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Geopolitical hotspot: the geopolitical landscape of a post-coronavirus world

Geopolitical hotspot: the geopolitical landscape of a post-coronavirus world
17 Jun
History is being written in 2020 – but when the pandemic subsides, will the geopolitical landscape be drastically altered? Tim Marshall explores. 

You may have heard that the world will look very different after the pandemic is over – that a new world order will emerge because of the effects of Covid-19. That is doubtful. If the crisis is over by 2022, what will emerge is something which will look similar to early January 2020.

That is not to say there will not be serious consequences. However, this crisis will not change most of the existing trends, though it may quicken them.

A brief look at the past indicates the probable future. The ‘Spanish’ flu pandemic, which began in the spring of 1918, gathered pace as WWI was coming to end. Over 36 months it is estimated to have killed 50 million people. It was a catastrophic, tragic, loss of life – but it didn’t change the direction of history.

Spanish FluThe Spanish Flu of 1918 was a tragic loss of life, but did it change the course of history?

With or without the pandemic, the collapse of the Ottoman and Austrian-Hungarian Empires would have had the same repercussions, communism would still have grown, and the balance of power between the nation states would still have occurred along with ‘advances’ in military technology as we headed towards the next conflict. 

So it is with Covid-19. The China/US relationship was already deteriorating, the blame game over the virus has only exacerbated it. China seeks to push the Americans out of what Beijing regards as its backyard, and the US aims to keep sea lanes open and reassure its allies.

April saw an interesting game of signalling. The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning and five warships sailed close to the Japanese island of Okinawa, then turned south to pass east of Taiwan. The Liaoning was the only aircraft carrier in the western Pacific because the USS Roosevelt was confined to port in Guam after hundreds of its crew tested positive for Covid-19. Beijing may have been signalling ‘business as usual’ and ‘We’re on top of this even if you aren’t’. The Americans were left to sail a single guided missile destroyer twice through the Taiwan Strait.

LiaoningChina's Liaoning aircraft carrier signals 'business as usual' to neighbouring countries

On the economic front the US was already moving towards ‘decoupling’ its economy from China due to concerns about over-reliance on Chinese products and trying to bring more manufacturing home. 

In the EU ‘ever closer union’ was already faltering. The crisis has rammed home some of the reasons why. Almost all member states have responded at the national level, not via the EU. It hasn’t been pretty. As the pandemic raged in northern Italy, EU partners were painfully slow to help. Rome pleaded for the European Union Mechanism of Civil Protection scheme to be activated for the supply of PPE. When this failed to happen, stinging criticism triggered Germany and others to help, but by then China had stepped in. Beijing is getting good at the soft power game. 

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The richer northern countries blocked the idea of ‘Coronabonds’ to allow cheap borrowing, although the southern states wanted them. Instead, the EU offered money from the European Stability Mechanism but that comes with humiliating Greek-style restrictions on how it can be spent. A recent poll found that 88 per cent of Italians complain the ‘EU is not helping us’.

Other trends have been magnified and possibly accelerated. The lack of US leadership, the inability of the UN to play a significant role, and within that, the WHO playing second fiddle to the policies of nation states. When the crisis passes it will again mostly be nation states individually forging economic recovery.

Those policies will magnify current trends on migration and climate change. Firstly, poorer states will be less able to recover. This will fuel the movement of peoples at a time when the richer states will have high unemployment, putting further pressure on countries to take a hard line.

This may sound pessimistic, but even before Covid-19 we were heading for bumpy times. Russia will still slowly decline and be dangerous while so doing, Iran has not given up its bid to be the leading regional power, North Korea will continue to be a basket case, and the population of Africa is still expected to double within 50 years. Did we mention climate change? Nuclear proliferation? These issues require consensus, and with the re-emergence of a multi-polar world, that is increasingly harder to achieve. 

Silver linings exist. The world community of scientists may be ever more determined to use their skills for everyone and we’ve learned (again) how much we need global co-operation to monitor the outbreak of infectious diseases. There may be an acceleration of distance learning and virtual meetings which will slightly reduce harmful emissions. 

Oh, and we may all wash our hands more. 

Tim Marshall is a journalist, broadcaster and author of Prisoners of Geography and Divided: Why we’re Living in an Age of Walls.

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