Five months since the onset of the pandemic, the concert of Nations displays a sharper image on the world stage. Driver of economic and social recession, the pandemic is phenomenally accelerating the political times and appears to be covering up the past with the future.
Previous trends were in full view. In October 2019, the United States gradually withdrew from the long conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, while surprisingly stepping out of several multilateral spaces, symbols of the exceptional role played by Washington: UN Human Rights Council, UNESCO, Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Nuclear Agreement with Iran, Global Climate Agreement. Headed to become the second world power, cooperation with China has been organic since the 1990s on key issues for global stability, such as the limitation of nuclear arsenals in North Korea and Iran, participation in UN peace operations (Darfour), global growth, trade balances and the regulation of exchange rates. In the context of the 2008 financial crisis, the most ambitious plan to stop global recession came from Beijing, launched together with the United States, the IMF and the World Bank, enhancing the boom of the Asian continent.
This relationship began to show cracks when the American president and supporters of a firmer containment of the Chinese rival such as John Mearsheimer started a trade and technological dispute where the most apparent phenomenon was the rise in trade tariffs and the Huawei case. In the background, the intention to slow down China’s economic development was realized by reducing its imports, the exclusion of certain technology companies and the restriction of Chinese student visas, along with a greater military presence in the Pacific. In short, from a globalization promoted, instrumentalized and favorable to the interests of the winning power of the Cold War, it turned towards a mercantilism and an offensive unilateralism that was deepened towards recalcitrant countries such as Iran, Venezuela, North Korea or Russia. Reassured by Washington’s seemingly offensive attitude, China did not hesitate at this time to reinforce its action to erode transatlantic solidarity and divide Europeans among themselves. Indeed, beyond the humanistic and high-sounding declarations, the leaders of Brussels, blackmailed by the two giants and distanced from each other, have failed to move away from the conditions set by Washington and establish a sovereign position.
In other settings, Turkey launched an offensive in northern Syria in 2019, while it was also present in Libya where France and Great Britain had unleashed a fiasco in 2011 destabilizing the entire Sahel region. Back to international relations against the tide of containment exercised since 1990 by the entire Atlantic alliance, Russia changed the course of the Syrian conflict from 2015, where Iran has also had a significant regional weight. The Russian power was disturbingly engaged in conflicts in Libya, Venezuela and different countries in Africa. These actions were simply unthinkable a few years ago, even more so for a country like Turkey that is a member of NATO. In Latin America, the reactivation of an orthodox policy true to the Monroe style has prevented the alignment of the regional stage already destabilized by its own weaknesses and which viscerally needs to cooperate with China to maintain its growth. In March 2020, the rupture between Russia and the oil-producing countries in OPEC generated another financial destabilization at the start of the pandemic.
Given the extent of human vulnerability and economic recession, the present situation could be an opportunity to focus on ravaging common issues shaped by current improvisations and for leaders to adopt a more ethical realism. Without ideology or party, the virus could end certain armed confrontations, also economic and financial ones, as urged upon by several voices and the United Nations Secretary-General himself in April 2020.
In practice, draft resolutions to ratify a ceasefire and a moratorium on sanctions for countries affected by the coronavirus were doubly rejected by the United States, the United Kingdom and EU countries, and also by Japan, South Korea and Canada. In a staggering media silence, these countries have argued that the proposal was essentially opportunistic and instrumental to the pandemic. This project was supported not only by Moscow and Beijing but also by the G77 and the United Nations representative. Shortly before, the United States had withdrawn its support for WHO in retaliation for the Chinese influence exerted on the agency, while a multi-country inquiry request to China on the origin of the pandemic in Wuhan was presented on another plane. Prisoners of their initial lies and encouraged by American inconsistencies in the epidemic, the Chinese authorities also unleashed an offensive response. They combined propaganda campaigns on all fronts along with the shipment of medical supplies and equipment and the expression of harsh statements directed at the United States and the Western bloc. It made pressure on Europe to change critical positions towards it and it took advantage of the circumstances both to gain markets (Belgrade-Budapest railway line, investment in 5G technology, etc.) and to intervene Hong Kong legally.
The punitive hubris of Washington has just responded again to this offensive spiral. NATO confirms that it will carry out the military exercise Defender 2020 during the second half of the year in Eastern Europe, re-designating Russia as an enemy target as if it were still planning the same as at the time of the Warsaw Pact. The exercise seeks to mobilize the NATO allies on a new warmongering threshold and legitimize new tactical nuclear devices recently put into service in the US military.
A “carnivorous” tone and diplomacy have spread between China and its Western counterparts with the crisis requiring just the opposite. Sometimes they look like two giants with clay feet that project each other as the scapegoat for their own contradictions. In the first quarter of 2020, China’s direct investments in the United States reached $ 200 million while hovering around $ 2 billion in the same period in 2019. Europe, Japan, and other countries have announced incentives to plans to relocate their companies outside China in an attempt to reduce their dependency. The fertility of economic relations with a China hit by the fall in growth and unemployment is questioned, denying the role of locomotive that it played in the world economy and stability. New rules of the game and strategies are emerging. With such fortification of States and mutilation of the multilateral scene, what space is left for the collective goods inherent in the globalized world: the rights to human mobility, climate and planet integrity, health and scientific cooperation, financial stability, and the economic incentive plans necessary to overcome the social damage?
In any case, geopolitical cards are more exposed. The accumulated errors of USA’s interventionism, moralistic double standards and changes of regime both in the Arab world and even Venezuela have set the declining imperium on edge and have ultimately been of benefit to the Chinese “reverse” strategy, as well as to an awakening of Russian influence (and of others at the regional level). China engages in all the spheres of influence left by Washington and is already showing more openly that it wants to turn around a world dominated too long by Europe and the United States. The latter wants to keep its Atlantic peers under its wing, as Europe faces the question of resolving the new tension between fear of a worn-out America that despises it and dread over a China laden with confidence and exceeding the common sense of its former limits. On this stage, the United States-China duopoly accelerates its leading position with a significant number of empty and intermediate spaces that regional powers can take advantage of.
While this state of affairs consolidates, the challenges posed by Covid-19 remain in effect. In the immediate future, the goal is to develop a health solution, prevent risks more quickly and undertake a robust recovery that will not be possible without global growth and without China. Both China and the United States should anticipate the financial difficulties that will arise from the enormous volume of debt issued. Inventive cooperation is required to address environmental and energy risks, as well as the profound digital transition that is accelerating with the pandemic.
With such challenges, the winners will be those who become aware of their vulnerabilities and are able to creatively guide their society with a new individual and collective responsibility.