Will we see a new cold war emerge?

Considering the sheer chaos inflicted upon global public health and the international economic system – dominated by American commerce and Chinese manufacturing fed by fossil fuel energy producing countries, including the Middle East – there has been very little discussion on the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on existing power structures in the international system. 

For a change, global political events are not being dictated by one or two superpowers, but governments everywhere are now racing to face the same challenge, adopting different methods from total quarantine and lockdowns to herd immunisation.

The virus, although originating in China’s Wuhan, has been one of the world’s great global equalisers. Unlike humans, viruses do not care where its victims come from, what religion they follow, or what ideology they believe in. All are at risk, and as economies shut down and resources are stretched, international power dynamics may see a shift in the age of the coronavirus.

Trump risks American power for short-term gain

Of course, it is too early to state just how long this “age” will last, although I am certain it will feel like an age to those who are now isolated in their homes and spending their days mainly watching Netflix. 

Everything could be over in a few months, while other predictions state that the virus could be plaguing us until 2021. However, and irrespective of how long it takes to get a handle on the virus, it is certain that things are about to change in the long-term.

Already, the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) managing director, Kristalina Georgieva, has stated that the human cost of the pandemic has been “immeasurable” and that the global economic outlook was negative, saying “a recession at least as bad as during the global financial crisis or worse.” 

For the head of the IMF to say that the economic impact of the virus may be even worse than the defining financial crash of our time that occurred in 2008 will be causing politicians, businessmen, and employees the world over to feel a bit hot under the collar, and rightly so.

Ever the businessman, President Donald Trump has announced that the measures the United States has taken in terms of social distancing that has undoubtedly had an impact on trade will be abandoned in favour of opening America for business in weeks and not months. 

Trump’s decision comes despite an enormous surge in coronavirus cases afflicting the US, with over 143,000 confirmed cases resulting in 2,490 deaths.

However, what this shows is weakness, and not strength. Trump has based his entire political manifesto on economic prosperity and strength through isolation. He has gone to incredible lengths to boast about how the American economy has never been better and the US military is now completely rebuilt and stronger than ever under his direction. 

Nevertheless, the virus has forced significant shut downs across the economy with stock markets plummeting and share prices falling. Trump’s commercial instincts cannot tolerate such losses and blows to his prestige as the man who apparently rebuilt the economy, and believes his re-election campaign may be damaged unless he re-opens the markets and allows the American people to work again as if nothing was happening.

What this means is that, without preventative options by way of a vaccine, Trump is gambling with the long-term interests of the United States. If the virus is still an active infectious agent in a few weeks when Trump re-opens America for business, and all indicators suggest that to be the case, then the pandemic will simply continue to rip through the population, stressing the healthcare system and the economy all over again. 

Trump will therefore be banking on some kind of herd immunity to take hold, but if that does not happen then we may see an irreversible blow to American power as the virus decimates its human resource potential.

China may live to regret coronavirus secrecy

Of course, waiting in the wings of any American decline is China. For decades, Beijing has steadily enhanced its power, primarily through the economics of becoming the world’s factory and manufacturing most of the things we see sold in shops around the world, not to mention vital components for other non-Chinese technology giants, including Apple, Sony, and Microsoft.

However, China has also been busy producing its own indigenous aircraft carriers, expanding its military influence and hard power, and making it one of a handful of countries able to produce such weapons of war that are capable of global power projection.

Indeed, China has been acting belligerently in the South China Sea, engaging in territorial disputes with neighbouring and smaller countries that it can easily bully while claiming sovereignty over vast swathes of these international waters.

With China’s economic clout and growing military might allowing it to use both significant levers of power within the international system, this places it at odds with the reigning power, the United States. 

As the world is racked by the coronavirus, China – the epicentre of the pandemic – is slowly beginning to recover as everyone else is getting mauled. This could grant it a head start, and it is indeed already playing the role of the good Samaritan and building its influence and soft power by sending aid to countries such as Italy who have suffered tremendous human losses as a result of the virus. This has allowed Beijing to control the coronavirus narrative in the West, showing itself to be proactively assisting in alleviating suffering globally.

However, and since the time of the outbreak, China has been shown to have suppressed and censored information relating to the coronavirus which allowed the disease to not only spread out of control in China but across the world, creating the present problem. 

The Chinese government may live to regret that decision as the impact on populations around the world has now acted as something of an eye-opener to governments who were previously content to avoid confronting Beijing. Now that China has directly impacted the global economy as well as public health by failing to alert the international community, the lack of trust engendered by such censorship could serve as a catalyst for a global consensus on clipping China’s wings.

If the coronavirus leads to a new cold war with China rather than Soviet Russia as the adversary, Beijing will find itself forced into more direct confrontation with Western powers it would rather do business with. Those same powers will now feel suddenly vulnerable at diminishing their own domestic production capabilities in favour of subcontracting out to cheap Chinese labour controlled by one of the most pervasive economic powers in the world. 

Such an outcome could see an entire process of rebalancing as governments clash and economies recalibrate to prepare for a whole new confrontation ushered in by the unpredictable effects of an invisible virus that will have very visible consequences.

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