Nothing, it seems, can hinder geopolitical rivalry. Not a pandemic, not the collapse of international travel or a global recession. In different ways, China, the US and the EU have all treated Covid-19 as a very public test of their rival approaches to governance – and as part of an international competition for prestige and influence.
The obvious preliminary conclusion is that the pandemic will prove to be a comprehensive geopolitical victory for the People’s Republic of China. The PRC Success by largely suppressing the disease, it contrasts sharply with the terrible toll Covid-19 has had in the west.
But the policy changes unexpectedly. Paradoxically, there are strong reasons to argue that the US and the EU could also end up being politically empowered by Covid-19.
In America, the year began with Donald Trump in a strong position to win a second term in the White House. But the manifest incompetence of the American president in the face of Covid-19 (a disinfectant injection, anyone?), probably undermined his chances of re-election. As a result, Covid-19 may have indirectly saved American democracy. And by helping to remove an erratic isolationist from the White House, the pandemic has also given the United States a much better chance to preserve its status as the most powerful nation in the world.
Covid-19 has also taken terrible human and economic havoc in Europe. But, in political terms, the EU has followed a similar arc to that of the United States – near disaster giving way to an unexpected rise.
When the pandemic first hit the European continent, it looked like the last demonstration that, under heavy pressure, European unity is collapsing. This is what happened during the war in Iraq and during much of the euro crisis. In the early days of the pandemic, some border controls were reimposed and there were bitter recriminations between northern and southern Europeans.
But, over the summer, that narrative changed dramatically. The EU has accepted the creation of a 750 billion euros solidarity fund to be used for relief from Covid-19. Breaking with its long-standing policy, the Merkel government in Germany agreed that the money would be collected by issuing a common European debt. It was a historic breakthrough for European integration – potentially the most important since the creation of the euro itself almost 30 years ago. And the breakthrough was brought about by Covid-19.
It will take some time for the full political impact of Covid-19 on the United States and the European Union to take hold. saw real geopolitical gains for China.
This, too, was an outcome that could not have been predicted in early 2020. The pandemic originated in China and initially looked like a disaster for President Xi Jinping. But, during the year, Xi and his cohorts turned the tale on its head. There have been 4,770 deaths from Covid-19 in China, compared to more than 330,000 in the United States. The UK, France, Italy and Spain all suffered from the number of deaths per capita than the United States. The Chinese economy will grow this year, while the major Western economies have suffered deep recessions. Estimates of when China’s economy will overtake America’s have been advanced.
China’s relative success in handling the pandemic has also given Xi a propaganda bonus – both at home and abroad. China seems more advanced, more organized and better able to take care of its citizens. But there is a catch. The increased global prestige that China might have expected as a result has not been reflected in international polls. On the contrary, a recent survey of the 14 countries for the Pew Research Center showed that in nine of them – including the UK, Germany and South Korea – negative opinions of China peaked in addition to a decade.
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This fall in Chinese soft power suggests that people in the countries surveyed are more impressed that the virus originated in China, than with Beijing’s subsequent success in stopping its spread. From China aggressive response at any hint of international criticism – through its so-called “Wolf warrior” diplomacy – was also probably counterproductive.
Geopolitical strategists in Beijing can take comfort in thinking that, whatever collateral damage Covid-19 has inflicted on China, the damage to the Western position has been worse. But if the US and EU now roll out vaccination programs with reasonable speed and efficiency, they will begin to repair some of the economic and reputational damage they have suffered as a result of their handling of Covid-19. .
If President-elect Joe Biden is lucky and skillful, he will also benefit from a post-pandemic economic rebound, while also being able to blame previous missteps on his incompetent predecessor. America’s allies will be all too eager to embrace this narrative and give the United States a second chance. In fact, the country’s international reputation has been deeply damaged by both the Trump presidency and Covid-19. But, with a new president in the White House, America will be back in the geopolitical game.