Welcome to a new world, a world shared between the rising superpower of China and the established superpower of the United States, as the coronavirus crisis accelerates competition and intensifies tension in a battle that has been simmering for some time.
Let’s look at the “small” picture. US President Donald Trump and his allies in Congress are scrambling for an alibi to justify the administration’s disastrous response to the pandemic.
From singing the praises of the Chinese leadership, Trump is now pressuring American intelligence services to “verify” his theories concerning the origins of the virus and has ordered that sanctions be brought against China.
According to leading American newspapers, even the partial write-off of American debt to China is under consideration, even though this is unlikely as it would topple the dollar from its dominant position.
China, meanwhile, has also escalated its rhetoric, as well as its propaganda. It goes without saying that it is responsible for not sounding the alarm earlier and for not giving a complete account of the strength and dangers of the new virus. It looks like China will be at the center of Trump’s pre-election campaign because he has nothing else to fall back on and Joe Biden will probably follow the same path, as the American middle class faces serious challenges. The danger of a trade war and an escalation of protectionism is very real and potentially catastrophic.
Now for the “big” picture. China has set ambitious goals that it has been serving punctiliously, unfettered by the innate difficulties of the American system. It is expanding its influence systematically, as the US grows increasingly introverted, demolishing many post-World War II institutions and ties with the rest of the world.
The world will become split between countries that use Chinese technology and data, and those that rely on the US or the West. We are already seeing this division emerging over 5G networks, with America demanding that other Western countries eschew Chinese technology, even though it has no such system to offer as an alternative. Such dilemmas will intensify, bringing back the kind of polarity we saw during the Cold War.
As far as Europe is concerned, ideally it would like Chinese money without the political strings and the American umbrella of protection without Trump’s blackmail. Both seem unlikely right now.
Perhaps this new world will be more stable. On the other hand, the planet needs the United States and China to work together to respond to new challenges like the pandemic and climate change.
What is certain is that neither Greece, nor Italy, nor Germany can face this new world alone – the economic impacts are just too big.
The countries of Europe are simply too small, and this will only change if Europe as whole decides that soft power is not enough if it wants to be taken seriously at the negotiating table when world power is being redistributed.