By Malay Mishra in Puri, April 26, 2020: It all started with the trade war in 2018, a contestation for global supremacy where trade and tariffs, protectionism and barriers, computer technologies and artificial intelligence, data hacking and cybernautics were bandied about between the USA and China, one an established global power and the other desiring to inch closer to the former.

Equivocation has dogged the COVID-19 saga right from its inception and the world has been seized of the matter through a flurry of news and counter-propaganda emanating from both sides of the Pacific. The squalid truth in all these is that people are dying in nearly 200 countries around the world, nearly 2 lakh deaths and 2.8 million infections at the last count, all from the attack of one virus diagnosed as COVID-19 whose vaccine is still under research and clinical trials (UK and Israel may be moving towards an early breakthrough as reported). The fact is that each death is a cause for mourning in the family, community and the nation. Not surprisingly there is a chorus among US lawmakers for fixing accountability on China as well as the DG, WHO some even clamouring for the latter’s resignation.

On April 16 a bill introduced in the US Congress sought to create for the first time a dedicated defence fund to boost deterrence against China in the Pacific with a $6 billion allocation for building air and missile defence systems and new military construction in partner countries. This was evidently aimed both at a strong Russo-Chinese entente building up right under America’s nose as well as to protect US interests in the Indo-Pacific region.

On April 18 a chastened Trump issued a veiled warning to China of consequences if it was ‘knowingly responsible” for the spread of coronavirus. In his daily press briefing he said, “It could have been stopped in China before it started but it wasn’t, and the whole world is suffering because of it”. This came in the wake of his suspending funding to WHO on April 14 on the ground that it had been ‘China-centric’ and kept the world in dark while being overtly generous of China’s efforts at handling the pandemic.

Retribution came quickly. While Senator Tom Cotton (Ark-R) introduced legislation allowing US citizens to sue China for deaths and economic harm from the virus, the State of Missouri went one step further. On April 21 it became the first US state to file law suit against the Chinese government (as well as the CPC as a co-party) accusing it of lying and seeking damages for “the enormous loss of life, human suffering, and economic turmoil” resulting from the disease. This came on the heels of 22 Republican lawmakers requesting the Trump administration to bring a case against China in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for the country’s actions.

The Missouri state’s law suit was dismissed by the Chinese government as “absurd” and “malicious abuses which ran counter to the anti-epidemic cooperation”, though it was obvious that round 2.0 of the geo-political war had started. Invoking a clause in its phase one trade deal of ” a natural disaster or other unforeseeable event” with the US, China rescinded the deal thus denying the possibility of having to buy some $ 200 billion worth US energy and agricultural products. China’s global trade volume on the other hand has dropped by 8.4% while its economy has shown a contraction by 6.8% as per World Bank figures.

It was obvious that Trump was trying to deflect the anger mounting against him within the country with the excessive and unacceptable death count on account of his inept and indecisive leadership. WHO’s alleged dereliction provided him that chance particularly in an election year. It is another matter that Trump’s continuing duel with the Democratic party-ruled states has been a matter of ignominy acerbated with the near paralysis of the American governance system with people (though media has hyped the situation) from Republican states clamoring to get back to work. The only silver lining is the Congress approval for a $484 billion aid package to reduce the strain on US small businesses while also financing testing and hospitals.

In the fight between the two big powers where does the world stand today?

Europe lies tattered with major powers, Spain, Italy, France, UK and Germany being the most hit (in that order), next only to USA. The debate over loans vrs. grants has still not been settled with Germany, the most powerful of them all, still rooting for loans-based settlement. This has driven apart EU’s famed unity. The aftermath of the pandemic would surely see both sides of the North-South divide more visibly demarcated and going for each other’s jugular. It is interesting that except for French President Emmanuel Macron no other European leader has so far mentioned anything adverse about China. Either their obsessive engagement with looking after their own populations or getting back-handed returns by way of materials and aid could be the reason.

Africa with over 40000 cases with an exponential increase by the day could be the next epicentre of the pandemic. In fact, bulk of the 550 million people driven to a hunger pandemic announced by the FAO in the aftermath of the current crisis could well originate from that continent with South Africa, a BRICS member and ardent supporter of China topping the list. Though Asia and South America (with the possible exception of Brazil, also a BRICS member and believed to be the next epicentre in the continent) have performed relatively better it is the after-effects of the pandemic that will have to be keenly observed with their governance systems and public health infrastructures giving way. Most of these countries would have to live on borrowed money and restructure their economies (and their political systems as well) in fundamental ways.

Having perfected the art of deception China’s COVID-19 statistics have fluctuated wildly while Xi has been playing the victim card and incurring goodwill at the same time from countries in Europe, Asia and Africa through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as well as sending out relief and medical aids. The disaster economies have particularly much to gain from allying with Beijing, notwithstanding racist frictions between some African countries and China in Gyuangzhou province and its imperialistic ambitions to cobble collateral in response to non-payment of debts.

How does the emerging world order look like? The USA, despite the shenanigans of Trump (latest being his suggestion to have COVID-19 patients injected with disinfectant) and the huge attrition to America’s global image, is still the hope of the neo-liberal world now hollowed out of global institutional support and could still be relied upon as the purveyor of the Bretton Woods system. China’s stealth and deception could endure with both the images, victim as well as friend, at the same time and help in regaining its credibility. In the tussle, both powers would still get back to even keel and fight their trade and technology war anew.

Yet there will be new forces at play, a divided or renewed Europe, a more determined Africa, a more vigorous Russia to build new alliances with China and Eurasia, and a reinvention of democracy in Asia with countries like South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan standing out as exemplars of good governance while India will continue to nurse its big power ambitions and struggle against its powerful neighbour in the continent.

A denuded world, a shattered global economy, an invincible globalized chain ruptured forever and a global society cowered into submission and ghettoisation in their localised spaces, that would be the future scenario for 2020 and beyond, optimistically until an anti-viral vaccine is created and available for the restive masses.


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