COVID-19 Outbreak: Geopolitical Tinderbox

Furqan Khan

The Coronovirus outbreak is but another geopolitical tinderbox after the end of the Cold War that continues to define new power relations among great powers. From the assertive Chinese support for the affected larger portion of global population to the ailing American leadership, the new global pandemic is expounding the geopolitics of the twenty first century. In such geopolitical calculation, the United States faces relative decline in terms of demonstrating responsibility for global leadership as the only super power.

Europe finds its regional integration in jeopardy with each state fighting the pandemic at home than invoking comprehensive regional framework to fight COVID-19. On the other hand, China, with its quick defeat to the pandemic at home is extending medical and financial support to a number of countries including those in Europe.

For the last two decades, China carefully centered its foreign policy to expand its political, economic and military clout. Countering political and strategic encirclement by the United States in Asia-Pacific, managing intensifying trade-war and rising challenges to its Built and Road Initiative (BRI) nec-essitates assertive Chinese role to consolidate its global preeminence. The Coronovirus outbreak has cultivated conditions for such preeminence which is complemented by Trump’s broad rejection of engagement, even with its own allies in Europe and elsewhere. Europe, whose trade and security has historically deepened connectedness to and reliance on Washington is yielding to Chinese influence with considerable Chinese supplies to fight the global COVID-19.

This happens at a time when the US itself is struggling to deal with the immediate challenges at home including lack of medical supplies, masks and testing kits. The devastating situation in the US is the product of a lethargic response to the pandemic at first.

On February 26, the US President Donald Trump underestimated the global nature of the COVID-19 by predicting that the numbers of Americans infected by the virus will soon touch ‘zero’, followed by White House’s claim to have “contained” COVID-19 by sealing borders. However, by today, the United States has bypassed China, France and Italy in COVID-19 cases with more than 800, 000 confirmed cases and around 44, 000 deaths. This is too little to say about Donald Trump’s jeopardizing actions in regards to the American health sector. From dismantling the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and reducing funding for critical health services to the nixing of the global pandemic response team, Trump’s critical mistakes has cost the Americans at home and abroad.

On the other hand, China is ramping up its military activities in the disputed South China Sea, at a time when the US and its allies are combating the COVID-19 crisis at home with critical strategic assets on freeze. Recently, the Nimitz-class nuclear powered aircraft career USS Theodor Roosevelt reported “hundreds” of cases testing positive for COVID-19 which is currently docked at Guam to test the entire crew. The ship is a formidable US naval asset in the pacific which witnesses continued Chinese assertion amid the COVID-19 crisis. Moreover, the US military is busy helping civilian authorities in producing critical military equipment under the Defense Production Act invoked by the President on April 3. On the other hand, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is in self-imposed quarantine with Chief of the Philippines Armed Forces testing positive for the COVID-19 and unprepared to respond to growing Chinese military activities.

Despite alarms of declining trade activities of China in the East Asian region, Beijing is set to position its wider geopolitical ambitions, especially vis-à-vis the United States. China is able to neutralize barrage of criticism for the outbreak with its overwhelming campaign of critical aid to the European nations, the new ‘epicenter’ of COVID-19. Europe’s neo-functionalist integration mechanism failed to respond to Italy’s call for help and instead Germany and France banned exports of critical medical supplies even to the fellow European Union members.

The recent crash of US oil markets indicates China as the winner in Post-pandemic economy; pushing the US into a dark night. The low oil price, which stood below zero on April, hurts US oil companies, bringing the oil trade into halt and hence ends up with disrupting consequences for the US economy. The pandemic has already cost the US economy some US$ 2.14 trillion or 10% of the total US GDP in March and April, while 29% of the US economy already frozen as per Moody’s estimates. China, on the other hand, is back to work. The Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) estimates that China’s manufacturing activities climbed from 35.7 to 52.0 in March and is expected to show stability in near future. Hence, even if Beijing is facing faces relative decline in velocity, it has the potential to recover in the Post-pandemic economic activities relative to the virus-battered US economy. The United States, which focused more on calling it the “Chinese Virus” than taking proactive measures at home, is relying on imports to deal with domestic medical insufficiencies even from China and its geopolitical competitor Russia.

Whether to take Chinese assertiveness in President Xi’s terms as the new Chinese “Health Silk Road” or a Sino-led geopolitical swoop in, Beijing is winning its war of global influence, especially over the East of the North Atlantic. The “Sleeping Dragon” is rebranding its status as the power capable of handling global crisis where other major powers including the United States fails to respond. The crisis put China in a position to wage a renewed “COVID Diplomacy” and achieve legitimacy to its role as the global premier in the anticipated multi-polar world order.

Conclusively, the global nature of COVID-19 is more a ‘theatre drape’ remover than the actual catalyst of the transformations at the geopolitical backstage of the twenty first century. Hence, there are compelling reasons to believe the following salient points of the analysis.

First, that the declining ability of the Trans-Atlantic West to manage cooperation amid catastrophic pandemic guaranteed a smooth China swoop in to win the war of narrative and transform from the “sick man of Asia” to the “global savior”. Secondly, Europe saw the fragility of its democratic model in face of the so-called ‘authoritarian’ China. And finally, the pandemic un-curtained the ailing American capacity to pragmatically ensure the durability of its stature as the global savior and keep the forces of globalization head on to face global challenges such as the COVID-19.