The outbreak of COVID-19 has demonstrated the humongous damage potential of a virus (possibly synthesised in a laboratory!?) as a weapon of mass destruction. It has added a new dimension to alter the global strategic balance and triggered another chain of events for global strategic dominance, besides unprecedented human sufferings.
During First and Second World Wars era, use of military forces and declaration of war was considered as basic essentiality to call it a World War. War is 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 beyond hard power, with many instruments and 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 need to be targeted.
Were we already in Third World War prior to COVID-19?
Considering the annihilating capability of major world powers, leading to a mutually assured destruction (MAD) in a full scale war, the declaration of war as in the earlier era of World War like First or Second World Wars between combat forces may not occur.
The ‘Force’ for application will be measured in terms of the potential of the Comprehensive National Power (CNP) of the world powers. It includes economy, military strength (including nuclear capability), strategic posturing, foreign policy/diplomacy, governance, Human Development Index (HDI), technological capability, knowledge 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 dimensions of war have grown globally from erstwhile conventional wars under nuclear hangover (barring nuclear strike on Japan) to aggressive trade war, military posturing, activation of non-state actors, cyber war, fake news over the social media (including Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear arsenal), with political bouts interspersed with few offensive actions involving conventional forces. Boiling down to a hybrid war.
The intense Trade/Tariff War between the two largest economies (US and China) had spiralled upwards at a rapid rate last year. In Indo-Pacific the conventional and nuclear armed combat forces of US and China are continuing strategic posturing for deterrence and messaging to all stakeholders.
China used combat forces to occupy and develop features in South China Sea, also claimed by others in an attempt to convert international water into Chinese lake along shipping lanes that carry USD 5 trillion worth of global trade per year.
The recent US-Iran confrontation after the assassination of Major General Sulemani, saw active use of conventional non-contact force and brought both countries close to war. If all 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.
The space warfare has taken a dangerous turn with each side taking preparatory actions to destroy each other’s space assets. The use of all elements of information war, to include misinformation campaign, election meddling, cyber war, hacking of economic and crucial military network, perception management and use of media including social media are already in progress.
Diplomatic pressures, economic and technological threats, nuclear blackmailing, use of multinational forces (even without UN sanction), proxy wars by nations using irregulars, terrorism, amount to use of force/CNP to achieve strategic objectives, involving/impacting almost of the entire world. The number of casualties suffered in ongoing conflicts surpasses the total casualties and refugees of both the earlier World Wars put together.
The global strategic situation has graduated to conflicts, capture of territory like South China Sea, innumerable deaths and economic destruction; hence calling it cold war will be understatement. 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’.
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 dangerousness of any possible biological weapon to the world adding a new dimension in ongoing undeclared third world war.
Wuhan being the initial epicentre, 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.
China having declared victory over the pandemic, was quick to put back its manufacturing in place, trying to boost a ‘COVID-19 Economy’ by creating a ‘Health Silk Road’ and re-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.
Strategically, taking advantage of pandemic, China launched aggressive offensive posturing by sending aircraft carrier near Taiwan, sank a fishing boat of Vietnam and Malaysia to strengthen its claim in South China Sea up to Nine Dash Line. The unconfirmed reports of a nuclear test by Chinese in Lop Nor coupled with Chinese growing aggressiveness was responded by US has by “Elephant Walk” in show of strength to caution the adversary.
China also decided to use this opportunity to unilaterally set up administration in Paracel and Spratly Islands and features claimed by other countries by approving establishment of the Xisha and Nansha districts under Sansha city in island of Hainan, to tighten its grip on South China Sea. 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 show of force in freedom of navigation operations in South China Sea.
Contours of Undeclared Third World War post COVID-19 Pandemic
COVID-19 has been a wild card entry in ongoing undeclared third world war. It has exposed some vulnerabilities of US and created huge trust deficit for China globally; possibly the idea of everyone accepting one/two countries as superpowers or global leader may be outdated in future.
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 engaged in a hot war, some in military posturing stage, and some using other dimensions and instruments of war, simultaneously.
A new global order will emerge post COVID-19, which need not be US/China centric.The world may see a shift in manufacturing hubs and tendencies to be self-reliant in critical manufacturing. The eastern hemisphere seems to be having an edge in war against COVID-19. Next few decades will see the pivot shifting towards East, which has fastest growing economies and population centres.
It can, therefore be argued that the battleground for ‘Undeclared Third World War’ could be Indo-Pacific, and the world has already entered in preparatory phase of it, without recognising/declaring it to be so.