The COVID-19 pandemic is not yet over and the magnitude of the economic crisis resulting from the confinement measures that States had to adopt is still unknown. However, the economic forecasts that have been released and the political speeches from different political leaders, allow us to anticipate a post-crisis period with profound repercussions on the international order. The current crisis revealed the dangers of excessive dependence on foreign distribution chains, particularly, in strategic areas. For instance, medical and personal protective equipment (PPE) are strategic products, but their production is mostly based in China.
China has become the factory of the world while Europe has become a museum of world history. Fortunately, the European Commission has already started discussing about the reindustrialization of Europe, as well as the importance of protecting strategic industries from being acquired by foreign countries.
In the past few weeks, China has emerged as a “global hero” around their response to the Covid19 pandemic. It’s clear that beneath this, there is significant suspicion about the motivations underpinning Beijing’s international solidarity, accelerating the need for Western countries to reckon with their relationship with China and examine what role China will play in a much-altered post-COVID19 world order.
Peace and conflict studies have shown that success in post-conflict relations is more likely when parties feel equally victimised. There cannot be “winners” and “losers”. In the current scenario, the perception being nurtured by China as the best example of leadership in managing this crisis, with a low mortality rate, contrasts greatly with the difficulties and disproportionate number of deaths in Europe and the USA. China might want to wash its image, due to their negligent attempts to control the epidemic domestically without informing the world. And in doing so, they are assuming the role of a “winner”, anticipating a favourable post-crisis geopolitical re-order.
It is clear that the world will emerge from the pandemic into a much-altered global economic order too. Western countries will face a prolonged recession. Europe, in particular, will have to reassess its priorities in terms of public investment, economic recovery, social protection and their health systems. And yet, while the GDP of the EU and US will fall, China’s economy is projected to continue growing at roughly 1%. The dramatic spike in unemployment levels on both sides of the Atlantic also does not appear to have been replicated in China, who have emerged from the crisis with only a 1% increase in their figures.
Globalization will not come to an end, but it will rise again at the expense of new dynamics, influences and leaderships. We must be aware that the transition phase represents a great geopolitical challenge. Member States will have to strengthen their health systems and will need to increase their budgets in social areas. Education, scientific research, or defense may end up being overlooked. This might bring serious repercussions, mainly in the ability to compete technologically and in the commitments made, for example, between NATO member countries.
Overall, the circumstances sound very alarming. The solidarity and support provided by China to countries most affected by coronavirus will impact how the Chinese leadership is perceived internationally. Whether it’s the shipment of large quantities of PPE or the deployment of medical professionals overseas, the country’s COVID altruism is inherently linked to the Beijing government’s long-term strategic objectives. China, under the tight control of its Communist Party, is a state with authoritarian international aspirations. When this pandemic ends, the failure of the US to lead the international fight against COVID19 will reinforce China’s position as the international reference point, the global power which delivered at this time of need, with little attention paid to its culpability for the dissemination of the disease. America’s retreat has created a vacuum which China intends to fill.
In that respect, China has much to gain through these grand gestures of solidarity. This is why Europeans must distinguish between what is genuine “solidarity” and what is the cynical opportunism of an authoritarian regime seeking to ameliorate its image and expand its sphere of influence. About half a year ago, Ursula von der Leyen was criticized for trying to designate a Commissioner “to protect the European way of life”. That portfolio changed its name to “Promoting the European Way of Life”. However, facing the global influence of an authoritarian regime, protecting our principles and values has never been more important.
The US and Europe have survived the greatest wars and crises of modern times by working together. To avoid unfavourable geopolitical imbalances, this time cannot be any different. Ultimately, the future when the world will breathe again without masks will judge the success and effectiveness of democracies over authoritarian regimes.