Which of the world’s superpowers has emerged well from the past three years of shocks – first the coronavirus pandemic and now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
The first answer is: None of them. The second answer, however, is that while the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of all the superpowers are important, the most significant future issue from a geopolitical point of view looks like being the weakness of China.
The United States certainly fared badly in the first year of the pandemic, with its system of government shown to be clearly inadequate to the task. Moreover, the influence of Donald Trump on the strength and global reputation of US democratic institutions has clearly been deeply negative.
On the other hand, the response of American and European pharmaceutical firms to the pandemic showed the continued superiority of western technology, with much better vaccines and treatments being produced and distributed, in record time and volumes. These have enabled both America and Europe to return more quickly to something close to economic and social normality than is the case for authoritarian societies.
The resilience of the West was shown through the powerful fiscal response by European and American governments to the pandemic crisis – and, this year, by their powerful economic sanctions, joined by Japan, against Russia. These countries, led by the US, have also shown their strength and their advanced technology through their military supplies to Ukraine, which may now be changing the course of the war.
However, the West’s limitations have also been exposed: Neither during the pandemic nor this year during the crises caused by the war has the West proved willing or able to provide sufficient vaccines or resources to support low- or middle-income countries. Western leadership and support cannot, in the view of such countries, be depended upon.
India, as a self-proclaimed vaccine manufacturing superpower, expected to prosper during the coronavirus pandemic. But then its own Covid health crisis in 2021 forced it to ban exports of vaccines produced in India for many months. That lost it many friends in the developing world.
Russia had a bad pandemic, with an official mortality rate similar to those of Western European countries but with the true death rate most likely higher than the official figures.
The Sputnik vaccine that was made in Russia proved hard to produce and unpopular among Russian citizens. The economy suffered badly from the slump in energy and commodities prices in 2020-21, losses the country is only now compensating for amid the energy price shock caused by Russia’s invasion.
In fact, it is quite reasonable to say that the negative impact of the pandemic years on Russia’s economy, with some resulting social tensions, will probably have played a role in encouraging President Vladimir Putin to use the invasion of a neighbor and former imperial possession as a way to stir up and exploit Russian nationalist emotions.
Finally, there is China. For much of the pandemic, China sat with its borders closed and a rather smug look on its political leaders’ faces. The struggles that the US, in particular, but also the UK and European Union countries were having with the coronavirus were seen as further proof of the superiority of the Chinese system and the inexorable decline of the West.
China did well in developing and producing vaccines, with two Chinese firms manufacturing nearly half of the world’s coronavirus vaccines in 2021. China engaged in “vaccine diplomacy” by sending vaccines to poor countries. For several years now it has been the biggest lender to such countries, too.
Finally, on February 4 this year in Beijing, China signed a joint statement on “strategic partnership” with Russia that declared a joint aim of ending Western domination of global rules and institutions.
All that might be thought to make China look good, even perhaps triumphant. But that is not the way things really look. China’s anti-coronavirus policies have gone badly wrong, thanks mainly to the fact that the Chinese vaccines are not very effective. So, while in the West and in Japan the risk of severe illness or death from catching the coronavirus has declined dramatically, that is much less true in China.
Moreover, China’s economy is paying a high price for the series of drastic lockdowns needed to try to enforce the zero-covid policy. Its vaccine diplomacy failed and now it is struggling to deal with a number of sovereign debt crises among countries to which it has lent money.
Moreover, China’s economy has taken two other serious blows. One is very significant and debilitating: The property and construction industries had in recent years accounted for a large share of Chinese GDP (some estimates put the contribution as high as 30%), but the property business is now collapsing in many major cities.
Broader financial instability may be avoidable thanks to China’s state control of banking, but this large contribution from property to economic growth has now been lost, probably for many years to come.
The second blow is that this summer China has suffered very severe heatwaves and drought, which have caused human suffering while reducing the hydroelectric power supply drastically.
It is not surprising that Chinese state media have stopped mentioning the country’s annual economic growth target for 2022 of 5.5%, as the actual outcome looks likely to be half of that figure, possibly even lower. And, meanwhile, China’s strategic partner, Russia, is failing to defeat Ukraine in its war, even while adding hugely to China’s energy and food import costs.
We know that recent years have seen intensified superpower rivalry. But what those years have also brought is evidence of superpower inadequacy. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, none of the four (actual or, in India’s case, candidate) superpowers looks strong, and none can be trusted or depended upon.
In all four cases, that weakness matters. But the country in which it may matter most in the next few years is China.
We have seen in Russia how economic and social weakness can lead to a resort by political leaders to nationalism in order to maintain their control and support. In China, the current weakness may be temporary in the sense that recovery is possible. Still, we also know that thanks to China’s aging society its era of rapid growth is well and truly over.
And technologically, despite all its progress in artificial intelligence and state surveillance, China remains well behind the West, especially in semiconductors.
This ought to put us all on our guard.
One notion that has long reassured outsiders that Chinese military intervention in Taiwan is not imminent has been the belief that time is on China’s side so it will be in no hurry to invade. Current weakness, technological backwardness and an aging society could mean that the opposite is the case: that waiting could make the task harder, not easier. Let’s hope not.
But the weakness of the Chinese superpower ought nevertheless to be a concern for us all.
Bill Emmott, former editor of the Economist, is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs. This article, originally published on The Mainichi news site and in the Japanese Mainichi Shimbun newspaper on September 11, 2022, is republished with kind permission.