For those wondering whether covid-19 has changed everything, geopolitics may be one notable exception. With every day passing, we’re being bombarded with arguments that the already intensifying competition between China and the United States hasn’t gone away. In fact, as some would have it, their contest has just got nastier.
Already criticized for its non-transparent early response to the Wuhan outbreak, China is now being portrayed as the early opportunist, turning a crisis that is causing great suffering elsewhere to its own advantage. Peter Jennings, the Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, argues that Beijing is using the distraction of covid-19 to advance its ambitions in East Asia and beyond.
Before covid-19, Washington was already looking for ways to disentangle the United States from China’s economy. That decoupling agenda seems even stronger today. The current crisis has driven home America’s uncomfortable reliance on the supply chains where China is the central provider of PPE, antibiotics and so much more.
And we should expect these themes to strengthen in the run up to November’s Presidential election. The Republican Party has issued a long memo to surrogates suggesting their best chance to win is not by defending President Trump, but by pouring blame on China. Don’t expect a completely different tune from Joe Biden either. The presumptive Democratic nominee will want to reassert America’s commitment to global cooperation if he is elected. But right now he is competing with Donald Trump in a contest of who can be toughest on Beijing.
Viewed through this lens, covid-19 simply magnifies the existing challenge confronting New Zealand’s foreign policy-makers. In one corner an increasingly illiberal and assertive China which has held many of the keys to New Zealand’s economic prosperity. In the other a militarily powerful, but increasingly unreliable United States, whose president has been trashing the rules-based order upon which New Zealand's interests depend.
There is not much ballast for Wellington anywhere else. Major like-minded partners who might offer alternatives to the US-China duopoly are in short supply. The pandemic has exposed the weakness of the world’s existing institutional architecture, from the United Nations Security Council to ASEAN and the EU. Here in the South Pacific, New Zealand’s neighbours already have a full plate wrestling with the twin challenges of climate change and external competition.
But there are reasons to question whether geopolitical considerations will have as much clarity and sway as some are already convinced they will. The covid-19 crisis has weakened both Beijing and Washington as international actors. Their ability to dominate the landscape will be smaller after the coronavirus than it was before.
America’s decline in this regard is especially precipitous. It is not just that the President’s ill-informed rants threaten public health. Far worse from an international perspective is that the great power from which one used to expect international leadership is currently unwilling and unable to step up during one of the largest international crises any of us can remember.
Over the last three years, as Trump has raised tariffs and belittled alliances, many of America’s traditional partners have begun to feel as if they are treated as adversaries. Even as the covid-19 crisis grew Trump couldn’t avoid the temptation of dissing traditional allies (South Korea) and berating longstanding partners (the EU). And the stop on WHO funding, which may become permanent, is the latest in a string of own goals where the Trump Administration has weakened the institutions which have been so favourable to western interests, thereby ceding ground to China.
America’s international clout is as small as we can remember, and it is getting smaller. How then will Washington persuade its formerly like-minded partners to join an economic quarantine of China? Restrictions in sensitive areas will be likely on some occasions: British firms are being advised not to get too close to their Chinese information technology counterparts. But many European countries have been only too happy to accept Beijing’s PPE assistance.
In the developing world, where the covid-19 toll will be especially punishing, the idea of recovering economic ground without active links to China is absurd. This applies not just in Africa and the Middle East, but in parts of South Asia, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific also. Even more so in the global south than anywhere else, the Trump Administration will find it has very little convening power in turning the covid-19 crisis into an economic Cold War.
But that doesn’t leave the stage open for China. Notwithstanding efforts at disinformation and ‘narrative management’, Xi Jinping’s leadership, party and country have suffered significant reputational damage over the last few months. The covid-19 crisis makes it clear that the consolidation of power under Xi, where underlings cannot afford to criticize the centre, has the capacity to make the rest of the world suffer. Its recent actions in the South China Sea further underscore its willingness to push its neighbours around.
China will still have plenty of trade partners: the demand it generates and its crucial role in supply chains are simply too important to vanish overnight. But Beijing will have few real friends. New Zealand will be among many Asia-Pacific countries wanting to ensure their exposure to China is not too great, even if this means some more modest rates of initial regrowth.
This all makes the choice of early post-covid-19 partners more important as New Zealand looks to see who can join its international bubble. These choices will set an early pattern for the relationships that can be relied on the most. They will say something important about New Zealand’s view of the re-emerging order.
Australia, which has also performed well in the initial fight against covid-19, is the most obvious early partner. Extending it cautiously to the South Pacific might also be possible. But beyond the shared Tasman world, the picture looks fairly bleak right now. Given our inability to expect responsible leadership from Xi’s China or Trump’s America, and the risks of reigniting the spread of the virus before a vaccine arrives, coalitions of the trusted will only emerge slowly.
Prepare to see cooperation evolve on an issue-by-issue basis. This will be about order emerging from a patchwork of smaller ties. It won’t be simple: just working with fellow democracies won’t cut it. And it won’t be easy. Geopolitics has not gone away, but it’s not the geopolitics we used to know.
Robert Ayson is Professor of Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.
David Capie is Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.