Crystal-Gazing 2021

Breakfast With Bwana

There is light at the end of the tunnel but the light will shine on the richer nations long before rays of hope come to poorer nations

By Anil Madan

2021 starts with hope. In unison, the world hopes that the coronavirus pestilence will go away. As for Trump the pest, one-half of a divided America fears that he will not exit gracefully. The other half, seeing his presidency as more fest than pest hopes that he will find a way to stay. The application of science and knowledge has delivered vaccines putting the world on the verge of consigning Covid-19 to history. The application of Democracy has brought us to the verge of relegating Trump to a historical footnote. The record voter turnout at the US presidential election this year evoked the wisdom attributed to Lincoln that you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.

China and the U.S. both need to recognize that the win-win solution is for both nations to prosper, that conquest by one of the other is not possible. Photo – Financial Times

Hope aside, it is easy to look forward to 2021 and list the ills likely to befall the world. Realism dictates that we must do so for ignoring the problems will not make them go away.

The single biggest concern and hope for 2021 the world over is, of course, bringing the coronavirus pandemic to an end. Vaccines from multiple sources – Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson and Johnson, AstraZeneca, Russia, India, China – hold the promise of that conquest. But it will take time and likely well beyond 2021.

Canada has pre-ordered nine doses per capita, the US, UK, and Australia three to four doses per capita. Japan, Switzerland, and Indonesia, all relatively rich countries, also have ordered more than enough. India, a major producer of pharmaceuticals and vaccines has ordered two billion doses. 

Meanwhile, inoculation of a sizable number of people in poorer nations is not likely to be achieved until 2023 or 2024. In the interim, and particularly in 2021, every country must brace itself for more cases of Covid-19, more deaths, and more economic misery in the months ahead. The logistics of inoculating almost eight billion people are daunting. There is light at the end of the tunnel but the light will shine on the richer nations long before rays of hope come to poorer nations.

In the meantime, anxiety over whether the Trump pest will depart is alarmist paranoia and fake news hype. As a practical matter, it will be a non-issue. On January 20, 2021, Chief Justice Roberts will administer the oath of office to Joe Biden and Trump’s term will end. The US Secret Service charged with the duty to protect the President will transfer its loyalty to Biden. As a former President, Trump will be entitled to protection but not the pretense of power. Whether he sees the light or remains in a dark tunnel of his own making matters not. The unknown is, of course, the extent to which Trump will remain a force in the Republican Party.

Expansionary moves & military adventurism

If the seemingly unending and unyielding battle against Covid-19 will continue to be the single most important story of 2021, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will continue its own unending and unyielding quest for domination and exploitation. A Chinese attack on Taiwan is the only event that could trump the end of Covid-19 and Trump’s own exit.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will therefore continue to loom over the world, for all intents and purposes, the equivalent of another virus. From the day that Britain ceded control to China, the world knew that the CCP presented an existential threat to Hong Kong and sadly, we have seen that danger become a reality. The CCP acts with impunity, its agreement with Britain to honor Democracy in Hong Kong, empty words. The sad truth is that the CCP has good reason to believe that in the long run, it can ignore the rest of the world and do as it pleases. There was little hope that Britain could enforce any part of the agreement it made with China. Trust in and reliance on China’s goodwill were misplaced.

Inoculation of a sizable number of people in poorer nations is not likely to be achieved until 2023 or 2024. Photo –

As a practical matter, the only country that can stop China’s expansionary moves is the US, but US policy on China is fickle, indecisive, and too much influenced by the interests of America’s corporations. We have had our wake-up call. Will we pay attention? 

There is a very good reason for concern. The existential threat that the CCP presents to Taiwan has long been known. As recently as this past September, Associated Press reported that China warned the United States on Monday of potential “serious damage” to their relations if it does not withdraw from an upcoming economic meeting with Taiwan that is expected to be attended by a senior American official. Imagine the temerity of China “warning” the US that it should not send an official to a meeting with Taiwanese counterparts. Temerity devolves to audacity. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin urged the US at a daily briefing to “stop all forms of official exchanges with Taiwan, so as to avoid serious damage to China-US relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” 

The issue of Taiwan puts the US on a collision course with China which treats Taiwan as a matter of its domestic affairs and an inalienable part of China, no matter that Secretary of State Pompeo declared that Taiwan has not been a part of China. 

With the Trump administration out, it is unclear how the Biden administration’s foreign policy imperatives will germinate when it comes to China. But if Biden does not stand firm and demand an end to Chinese sanctions on American companies that sell weapons to Taiwan, indeed impose counter-sanctions on China’s business dealings with the US, things will only get worse. This is nothing more than the old domino theory playing out — you lose Hong Kong and Taiwan is gone. Then Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and who knows where it ends? The difference this time is that the principals, China and the US, are playing the game directly and not through proxies. 

2021 also holds the promise that America will no longer be involved in a war or military action outside its borders. If there is one lesson that the US has learned from its interventions around the globe, it is that American military adventurism is generally a lose-lose proposition. This may well be because the US has never had the acquisition of foreign lands as its goal. More to the point, we have often not known who the enemy was, why we were fighting, or indeed how victory would be defined. Better not to fight a war in which the enemy is oneself.

But 2021 will not bring an end to turmoil on the big stage when it comes to China which has better-defined goals: control of Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, dominion over the Tibeto-Gangetic Plain, control of shipping lanes in the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean, and continued domination as the world’s manufactory. 2021 promises to be a year of Chinese expansionism. India remains at risk.

One other lesson the US has learned is worth remembering. Even though the US “won” the Cold War and effectively defeated the Soviet Union, its successor Russia remains a formidable foe with enormous military clout. Russia’s gas reserves and Europe’s energy needs will give Moscow far-reaching economic leverage for decades. There is some hope that Russia’s commercial interests and stronger business relations with Western Europe will open a new era of cooperation and perhaps turn Russia into a consumer nation. A bigger market for all is a possible positive outcome.

Similarly, China and the US both need to recognize that the win-win solution is for both nations to prosper, that conquest by one of the other is not possible, and even if one were to “win” in the quest for domination, the other will remain a formidable force, both in economic as well as military terms, to be reckoned with at every turn. The challenge for President Biden will be to convince President Xi that China’s long-range interests lie in cooperation not conflict. I am not optimistic that this is possible. It is too easy to look at America’s pleas as coming from the loser in this ongoing war.

Given this reality, it is remarkable and disheartening when we realize that the CCP acts as if it can win an economic and military contest with the US. At the most basic level, both countries realized from the time of Nixon’s overture to China, that there was more to be gained from cooperation than conflict. Sadly, since that time, China has embarked on a strategy of exploiting the greed of America’s corporate barons and the naïveté of its leaders. The time to put a stop to this is nigh.

America shares much of the blame for the circumstances that prevail. Let’s face it: the US has been weak and wishy-washy when it comes to dealing with China and even with North Korea, and the Taliban. Where the US has shown some resolve, with Iran, Biden threatens to undo Trump’s approach. What happens in these areas next is mostly speculation?

Afghanistan is likely to devolve into an even bigger mess. The Taliban seem to have taken a page from China’s playbook. While ostensibly engaged in negotiations and talking the talk of peace, their modus operandi is violence and killing. The one constant is that the US desperately wants out of Afghanistan. With US troops gone, a blood bath in Afghanistan is highly likely. Whether Afghanistan again puts out the welcome mat for terrorists is the inevitable risk that the exit strategy entails. 

The rest of the world

The Middle East is also likely to present turmoil and challenges in the new year. Whereas the Sunni Arab states seem comfortable sharing a bed with Israel, Saudi Arabia has not committed to establishing diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv, or is it Jerusalem? Some people speculate that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is waiting to leverage Saudi-Israeli rapprochement as a bargaining chip to extract concessions from President Biden in exchange for letting him take the credit for having successfully negotiated a deal between the two. Of course, the credit rightfully belongs to Trump but as Shakespeare observed, the evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones. 

Iran continues to threaten Israel, Saudi Arabia and its dreams of a Shiite Caliphate or Shiite Crescent remain very much in play. As Biden tries to reengage with Iran, even if only to stick a finger in Trump’s eye, there is a delicate dance here. The ever-present danger is that Iran will develop a nuclear weapon and actually use it. 

Africa presents an economic challenge for the world. It is fair to say that Britain, India, and the US have lost whatever opportunities they have had to retain the nations of Africa as both economic partners and allies. China is the usurper here. The Indian diaspora spread across Africa offered a ready chance to build a partnership with African nations. But short-term thinking and the urge to exploit rather than to forge partnerships and foster development, have left the Indians as an unwelcome presence. Both the British and French abandoned their beachheads in Africa, and the US never quite got it going except for establishing a base here and there. Into the breach has stepped China. But I predict that China will not help African nations solve their crises of poverty and hunger and will face a backlash as its infrastructure “loans” become unsustainable burdens.

The nations of Latin America present their own challenges. Covid-19 in Brazil has dwarfed to some extent the disruption of the Amazon both in terms of deforestation and wildfires but these all loom as threats to the entire world. The Central American countries and Mexico will continue to exert pressure on the US on the immigration front.

All of these concerns give us barely a moment to mention that Britain and the EU have a tough road ahead as they finalize their divorce but reaffirm their love affair.

2021 promises no respite from wildfires, floods, hurricanes, cyclones, or hunger. The world can respond to climate events by mitigation and adaptation. Hunger is a totally different issue. There is plenty of food in the world to feed all. But for some years now, the world has been consuming more food than it produces. The threat of billions of locusts returning to sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Asia remains a reality.

And, of course, we must not forget that another pandemic, however unwelcome, is possible in a world ill-equipped to handle it.

On a positive note, as the widespread administration of vaccines gets underway, we should see a gradual return to life as we knew it. When workers fill offices, restaurants, service businesses and retailers will return. When travellers return to trains, buses, and planes, hard-hit hotels and resorts will recover. People in tourist areas who have lost their incomes and means of livelihood as tourists disappeared will have a chance to rebuild.

And perhaps in 2021, we will see a return of fans to sports stadiums, patrons to museums, and music lovers to performances.

2021 promises to be a better year but one still fraught.


* Published in print edition on 29 December 2020

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