Navigating a world of all-round weaponisation
In the era of all-round weaponisation and breakdown of universal globalisation, statecraft has its task cut out to attend to constructing politically friendlier networks or clubs. In times of intense crisis, the risk of even friends turning selfish remains. But friends will at least not intentionally weaponise resources against each other
In a recent speech, external affairs minister S Jaishankar said that “everything is being weaponised in this world”, and that the distinction between a “tough world” based on national security and a “benign world” based on market economy was fading. His contention was that “civil-military fusion” has blurred the lines and made almost every resource and service vulnerable to being instrumentalised to attack and hurt adversaries. This has implications for long-term national strategy.
The phenomenon of weaponisation of a range of goods and services such as food, fuel, electricity, finance and shipping has stood out during the Russia-Ukraine war. Western countries have slammed Russia for weaponising food by blocking Black Sea grain exports and plundering Ukraine’s agricultural harvest, weaponising energy by halting gas supplies to Europe, and even weaponising weather through targeted attacks on electricity and water supply systems of Ukraine as the cold winter sets in.
Undoubtedly, President Vladimir Putin has leveraged all relative strengths and comparative advantages that Russia has to try and impose his will. But it is equally true that Western powers have mobilised and hurled various non-military weapons at Russia.
The most recent salvo fired by the West is the oil price cap on Russia, which leverages the commanding position of Western companies in maritime logistics and trade to starve Russia of revenues from its energy exports. Parallel to the physical fighting on the battlefield, non-kinetic attacks and counterattacks by both sides have also been witnessed in cyberspace and the information domain.
Utilising all means available to outdo an opponent is, of course, not a new trend in warfare. But this weaponisation has become more comprehensive in scope today because of the thick webs of interdependence that bind countries together under the umbrella of globalisation. As countries have become excessively interdependent for basic needs, the stakes on supply chains have grown tremendously. We witnessed how susceptible the world was during Covid-19, when China harnessed its control over supplies of medical devices, kits, pharmaceuticals and vaccines. The political conditions China imposed on countries desperate to access essential products for combating the pandemic underlined the importance of diversifying supply chains. Earlier, in 2010, China wielded its advantage as the sole supplier of many rare-earth industrial minerals and blocked their sale to Japan to punish it over a bilateral territorial dispute.
The art of linkage — where a conflict in one domain draws a shot across the bows from another domain — is currently deadlier and more consequential than in earlier eras. Calls for “decentralised globalisation” which is not subject to the whims and diktats of China are being heard loud and clear. India and other developing countries have also sought to find ways to protect themselves from the pressures of unilateral or plurilateral economic sanctions that entail collateral damage such as the global inflationary headwinds which rippled out of the tit-for-tat games between the West and Russia. Since weaponisation is the prerogative of countries or blocs that have monopolies or oligopolies over key resources and services, the theoretically ideal solution for the survival of less endowed or powerful nations is to be self-sufficient in a given set of basic sectors.
For instance, India went on a war-footing during the pandemic and transitioned from being import-dependent to self-sufficient in personal protective equipment kits and facemasks. But the massive costs and time barriers to gaining self-sufficiency in energy, cereals, fuel, fertiliser, pharmaceuticals, critical technologies and even armaments for self-defence mean that there is no near-term solution, except to strengthen coalitions with friendly nations or allies and enter into agreements that guarantee supply lines and non-hostile policies. Having a backup of ‘Plan B’ suppliers in case ‘Plan A’ ones fall through amid an emergency would also be prudent.
United States treasury secretary Janet Yellen has advocated a shift from offshoring to “friend-shoring”, wherein supply chains are redirected towards countries one can trust owing to shared political values and geopolitical congruence. In the era of all-round weaponisation and breakdown of universal globalisation, statecraft has its task cut out to attend to constructing politically friendlier networks or clubs. In times of intense crisis, the risk of even friends turning selfish remains. But friends will at least not intentionally weaponise resources against each other.
Sreeram Chaulia is dean, Jindal School of International Affairs
The views expressed are personal.