Interpreting the forces shaping the modern world

The dramatic upheavals of the last few years, some of them linked directly to the Covid-19 pandemic, others the result of evolving superpower rivalries, economic realignment and emerging geopolitical forces, have provided plenty of scope to revisit long-held assumptions.

In academic circles, all the changes have naturally spurred informed debate and new research into both the causes and implications of the shifting balance of global power. There are big issues to address, from China’s new assertiveness on the international stage to India’s role as a high-tech hub, the likely influence of new trade blocs, control of essential commodities, and potential flashpoints if any country is considered to have stepped out of line.

And all that is grist to the mill for Professor Shalendra Sharma, the Lee Shau Kee Foundation Chair Professor of Political Science at Lingnan University, who made his name investigating such complexities and is now viewed as a leading authority on the push-and-pull factors which are reshaping the world around us.

“In recent years, my research interest has focused on two interrelated questions,” says Sharma, a political economist by training, who completed his PhD at the University of Toronto. “Firstly, there are the fundamental challenges facing democracies today, especially in the United States. My goal is to better understand the root causes of political fragmentation and the resultant ‘democratic backsliding’, as reflected in the rise of populism and the regression towards what are called ‘illiberal democracies’.”

The effect of the Covid pandemic, he notes, has clearly exacerbated these trends. Of particular concern, therefore, is the extent to which the “growing unmediated expression of the popular will” will have a major and ongoing impact on long-established democratic institutions, public policy, and forms of governance in countries seen as liberal democracies.

“Secondly, I’m considering what the future holds for the post-war liberal international political and economic order,” Sharma says. “The order’s key architect and defender is the United States, the world’s most powerful liberal democracy. The central challenger is China, the world’s most powerful autocracy, which not only sees liberal ideals as an existential threat to its legitimacy, but also claims that China now represents a successful alternative to the West. We need to understand what are the implications of this seemingly resurgent competition between great powers and what it will mean for the emerging world order.”

One consistent theme in his research is the high-stakes inter-play involving China, India and the US. He first explored this in his much-praised book published by Cambridge University Press in 2009 – China and India in the Age of Globalization: A Comparative Political Economy, which won the Alpha Sigma Nu Book Award.

And he followed that in 2018 with the equally insightful Prosperity with Inequality: A Comparative Political Economy of the United States, China and India. At this stage, he believes, the way ahead depends on these three giants finding a way to collaborate on economic relations, which will bring obvious mutual benefits, while accepting there will still be areas of competition on security issues as China, in particular, continues to flex its muscles.

“In my view, as things develop, India and the US will come even closer together as both try to balance China’s growing power,” he says.

Another area of special interest for him is how best to build a stronger global economy. It is only too clear that the current system, along with the institutions that drive it, is undeniably tilted in favour of the richer nations, the haves as opposed to the have-nots.

Therefore, if the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals are to make any headway, it is essential to support real, substantive change. Sharma previously tackled the subject in his 2014 book Global Financial Contagion: Building a Resilient World Economy after the Subprime Crisis. But he is well aware that further bold measures are necessary in the wake of Covid-19.

“Governments around the world increased their expenditures drastically during the pandemic,” he says. “As a result, rising deficits and public debt have reached unprecedented levels. There are already growing inflationary pressures. This does not necessarily mean there is a recession ahead. But, then again, if the war between Russia and Ukraine continues, and oil prices go out of control, a worst-case scenario is possible.”