The rush to what is essentially a new wartime footing began consciously and urgently in the first quarter of 2020 between some of the most powerful geopolitical players of the modern era: the United States of America, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and the United Kingdom.
It was not about the “battle” to cope with the COVID-19 (coronavirus) epidemic or the global fear pandemic which it engendered, but those contagions broke the cycle of globalism and the belief in the indissoluble nature of interdependence. It allowed what was already emerging as a fundamental move toward a new, bipolar global competition to come out into the open.
By the end of March 2020, the global framework had changed sufficiently to become — behind the headlines about COVID-19 — about which system and ideology would triumph in the decades after the watershed. That meant a race by each of the major antagonists to determine how quickly national productivity could be resumed.
Even so, the failure of most major societies, including the PRC, to prepare for health pandemics, natural disasters, and associated contagions of fear was a significant function of the transformed realities of the “globalist”-dominated political structures over the earlier lessons of national self-reliance. I made this point in a report in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis on November 24, 2008:
The unintended, or unforeseen, consequences of economic dislocation — as this writer has repeatedly noted — can be expected to lead to a rise in globalized (or at least regionalized) pandemic health challenges at a time when societies are weakened. These will lead to wealthier societies becoming more nationalistic and isolated, in some respects, merely to protect themselves. Pandemics will be matched by similar anomic social responses, including rising crime, of which the new era of maritime piracy is merely one aspect
Indeed, it is clear that the best avenue which nation-states can take is one marked by gaining as much control over their destinies as possible. That requires a growing focus on domestic food self-sufficiency and domestic market bases for manufactured goods and services. In other words: a return to a sense of the nation. The age of globalization is ending; it was a brief window in which the technologies which were created to fight the Cold War became the technologies of global social integration. Now, again, the luxury of internationalism is ending, and survival is based around the extended clan: the nation.
It was a year later that the global H1N1 pandemic emerged, fortunately without triggering the associated fear pandemic which acted as a force multiplier to the impact of the 2019-20 COVID-19 epidemic.
By 2020, a dozen years later, the transformed strategic landscape meant that information dominance (ID) warfare was far more enabled, particularly as social media evolved as a conduit for mass mobilization to force government actions in Western societies. So there was a general transformation in the social and technological context which prevailed when the panic arose around COVID-19.
But, to gain the post-epidemic political high ground, the PRC was first to “declare victory” in managing the COVID-19 epidemic and to send its population back to work, despite the reality of evidence which defied the national statistics on the continuing levels of contagion in the PRC. However, it was clear that the epidemic, having its origins in Wuhan in the PRC, would peak first and begin to recover first. Still, it was the degree of top-down control that PRC Pres. Xi Jinping enjoyed — in contrast to Western heads of government — which enabled the PRC to “declare victory”, and to resume his offensive against the West in a now fairly blatant fashion.
Even so, it was clear that the overall nature of the restructured strategic balance would be less affected by a few weeks (or even months) in the battle to restart economic activity than by underlying fundamentals in systems. Meanwhile, as the information dominance (ID) wars between the PRC and (particularly) the US ramped up, both sides were careful to ensure that the risk of the actual physical challenge was minimized.
What were some of the fundamental immediate outcomes and questions raised by the 2020 Fear Pandemic?
1. The global economy and the economies of most states have been dramatically weakened, and they will remain relatively weakened and transformed for some years; in many cases for decades. This means that economic deprivation will reach more pervasively down into the mass of society, reversing the trend of the past seven decades. It will exacerbate the polarization of societies, but seems likely to push the trend toward forms of nationalism more than it will reinforce the ideology of globalism;
2. The power of central governments has been dramatically increased, and the rights and freedoms of individuals constrained. By late March 2020, the situation in most Western societies had approached a quasi-martial law environment, with little social resistance;
3. Funding for R&D, national security, and consumer spending will decline, further exacerbated by the reduction in the core size/wealth of most populations in advanced economies. The question is whether the limitation in wealth will exacerbate or constrain inflammatory populism and social action;
4. The role of global bodies has been weakened, as have alliances. This will lead to a rethinking of alliance structures and how to manage them. It will, even if only for reasons of fiscal constraints, lead to an increasing momentum toward the bilateralization of trade, even to the point, once again of thinking in terms of structured barter or counter-trade dealings;
5. The reach of formal military structures will be inhibited by funding, and will this open seams in the global power framework? Will it allow space for more independent, regional actions?;
6. While the Communist Party of China (CPC) probably has the strength to enforce control over the People’s Republic of China (PRC), will the European Union (EU) have sufficient cohesion to enforce control over its member states? If the EU cannot “hold it together”, would this create a space for Turkey to revive its neo-Ottomanist expansions in the Eastern Mediterranean and Balkans? Did the United Kingdom escape from the EU just in time to preserve its economic base? Did the EU’s poor handling of the crisis end forever the chance of bringing Serbia into the Union? And what will this new dynamic do for the encouragement of separate geopolitical alignments, such as the creation of the Three Seas Initiative as a potentially viable successor to part of the EU? Can Three Seas gain traction if Serbia is excluded, given its regional hub importance for the north-south infrastructural needs of the Alliance?;
7. What skills will be necessary for the post-2020 environment? Has the economy sobered enough to embrace the restoration of practical skills training instead of ideological education which has no market, while an impetus toward revived domestic manufacturing (rather than foreign-sourced manufacturing) will see significant demand for trained personnel?;
8. There was a widespread belief that the crisis had caused a collapse in petroleum and gas prices to the point where the US domestic shale industry would be forced from the marketplace, re-opening the US to the need for imported energy. But this is likely both untrue and irrelevant, and the US would remain considerably less vulnerable to energy exposure than the PRC;
9. The PRC would continue to see the extreme vulnerability to food and water shortages, which can only be ameliorated by (a) dependence on imported food and agricultural products, most of which would need to come from the United States (given that other suppliers cannot meet the demand), and (b) reduction in the lifestyles and numbers of the PRC population, a factor which could have significant social-political ramifications;
10. The longer the constraints on societies imposed by the crisis, the more pro-found were the likely post-crisis attitude changes likely to be. In other words, if the crisis lingered in various forms through 2020, it was likely that the year would be seen by society and historians as a breakpoint equivalent to the world wars of the 20th Century;
11. Nowhere in the world have we seen the development of economic theories or approaches to managing societies in decline in terms of economics as well as in terms of the downward transformation of market size and demand. Studies of recent-term lessons from Japan, Russia, and Germany would be helpful, even though these examples all predicated their economic thinking — despite market size decline — on growth in economic opportunity, but with notable shortcomings;
12. Africa, which had moved from a Continent gradually modernizing within the framework of a Western model to one dependent almost solely on the PRC, was likely to be left in an almost ruinous situation by late 2020 and beyond. African societies would themselves be forced to evolve new economic models. There was a likelihood that the US would strongly move, in the post-crisis period, to strengthening its dominance in the Americas (where the PRC, in particular, had built a strong presence), and also in Central Asia, as a means of providing an alternate path in the Eurasian Silk Road complex.
The COVID-19 pandemic will do little to impact the demographic trends in global population numbers. The trend toward population decline was set in place in the second half of the 20th Century and is only now becoming evident. Similarly, the disruption to the global economy also began before the COVID-19 crisis, largely as a result of the global demographic transformation, but the 2020 crisis became an iconic breakpoint.
The post-COVID-19 world would thus be markedly different, structurally, than the world which preceded it. But most significantly, the perception of that “new” world would have changed, ensuring that a linear extrapolation of older remedies or progressions of earlier thinking would no longer be acceptable.
It is important to stress that the two underlying strategic trends impacting the US-PRC competition had begun well before the 2020 pandemic scares. The PRC economy had been essentially in decline for several years, disguised by ongoing state-sponsored investments in infrastructure projects, which boosted the appearance of growth in the gross domestic product (GDP). Moreover, the PRC’s water shortage and quality problems had reached almost panic levels over that same timeframe.
In a talk in Perth, Western Australia, on October 23, 2019, I noted:
[The PRC] has almost 20 percent (18.4 percent) of the world’s population, and yet only seven percent of its water, and of that water some 25 percent, at least [as the PRC Government acknowledges], is polluted, along with much of its agricultural water table [to a far greater degree than the PRC Govt. acknowledges]. And the problem is getting worse. The great water source, the aquifers flowing from the melting snows of the Tien Shan Mountain range in Central Asia, is reducing for the moment.
The result of this, and the fact that Chinese agriculture has not modernized to any great degree, is that the People’s Republic of China is perhaps more strategically dependent on imported food than any great power since Rome. And Rome, arguably, collapsed, finally, for that very reason: its foreign sources of food became less dependable. The PRC Bureau of Statistics in the 1980s recorded that there were some 50,000 rivers in mainland China. But by 2017, there were only some 23,000. Beijing, serviced by the so-called “Three Gorges Dam”, recorded in 2017 that 39.9 percent of its water was so polluted as to be unusable. Tianjin, a principal port city of the north (and with a population of 15-million), had only 4.9 percent of its water in a potable state.
The growing urbanization of the constituent populations of the PRC has made the food and water crises more and more urgent. Urban populations use far more water than rural societies. They also demand more water-intensive food, such as pork and beef, especially as the city-dwellers become more prosperous. And the PRC’s urbanization rate continues apace: by the end of 2017, some 58.52 percent of its population was urbanized, compared with only 17.92 percent in 1978.
You can see where this is going. And we have not even touched on the impact of air quality on health in the PRC, or the fact that urban-related diseases, such as diabetes, are rising at a higher rate than in other industrial economies; or the fact that a rapidly-aging population is transforming the economic viability of the state.
And by late 2019, it became clear that the PRC was unable to continue the pursuit of military equivalence with the US. Minnie Chan, writing in The South China Morning Post on November 28, 2019, noted that the PRC Government had canceled plans for the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) to build two nuclear-power very large aircraft carriers to compare with the capability of US carriers. The PLAN has two carriers afloat with two more abuilding; all conventionally-powered. The reasons for the cancellations of the prestige super-carrier program were cited as “technical challenges and high costs”.
The PRC has significant technologies that had briefly leapfrogged the US, particularly in the areas of hypersonic weapons and space, but belatedly a more resilient US economy was beginning to redress the years of neglect by all US presidents between Pres. Ronald Reagan (1981-89) and Pres. Donald Trump (2017- ). The US was slowly beginning to compensate for the sense of smugness and hubris which pervaded its global thinking after the end of the Cold War in 1990.
But the US had, along with most European powers, subcontracted most of its manufacturing to the PRC in the post-Cold War era, and the COVID-19 epidemic — and the US-PRC “trade war” which immediately preceded it (and which was likely to resume significantly in late 2020) — saw the extent of global dependence on mainland China factories. Beijing was counting on this dependence to restart its economic push in the second quarter of 2020.
But will that manufacturing/export revival be sufficient to restart the PRC economy, which was essentially already hollowed out?
And was the US (and Western) dependence on the PRC manufacturing sector likely to be the same as pre-COVID-19? Unlikely, given the reality that global demand would have declined substantially for at least the remainder of 2020 because of the economic impact of the crisis, and because several efforts to restore domestic manufacturing of key products had already begun in the US, Canada, Australia, the UK, and the like.
Moreover, the weakness of the PRC position, economically, seems to be borne out by the understanding that it had made dramatic cuts in the first quarter of 2020 to its investment in its Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) global supply chain. BRI had, in its origins, been conceived merely as a material and transactional form of Maoist globalist ideology; a way to bind foreign states to the PRC as “tributary” states and to provide the PRC with its resource needs and markets. But most of the BRI contracts and loans to foreign states had not been calculated on a realistic market basis.
Reports from Beijing indicated that funding for BRI projects had dropped in early 2020 by some 80 percent over the same period a year earlier. But some of these cuts were already well underway by the time the COVID-19 crisis struck.
The Hong Kong-based newspaper, The South China Morning Post, reported on October 10, 2019, that investment in BRI had begun to drop in 2018. It noted: “The value of new projects across 61 countries fell 13 percent to US$126-billion in 2018 [compared with the previous year], with the figure falling further in 2019.” It said that investment had fallen a further 6.7 percent in the seven months leading up to August 2019, and existing contracts were reduced by 4.2 percent in the first eight months of 2019.
The Post article continued: “[I]n the first half of 2019, China’s investment and construction activity around the world plunged by over 50 percent compared to the first half of 2018, while new projects under the belt and road plan dropped sharply, according to a report published in July by Derek Scissors, a resident scholar at the China Global Investment Tracker from the American Enterprise Institute. Scissors said Chinese SOEs were still moving car and steel capacity overseas and building new motorways and cement plants in developing economies, but that is now “on a smaller scale” compared to the 2016 investment peak.”
The cutbacks were not only caused by Beijing. By late 2019 and early 2020, a significant number of major programs in the BRI which had received commitments from foreign countries were canceled or scaled-back. These were particularly evident in Pakistan (which has a major strategic need to depend on Beijing), Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Sierra Leone. The arrival of the new Government in Ethiopia in April 2018 had already seen that country sour on involvement with new BRI projects.
To a degree, all this decline in the PRC’s economic reach was likely to see the PRC attempt to regain global market share by dumping of goods onto the global marketplace in a bid to ensure that nationalistically-oriented commitments in the US, Europe, Australia, and the like did not attempt to rebuild their manufacturing sectors. So the response by client states to PRC attempts to recapture markets and prevent the rise of national or sovereign independence would be a measure as to how much Western leaders learned from the crisis period of early 2020.
For this reason, strategically, the Communist Party of China (CPC) needed to ensure that US Pres. Donald Trump was not re-elected to the US Presidency on November 3, 2020, and that the Democratic Party in the US would strengthen its position in the US Congress. As a result, the CPC’s information dominance warfare against the US was geared specifically toward the downfall of Pres. Trump, and in this it sought to enlist the support of the anti-Trump sections of the US polity. There were some elements of the US political community which were prepared to align with Beijing — albeit not overtly — to ensure the removal of Donald Trump and the ascendance of Democratic Party presumed candidate Joe Biden.
So the US elections would become the next major breakpoint in the now overt US-PRC war.
By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs