Nothing, it seems, can get in the way of geopolitical rivalry. Not a pandemic, not the collapse of international travel or a worldwide 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 contest for prestige and influence.
The obvious preliminary conclusion is that the pandemic will turn out to be an overall geopolitical win for the People’s Republic of China. The PRC’s success in largely suppressing the disease stands in marked contrast with the terrible toll that Covid-19 has taken on the west.
But politics moves in unexpected ways. Paradoxically, there is a strong case to be made that both the US and the EU may also end up being politically strengthened by Covid-19.
In America, the year started with Donald Trump in a strong position to win a second term in the White House. But the US president’s manifest incompetence in dealing with Covid-19 (an injection of disinfectant, anyone?), probably put paid to his chances of re-election. As a result, Covid-19 may indirectly have saved American democracy. And by helping to remove an erratic isolationist from the White House, the pandemic has also given the US a much better chance of preserving its status as the world’s most powerful nation.
Covid-19 has also taken a terrible human and economic toll in Europe. But, in political terms, the EU followed a similar arc to the US — with near disaster giving way to an unexpected upside.
When the pandemic first hit the European continent, it looked like the latest demonstration that, under severe pressure, European unity collapses. This is what happened during the Iraq war, and throughout much of the euro crisis. In the first days of the pandemic, some frontier controls were reimposed and there was bitter recrimination between northern and southern Europeans.
But, over the summer, this narrative changed dramatically. The EU agreed to the creation of a €750bn solidarity fund to be used for Covid-19 relief. In a break with its longstanding policy, the Merkel government in Germany agreed that the money would be raised by the issuance of common EU debt. This was a historic advance for European integration — potentially the biggest since the creation of the euro itself almost 30 years ago. And the breakthrough was brought about by Covid-19.
It will take a while for the full political impact of Covid-19 on the US and the EU to sink in. When the clocks strike on New Year’s Eve, the conventional wisdom is still likely to be that the year of the pandemic was one which saw real geopolitical gains for China.
This, too, was an outcome that could not have been foreseen at the beginning of 2020. The pandemic originated in China and initially looked like a disaster for President Xi Jinping. But, over the course of the year, Mr Xi and his cohorts have turned the narrative around. There have been a reported 4,770 Covid-19 deaths in China, compared with over 330,000 in the US. The UK, France, Italy and Spain have all suffered from even higher per-capita death tolls than the US. The Chinese economy will grow this year, while the major western economies have suffered deep recessions. Estimates of when China’s economy will surpass America’s in size have been brought forward.
China’s relative success in handling the pandemic has also handed Mr Xi a propaganda bonus — both at home and abroad. China looks more advanced, more organised and better able to look after its citizens. But there is a catch. The increased global prestige that China might have expected to enjoy as a result has not shown up in international polls. On the contrary, a recent survey of 14 countries for the Pew Research Center showed that in nine of them — including the UK, Germany and South Korea — negative views of China have reached their highest levels in more than a decade.
This slump in Chinese soft power suggests that people in the countries polled are more impressed by the fact that the virus originated in China, than by Beijing’s subsequent success in stopping its spread. China’s aggressive response to any hint of international criticism — through its so-called “wolf warrior” diplomacy — has also probably been counter-productive.
Geopolitical strategists in Beijing may comfort themselves with the thought that, whatever the collateral damage Covid-19 has inflicted on China, the damage to western standing has been worse. But if the US and the EU now roll out vaccine programmes with reasonable speed and efficiency, they will begin to repair some of the economic and reputational damage they have suffered because of their handling of Covid-19.
If President-elect Joe Biden is lucky and skilful, he will also benefit from a post-pandemic economic bounce, while being able to pin the blame for previous missteps on his incompetent predecessor. America’s allies will be all too eager to embrace this narrative and to give the US a second chance. In reality, the country’s international standing has been deeply damaged both by the Trump presidency and by Covid-19. But, with a new president in the White House, America will be back in the geopolitical game.