, the strategic aims were capture of key territories or surrender of political leadership/will of adversaries. In the current era the strategic aim revolves around economic collapse of adversary, with economy and people becoming the centre of gravity of the enemy, which needs to be targeted. In light of the above realities, the paper argues that the world was already in the grips of a Third World War (beyond cold war) having different dimensions and instruments, except that it was not declared, and the COVID-19 has further changed its trajectory and dimension.
Were We already in Undeclared Third World War prior to COVID-19?
A reality check of destructive capability of major world power reveals that due to mutually assured destruction (MAD) a full scale, declared World War like First or Second World Wars between combat forces may not occur, as it will be economically devastating for all major powers. The military hardware of all types (including nuclear) will continue to grow as an instrument for deterrence, as well as trade. The Force for application in a world war has a new measurement in terms of Comprehensive National Power (CNP) of the nations. It includes economy (including energy security), military strength (including nuclear capability), strategic positioning/posturing, foreign policy/diplomacy, governance, Human Development Index (HDI), technological capability, knowledge and information, geography, natural resources, national will and leadership. Out of all the components of CNP mentioned above, economic power is the over-riding component dictating the rest.
The application of economic power had resulted in intense Trade/Tariff War between the two largest economies (US and China) spiralling upwards[i] at a rapid rate last year. US had slapped economic sanctions on Russia, Iran, North Korea and some other countries. It affects the entire world and puts global economy in turbulence defining the global nature of economic war. The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative to increase its infrastructure reach and strategic footprints almost in all continents and the counter initiatives by US, Japan and others are also part of this economic and strategic war. The ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, since last two decades, are also linked with economy, sale of military hardware to either side including sale of weapons to terrorists.
In the Indo-Pacific the conventional and nuclear armed combat forces of US and China are continuing strategic posturing, deterrence and messaging to all stakeholders. China used combat forces to occupy and develop artificial islands in the South China Sea, which was also claimed by others, in an attempt to convert international watersa into Chinese lake along shipping lanes that carry USD 5 trillion worth of global trade per year[ii]. The combat exercises being conducted in Indo-Pacific are a show of force and alliances, besides the optics. The expansion of military bases adds the logistics content of the war. The North Korean missile and nuclear tests to demonstrate its capability to strike US mainland, and US military exercises with South Korea to moderate it, also display the posturing of combat forces. To name a couple, the military force has been physically used in Crimea and Syria, where the US and Russia stood on opposite sides, although they have been cautious enough not to attack each other to up the ante to ‘Declared War’. The military intervention of Saudi Arabia and multinational force in Yemen also qualify to be called as war, which was responded by Houthis bringing non state actors in the conflict. The recent US-Iran confrontation after killing of Sulemani, brought both countries close to war. If all these cases of use of conventional forces are linked, then two opposing alliances covering worldwide conflicts appear on the scene, the first one being US-Israel-Saudi Arabia-South Korea-Japan and the other one being China-Russia-North Korea-Iran-Syria, with other countries seem to be doing strategic balancing.
While nuclear war may have low probability, but the concept seems to be replaced by nuclear blackmailing by North Korea and Pakistan to avoid conventional war and few countries attempting increase nuclear and missile capability for using safety as an excuse. Abrogation of CTBT, increase in tactical nukes and possibility of dirty bomb falling in hands of terrorists are new dimensions. The allegations of use of nerve agents in Syria indicates that despite a ban by UN, this arsenal continues to be prepared and selectively used. The technological competition is an added dimension to warfare. The space warfare has also taken a dangerous turn with each side taking preparatory actions to destroy each other’s satellites and other space infrastructure. Terrorism and Cyber Warfare is an omnipresent threat for all countries. Proxy wars by nations using irregulars using terrorism as a tool of statecraft is common. The theory of ‘Good and bad terrorists’, individual interests of countries and global powerplay has overtaken the unified global war on terrorism, with major powers fighting some terrorist groups and closing eyes towards others. MENA and Af-Pak region are live example of that. The use of all elements of information war, to include misinformation campaign, election meddling, cyber war, hacking of economic and crucial military network are already in progress.
Some strategists term the situation described above as ‘Cold War’, which as per Cambridge Dictionary, is a ‘state of extreme unfriendliness existing between countries with opposing political systems that expresses itself not through fighting but through political pressure and threats’, used to describe the relationship between the US and the Soviet Union after the Second World War. The number of casualties suffered in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and other areas, and the number of refugees displaced due to these conflicts surpasses the total casualties as well as refugees of both the earlier World Wars put together. In Syrian War alone 3.5 million people have been killed, so far. The global strategic situation described above is way beyond that definition/bounds/realms of cold war. It has graduated to conflicts, capture of territory like South China Sea, innumerable deaths and economic destruction; hence calling it cold war will be understatement. This reality check brings out that the global situation even before COVID-19 had every element of a World War, except that the dimension, instruments and modalities had changed, and the war has not been ‘Formally Declared’; hence it may not be wrong to call it an ‘Undeclared Third World War’[iii].
COVID-19 gives New Dimension and Trajectory to Ongoing Third World War
The outbreak of Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), has put humanity to one of the biggest risks of this century. It exposed the vulnerability of strongest nations to unprecedented human tragedy triggered by a possible biological weapon (accidently or otherwise), while the global powers were busy strengthening other elements of CNP. It exposed the dangers of any possible biological weapon to the world, adding a new dimension in ongoing Third World War. It has also exposed the suspicion that despite Biological Warfare Convention, the research on such arsenal are still being pursued. Wuhan being the initial epicentre in December 2019, the trends in early 2020 suggested a sheer drop in CNP of China with combined effect of US-China trade war, failing BRI and COVID-19. The last week of March 2020 onwards saw the epicenters of COVID-19 shifting westwards with US, Europe and UK emerging to be worst affected, and China showing signs of recovery. Paralyzed by the shock of infection the remaining world continues to be engaged in protecting its citizens as the first priority, in their critical phase of pandemic cycle with every possible means. The global anger against China for delaying possibility of global response to pandemic is far from over, but on low key not to disrupt the medical supply. Chinese narrative kept changing from accidental originator to victim then good fighter and later posing itself to be the good Samaritan volunteering to help the world in combating the pandemic. The delay by WHO in declaring it a pandemic exposed the vulnerability of global organizations like United Nations to possible manipulation by P5 members like China.
China on the other hand having declaring victory over the pandemic, was quick to put its manufacturing back in place, trying to boost a ‘COVID-19 Economy’ by creating a ‘Health Silk Road’ and activating most needed supply chain of medical equipment and medicines, as an attempt to earn maximum profit out of the pandemic, besides attempting to repair its global image. In context of economic war, it brought out the global vulnerability of putting in maximum manufacturing of essential goods in Chinese basket; hence many countries like Japan have decided to incentivize pulling out some of their manufacturing bases out from China, and many have learnt a lesson to be self-reliant on critical supplies. The economic competition has also pushed US and western countries to prematurely lift certain social precautions against the pandemic, so that they do not take unacceptable economic hit while competing with China, creating an additional risk to human lives.
Strategically China followed the teachings of its old military strategist Sun Tzu, who had advocated ‘strike when the enemy is weak and preserve when it is strong’. With US and other countries deeply involved in combating Novel Coronavirus, China and North Korea made some offensive gestures. North Korea tested missiles in quick succession and China launched aggressive offensive posturing by sending aircraft carrier near Taiwan, knocking off fishing boat of Vietnam and Malaysia to strengthen its claim in South China Sea up to Nine Dash Line. The reports of a nuclear test by Chinese in Lop Nor by the US was responded to as holding Elephant Walk in show of strength to caution the potential adversaries. China also decided to use this opportunity to unilaterally set up administration in Paracel and Spratly Islands and features claimed by other countries as well, to tighten its grip on South China Sea. It’s unilateral move to approve the establishment of the Xisha and Nansha districts under Sansha city in southern island of Hainan did not go well with global community, but as per Chinese strategic calculations, this seemed to be the best time for them to do so, even if it amounted to blatant violation of UNCLOS and diverting attention of others in combating COVID-19. It also exposed sham Code of Conduct drama which China was doing to keep ASEAN countries amused. This political offensive was immediately responded through strong military posturing by US and Australian Navies, sailing mighty aircraft carrier and combat ships of Seventh Fleet, as a show of force to counter the move of Chinese aggressive stance in freedom of navigation operations in South China Sea. They also flew fighter aircrafts near Taiwan Strait responding to offensive posturing of China towards Taiwan, by sailing their new aircraft carrier near it.
Impact on New Paradigm, Dimensions and Instruments of Third World War
The economic offensive and military posturing of China in Indo-Pacific, especially in South China Sea and US response has increased the pace of ongoing Third World War. COVID-19 has exposed some vulnerabilities of US and created huge trust deficit for China globally; hence the idea of everyone accepting one/two countries as superpower or global leader may soon be outdated, in the future world. It may appear that China has an upper edge because of controlling COVID-19 earlier, but it is too early to predict because the global anger and trust deficit is against China; hence the strategic situation is fluid. A new global order will emerge, which may not be US/China centric. All countries, big or small will protect their national interests, look for self-reliance and will protect their strategic choices. It can also be argued that unlike earlier world wars, this phase of the Third World War could last for decades, and what we are witnessing is its preparatory phase. The world is yet to mentally accept the transition of World War into a new dimension to encompass economic warfare, trade, technological, space, and information war including cyber warfare. Diplomatic wars to include formulation of alliances like QUAD, Russia – China upcoming relations fitting in their idea of Eurasia.[iv]4 , expelling diplomats and counter diplomatic offensive by other side, joint military exercises are new instruments of expression of collective power.
The conventional war has now taken a back seat, but the space exists for such wars at regional level within the overall ambit of Third World War. The new paradigm will be that unlike earlier World Wars, all countries will not be at war, because all of them may not agree to common narratives of key players, hence some countries would be at hot war like Saudi Arabia and Yemen, some countries in military posturing stage, and some will be using other dimensions and instruments of war like economic warfare, trade, diplomatic, technological and information war including cyber warfare. The space dimension is not yet fully explored; hence with recent advancements in this field, the world may see former President Ronald Reagan’s fancy dream of ‘Star Wars’ to new potential. COVID-19 has been a wild card entry in ongoing world war. The eastern hemisphere seems to be fighting the Corona war a little better so far. The next few decades will see the pivot shifting towards East, as it has fastest growing economies as well as population centres. It can, therefore be argued that the battleground for ‘Undeclared Third World War’ is the Indo-Pacific, and the world has already entered in preparatory phase of it, without recognising/declaring it to be so.
[i] Jiangtao Shi and Owen Churchill (2018), More than tariffs: China sees trade war as a new US containment tactic, South China Morning Post, 19 Aug 2018. URL https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2160375/more-tariffs-china-sees-trade-war-new-us-containment#add-comment
[ii] China Arms Its Great Wall of Sand, Wall Street Journal, 15 Dec 2016. URL https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-arms-its-great-wall-of-sand-1481848109
[iii] Asthana S B (2018), Aren’t We Already in ‘Undeclared Third World War’ with Changed Dimensions and Instruments? Journal of the United Service Institution of India, Vol. CXLVIII, No. 613, July-September 2018. URL http://usiofindia.org/Article/?pub=Journal&pubno=613&ano=3074
[iv] Nadège Rolland (2019), A China–Russia Condominium over Eurasia, Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, Vol 61, Edition1, pages7-22, IISS, February–March 2019. URL https://www.iiss.org/publications/survival/2019/survival-global-politics-and-strategy-februarymarch-2019/611-02-rolland
Major General S B Asthana, SM, VSM (Retd), is the Chief Instructor at the USI of India. The General officer is a strategic and security analyst, a veteran Infantry General with 40 years’ experience in national & international fields and UN. He is a globally acknowledged strategic & military writer/analyst and has authored over 350 publications.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI of India.