Commentary / World

Beijing and others aim to make the best of coronavirus geopolitics

by Peter Apps

Reuters

As Serbia’s European Union neighbors closed their borders and halted many medical exports, President Aleksandar Vucic made an appeal. “Serbia now turns its eyes to China,” he said. “All my personal hopes are focused and directed toward China and its president.”

As the world heads into uncharted territory amid the coronavirus outbreak, it is undergoing stark and dramatic geopolitical shifts. Assumptions over globalization and free movement have been torn up overnight. In their haste to address the outbreak, the vast majority of nations have been focused heavily within their borders. Structures such as the European Union and United Nations that had been expected to be at the center of response to crises have been largely ignored.

Having managed to get much of its domestic outbreak under control, Beijing is now unambiguously positioning itself to build new friends and influence. That’s included the shipment of medical supplies and small numbers of experts to affected European states, including Italy, France and Spain.

Russia, meanwhile, is also clearly watching closely, its media outlets vigorously broadcasting details of what it claims is a flawed and sometimes chaotic Western response.

Some international cooperation is clearly taking place — for example, to keep limited goods flowing across the EU despite the lockdown. Even the battle for a vaccine, however, is increasingly portrayed in terms of national competition rather than cooperation.

If headlines from major English-language outlets in both countries are any guide, the crisis has further damaged already difficult relations between China and the United States.

U.S. President Donald Trump has clearly infuriated Beijing with his repeated references to the disease as a “Chinese virus,” comments he says were a response to earlier suggestions from a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman that the disease had in fact originated in America. Beijing has largely avoided repeating that comment since, but if anything Trump has continued to double down on his rhetoric.

These multiple geopolitical battlefronts have many strands, few receiving much attention against the backdrop to the wider crisis. Iran, amongst the most affected countries, finds itself in a particularly complex position. It is lobbying furiously — albeit unsuccessfully — for the United States to soften its sanctions to help it tackle the outbreak, even as its proxy forces gain influence against America’s allies in Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere.

Relations with China and Russia remain extremely hard to predict. Last week, China’s Global Times reported Chinese fighter jets had made a show of force near Taiwan, while threatening potential electronic warfare or other unconventional attacks against U.S. ships if they continued to probe waters the Chinese have claimed in the South China Sea. Such rhetoric seems to have been scaled back, for now at least — but aggressive nationalism in multiple locations is at least one potential outcome of the crisis.

What is clear across the board is that almost every nation has looked to seal its borders against population moves from the outside world — and that in many cases, the virus has also exacerbated pre-existing racism and xenophobia. Simultaneously, and paradoxically, nations such as Serbia have also become more aware of their dependence on the outside world, for economic and basic human needs.

That points to a much larger paradox from this crisis. In some respects, the global system has proved much more vulnerable than many anticipated. In other ways, however, it is demonstrating impressive levels of resilience. For all the economic shock of hundreds of millions of people ceasing travel and working from home, food supplies and particularly communications are broadly holding up. Huge swaths of the planet are locked down, but people are still talking to each other with relative ease.

What is currently happening is a challenge for globalization on a scale not previously seen — as well as an experience being simultaneously shared across the planet in ways that are at least equally unusual. Who wins and loses from that is a very open question, but what is clear is that those contests are already underway.

Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues.

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