15 April 2020

The COVID-19 crisis and the big powers competition

Sergiu Medar

The COVID-19 crisis is, due to the turbulences provoked among the states, used by world’s big powers as a way to consolidate their global geopolitical position. Even if, at the beginning of the crisis, China was the most affected state, after less than three months it became the global leader of coordination and, locally, of management. Beijing uses this opportunity to extend its influence zone on the European Union and Russia, as well as to calm down the divergences it has with the US.

Image source: US Navy

The “big powers competition” is no longer a new concept in the international relations. It was used during the Cold War, but only in terms of its military and ideological components. Euphemistically mentioned in the National Security Strategy and strongly used in the US National Defence Strategy, the concept gets on the forefront now with the pandemic crisis provoked by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In this competition, US, China, EU and Russia are in the first platoon.

The crisis does not have borders. No country can get over this alone. Only states’ solidarity can be the solution for the issue provoked by the pandemic virus. Unfortunately, this solidarity is lacking consistency, and when it exists, it is strongly politized, turned into a propagandistic capital, used in the big powers competition. In this process, media has a huge role. Presenting the solidarity actions euphemistically, presenting the reality positively or negatively, depending on imposed or self-imposed political interests, creates interested images, used in the big powers competition.

The image of the same reality presented by the Chinese media is different from the one presented in US, for example. Still, it is noteworthy mentioning that, now, the media in most of the states has put the presentation of the parties’ political games to the second plan, approaching more topics related to the crisis, which are more important for the population now than the internal political competition.

The ongoing change of the global order is a truth that cannot be denied anymore. These days analysis is that this phenomenon does not occur suddenly. It will be developed gradually, possibly meeting some rhythm changes depending on states’ interests. This process has already started, the reaction to the pandemic crisis was used for the identification of arguments to be used, later, in the competition between change’s protagonists. Small states will have to find, as much as possible, a balance to make them reach their national objectives, firstly, and the collective ones, secondly. 

As I am not a sympathizer of international conspiracy theories, I do not believe in a pandemic provoked by China, but I am convinced that the situation created through the global extension of the crisis will be fully capitalized by Beijing in the big powers competition.

We all know that one of the most important qualities in the foreign policies of a state is credibility, which involves a careful analysis of the local or national phenomenon and, then, the decision. The persistency and accuracy it was followed with depends on decision’s quality and clarity, as well as on the measures to support and apply it. The lack of solidarity proved by the protection of annulment of products exports needed by some European states pushed them lose their credibility in the bilateral and multilateral relation.

Leaders’ quality can be better measured during crisis periods. A good leader is the one who makes the hardest or necessary decisions in his responsibility area and follows their implementation.

Although the US government had detailed information about the COVID-19 pandemic’s development and effects in China and Europe, the decisions were made quite late, speeding up the virus’s spread and, implicitly, the population’s health condition. The magnitude and the seriousness of the pandemic were minimized, which can be an explanation for the delay. This attitude was not seen only in the US. It was also seen in Great Britain, Italy, France, Spain and even Germany.

The US proved that although the governmental structures, among them the Centre for Prevention and Control of Diseases, did many exercises and simulations of pandemics, their reaction did not met population’s expectations.

The US global leader status, for all fields, was always supported by the effectiveness of their domestic measures, the solutions proposed within the international organizations being firstly checked internally. In most of the global or regional crises cases, Washington took the leader position. During the Ebola virus crisis, the US took the responsibility to lead a coalition of states which successfully fought to combat virus’s spread.

In the pandemic crisis provoked by the SARS CoV-2, the US, as it did not manage to control the crisis on their national territory, could not have the legitimacy to become a global leader in the fight against the virus. Washington’s lack of capacity in becoming the leader of a coordinated response to the pandemic crisis gave China the opportunity to act, which did not hesitate in capitalizing its competitiveness chance.

Part of the big powers competition, Beijing could not miss the chance to take the leading role in the efforts to combat the crisis. Taking advantage of US’s confusion and hesitations, China took the leading role in the global reaction against the pandemic, turning the burden of facing crisis’s negative effects into political and economic strategic advantages. Learning from its own mistakes, like covering the seriousness of what was only an epidemic in the beginning, as well as the positive experiences like: restriction strategies for people’s contact, treatments, people’s testing and other aspects, China became the “global counsellor” in terms of the prevention, treatment and healing of the pandemic provoked by the new coronavirus. The intense information exchange and the maximum emergency products’ delivery to EU’s states were the results of a strong diplomatic effort of the Chinese authorities. In order to reach its political purposes, any support China gave was strongly presented in the media.

The Western states initially hesitated because the isolation measures, absolutely necessary to prevent pandemic’s spread, were breaches of the human rights. After a short period of time, there were legal solutions, undisputed by the population.

These aspects allowed Beijing to win some time and claim their victory against the pandemic, therefore strengthening Xi Jinping’s position as China’s leader.

The competition between US and China for the leading position of a coordinated crisis response, through the identification of a vaccine against the pandemic virus reveals how harmful the exacerbation and continuation of the trade war between the two states is for the security of the citizens.

In order not to involve the direct Washington-Beijing relation, China sent in the US a large quantity of masks and testing kits, through the private initiative of Alibaba’s co-founder.

Applying the principles of the national economy transfer for the war production, China became the biggest chirurgical masks producer in the world. These rules were imposed even to companies outside China, which went to the production of equipment. Also, it was extended the production of antibiotics, so that currently 95% of the US antibiotics market is covered by Chinese products.

At the beginning of the pandemic crisis in China, the US offered medical equipment support. Now, this help becomes mutual, underlining that when talking about humanitarian aid, the two states can easily cooperate. This does not mean that the two states are no longer competing for the global competition.

During the Ebola crisis, the US took the leading role of a coordinated response to the crisis, and the final success gave it the privileged position that’s no longer in its possession. To get back to where it was, the US must firstly solve the internal pandemic issues, and then give other states bigger quantities of products. The stronger argument in the big powers competition will be of the state to launch a vaccine which can prevent the SARS CoV-2 infection.

Another of China’s targets in the big powers competition is the EU. When no European state responded to Italy’s call for help, China was pretty vocal when providing this seriously affected state 1000 ventilators, 2 millions chirurgical masks, 100 000 ventilation systems, 20 000 protection suits and 50 000 testing kits. These were all accompanied by an experimented team of Chinese medics, who are now working in the Italian hospitals.

China’s support for Italy came when the EU states were not answering to its call, pushing the Italian ambassador to EU to say that: “Only China responded”.

Continuing the offensive for influence’s increase in Europe, China responded quickly to Serbia’s call, providing it protection equipment. President Vucic said he was disappointed on the lack of European solidarity and seemed satisfied with the help China offered.

Spain, France, Great Britain, Romania, Hungary or Poland are only some of the EU member states which got medical materials and equipment from China.

The big powers competition is ongoing in Europe also through the support offered to Italy by Russia, both through materials and equipment, but also by sending medics and logistics. According to some unverified sources, these teams may also include GRU officers.

The post-crisis period will be at least as painful as the crisis. According to all prognoses, this will also be followed by a major economic crisis. Some are even saying that the world’s poor population will be higher than 500 million people.

The economic crisis could be a good opportunity for the strong states, from an economic perspective, to prove their solidarity with their less rich allies.

Among the learned lessons from this crisis period there is also the one according to which for each state, the national interest should go first. The smaller a state is, the better should its readiness for crisis situations be managed, considering that strong states may not come up when needed.

English version by Andreea Soare