Brig Vivek Verma Writes :
World at the Brink of Destabilisation
COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has engulfed the world with a rapid intensity. More than 170 countries are infested with the contagion. Each country is trying their own measures to contain the infection. Lockout, social distancing, precautions and patience are being advocated to prevent panic and social unrest. Countries championing the freedom and liberal value systems are the worst sufferers. Apart from the tragic human consequences the epidemic has sparked economic uncertainty. It is likely to cost the global economy more than US$1 trillion in 2020 according to the UN’s trade and development agency, UNCTAD. The nations struggling to contain the pandemic with limited capabilities are finding themselves overwhelmed by the enormity of the crisis. Controlling the movement of population not only adds to the economic costs but also adds to the social woes which if not managed well may lead to catastrophic fallout. Call by World Health Organisation (WHO) to back this worldwide emergency with ‘Global Humanitarian Response Plan’ both politically and financially makes sense. But is the world which has seen its wealth and reputation being eroded in matter of months take the export of COVID-19 to their country lightly? Pandemic has suddenly halted the period of steady growth and states are struggling with resource crunch and capability erosion. This strategic uncertainty has brought the world to the brink of destabilisation.
Geo-political Game Play
Amidst social distancing, new strategic strands are being woven. On 23 March 2020, China’s English daily, Global Times, criticised the US for waging a public opinion warfare against China. It alleged that the Washington’s effort to make China assume the responsibility for spread of Pandemic is unfounded. Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, in a press conference on 25 March 2020 categorically blamed the senior leadership of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of spreading disinformation on the origin of ‘Wuhan Virus’ and accused it of delaying the sharing the data on the contagion. As regards question of suing China over the pandemic he downrightly replied “there’ll be a time for the world to evaluate responsibility for what took place” making it an open ended issue that will be pursued by the US congress. While the world is battling the pandemic, new battle lines are getting drawn that will be played alongside. “Geo-politics is back, and back with a vengeance after this holiday from history we took in the post-cold war era”.
As the din over COVID-19 impact grows, PLA Daily on 25 March 2020 was quick to point out that the pandemic will have serious impact on US military’s global influence. Washington responded the same day by dispatching its warships across Taiwan Strait thus touching the Chinese sensitivity regrading Taiwan which for Beijing is its core sovereign interest. China condemned the US action and declared that the act is violation of its sovereignty and it has “sufficient capability to thwart any form of separatist acts”.  While the incident can be brushed aside as a routine activity by the US forces practicing ‘Freedom of Navigation Operations’ and staple response from the Chinese. However, with the WHO asserting that the US can be the new epicentre for the COVID 19, it makes matter worse.
Pandemic and the Non-Contact Warfare
With the signs of strain showing across the globe in handling the pandemic, the battle lines however have already emerged. Direct confrontation may not be the immediate goal, however the recipe for orchestrating non-contact warfare is ripe. In the book “War for Power” published in 2010, Guo Jiwei of China’s Army University had proposed the concept of War with biological characteristics. The 2017 edition of Science of Military Strategy published by China’s People Liberation Army’s (PLA) National Defence University have introduced a new chapter titled “biology as a domain of military struggle”. According to Dr Monika Chansoria, Senior Fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs and a noted China expert, PLA has been scripting the use of biological warfare in their strategic discourse for more than two decades. The cross integration of biotechnology, genetic engineering, and information technology has only aided its evolution based on strategic formulation. 2018 US ‘Bio-defense Strategy’ talks about managing the risk of biological threats as one of the “vital interest” of the US, whether such threats are naturally occurring diseases, accidents involving dangerous pathogens, or deliberate attacks using biological agents. No wonder, biological warfare which was so far ensconced within wraps has surfaced in the face of the pandemic. It forms an important elements of non-contact warfare.
Non-Contact warfare is the form of warfare in which states seeks to employ all elements of national power and the non-state groups attempts to leverage their influence across multiple domains to target adversary’s population, sovereignty, governance structures and economy through non-kinetic and kinetic means with a view to intimidate, paralyse or denude its politico-military response capabilities and enable winning without fighting or fight with minimum use of physical contact of own forces. Non-contact warfare looks at targeting adversary’s sensitivities and vulnerabilities so that the response remains measured and the escalation matrix is calibrated in such a manner that it can be orchestrated to remain ahead in the game of domination. Winning along each ladder of escalation is essential to extract favourable outcomes.
Non-contact warfare looks at employing denial, deceptions or disinformation to undermine the adversary’s orientation within the OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide and Act) loop. Orientation is the first level where this game is played. It forms the fulcrum of Boyd’s OODA Loop as it shapes the character of the loops and affects future orientation. The act is directed to target the decision and the goal is to collapse adversary’s system into confusion and disorder causing it to over or under react to activity that appears simultaneously menacing as well as ambiguous, chaotic, or misleading. The relentless information operations are part of the narrative build up and threat of use of force or its proportionate use through standoff means is part of re-emphasising the narrative. Non-contact warfare finds its applicability across all domains and escalation matrix. However, the complexities plague the future discourse as each country pursues their own interests.
Disruption, denial, distortion, disempowerment, destabilization and destruction are some of the themes that will be used to coerce or compel the aggressor to abide by the international rule-based norms. Dominance strategy will look at remaining ahead in economic and technological realm with a balanced political disposition and capability-based force and an ability to forge legislations and alliances which grant better access and acceptability across the world. For competing powers like the US and China, the challenge will be to either accelerate economic and technological progress or create disruptions or impediments across domain by external or internal means with a view to dislocate and divert efforts and attempt to create social instability in each other’s country.
World already witnessing a period of strategic destabilization is guided by uncertainties. Contagion has already created chaos over which the future narrative will be built. Pandemic has given rise to’ info-demic’ where alternate facts or disinformation are being traded and marketed. China has done well so far by putting its ‘three warfare’ strategy in place by engaging in a well-crafted opinion shaping and psychological campaign. It is promoting its success in fighting the contagion while marketing its capabilities in AI, robotics and social stability. Bioethics, biohazard, bioweaponry and bioterrorism were some of the issues that was discussed during the eighth Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in November 2016 at Geneva but no concrete steps were formulated. COVID-19 is set to test the 2021 review BWC.
How well the western world is going to contain the pandemic will dictate whether we can avoid the catastrophe? With consensus elusive and geo-politics in play is this pandemic a precursor for the World War III?
 Coronavirus update: COVID-19 likely to cost economy $1 trillion during 2020, says UN trade agency. (2020, March 09). Retrieved from UN News: https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059011
WHO Director General’s remarks Launch of Appeal: Global Humanitarian Response Plan – 25 March 2020. (2020, March 25). Retrieved from World Health Organisation: https://www.who.int/dg/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-remarks-launch-of-appeal-global-humanitarian-response-plan—25-march-2020
 US should put solidarity above geopolitics: Global Times editorial. (2020, March 23). Retrieved from Global Times: https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1183499.shtml
 Secretary Michael R. Pompeo At a Press Availability. (2020, March 25). Retrieved from U.S.Department of State: https://www.state.gov/secretary-michael-r-pompeo-at-a-press-availability-3/
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 Lufan, C. (2020, March 26). China slams U.S. warship for trespassing in Taiwan Strait. Retrieved from CGTN.com: http://english.pladaily.com.cn/view/2020-03/26/content_9778199.htm
 Woods, A. (2020, March 24). US has potential to become new coronavirus epicenter: WHO. Retrieved from NewYorkPost: https://nypost.com/2020/03/24/us-has-potential-to-become-new-coronavirus-epicenter-who/
 Chansoria, M. (2020, March 25). Biological Weapons the Focus of China’s Military Research in the Last 20 Years. Retrieved from JapanForward: http://japan-forward.com/biological-weapons-the-focus-of-chinas-military-research-in-the-last-20-years/
 NATIONALBIODEFENSE STRATEGY 2018. (2018, September 08). Retrieved from White House: https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/National-Biodefense-Strategy.pdf
Brig Vivek Verma Senior Research Fellow at the USI of India, New Delhi.
Article uploaded on 27-03-2020
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he/she belongs to or of the USI of India.