COVID-19 and the global power balance

We have long speculated on the moment when the shift of global leadership from the United States to China would take place. From Washington to Beijing for the political power, from New York to Shanghai for the economic one. It seems that we are witnessing it now.

Some saw the Beijing Olympics (2008), others marked the Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank (2015) to replace the Bretton Woods system, a fundamental pillar of North American hegemony.

Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping confirmed a de facto bipolar global regime manifested in the two leaders’ pact on climate change that made the 2015 Paris Agreement feasible.

However, with the arrival of Donald (Make America Great Again) Trump there was an escalation of this quarrel for global leadership. The trade war between the two countries, with the World Trade Organisation held hostage, or the open battle over the control of 5G, with the Huawei controversy at its the core were two recent examples.

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President Donald Trump's visit to China in 2017.

China is on a full-fledged offensive to increase its presence and influence in the multilateral system to fill a vacuum left by the Trump administration, by obtaining important positions to influence these institutions. The US administration has vacated for more than three years the position of ambassador in Geneva, a city with most diplomatic activity in the world.

China stepped in by appointing a new high political-profile ambassador in November last year. However, the positions of the battles for the future of the WTO or the leadership of the International Telecommunication Union (key in the management of satellite orbits, the management of radio space or digital world governance) were already well advanced at that time.

Then, in November last year something happened in the Huanan market in Wuhan. But it was not until 31 December that an ‘outbreak of an unknown pneumonia’ in this city was reported to the World Health Organization (WHO).

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The Huanan market was closed down on 1 January. The following day the new virus was confirmed, with the technical name of SARS-CoV-2. On 16 January, Japan reported its first case, on the 17th it was Thailand did. Taiwan and the United States reported first cases on 21 January, and France on 24th.

On 30 January the WHO declared an International Public Health Emergency, the same day that Italy reported its first case. The next day it was Spain at the same time that the virus was already spread in India, Russia, the Philippines or Australia. On 11 March the WHO declared the global pandemic and, while the world trembles, global leadership transits.

On 20 March, while the White House or Downing Street were still flirting with denialism in relation to COVID-19, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced a plan to support 82 countries in their fight against this virus.

Two weeks later, as the virus wreaked havoc on hospitals on both coasts in the United States, and the British Prime Minister was admitted to the ICU, 18 countries in central and western Africa had already received hundreds of tons of Chinese donations of medical supplies, and 17 more were waiting to receive them in a matter of days.

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Pakistan, South Korea, Spain or Italy are other countries that have received help. In the latter, this help was not only of material, but accompanied by experts and medical staff.

Putin’s Russia also took advantage of the pandemic in the first weeks to project its role as international power by sending military personnel to Italy – in a context of astonishing silence and blockage of the European institutions -- or aid in health supplies to his ‘friend’ Donald Trump.

And even as COVID-19 spreads through Moscow and other cities and regions of the Federation these rather symbolic activities continue. Turkey also tried, by responding to Spain’s NATO urgency request, but soon changed its policy once they realised how the situation was deteriorating in Ankara and Istanbul itself.

It is too early to evaluate the full scope of COVID-19. In fact, no one can really assert at this point what the evolution and global impact of the pandemic will be, neither in terms of public health, nor in its humanitarian, social or economic dimensions.

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The outlook is not good, and particularly worrisome is the uncertain effect that this pandemic will have in less developed countries, considering how it is affecting higher-income ones.

However, it is quite clear that this will be a turning point in terms of global governance and hegemony. Once again, the arbitrariness of history precipitates change. The strategists, the intelligence agencies, the think tanks that for years have debated and conspired from Langley through Georgetown, Xijuan or Gouguan had not foreseen what would end up igniting in a provincial market in Wuhan.

But what does seems plausible is that, in the midst of such drama, we are witnessing the handing over of global hegemony.

Manuel Manonelles is director of the Foundation for a Culture of Peace in Barcelona.

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