The world is in the grips of the coronavirus. Borders are closing, trade has come to a standstill, and citizens are being asked to stay home as much as possible. It looks like every man for himself. What remains of globalisation? Of a united Europe? Or of joint global objectives, such as combating the climate crisis? We ask senior lecturer of International Relations, Nana de Graaff.

04/17/2020 | 10:58 AM

In December 2019, the Chinese city of Wuhan saw a cluster of symptoms emerge that was described as ‘pneumonia of unknown origin’. Quickly a link was established with what is known as a ‘wet market', where a variety of living animals are bought and sold. From the west, the virus initially appeared to be a distant threat of little concern. But it rapidly spread to Europe, and all too soon the whole world became a hotbed of infection. One of the world's biggest emerging powers suddenly became the bogeyman. And yet the tables seem to be turning, says De Graaff. ‘China has launched an enormous PR offensive. While initially it was the big bad guy, the country now seems to be leading the charge in combating the virus. It has also stepped up as a saviour, providing support in the form of valuable data, face masks and financial aid. The initial setbacks have been converted into a head start, which China is now trying to turn to maximum advantage.’

Restoring confidence
And yet, De Graaff says that China's actions are not merely about bolstering its global image, that there is more at play. ‘It's also a clear matter of internal self-interest. To the Communist Party, it was of vital importance to restore both public confidence and the party’s legitimacy. At the start of the corona crisis, both of these suffered greatly; there was strong criticism of how local and central authorities initially responded to the virus outbreak: that is to say, by covering it up. “Daddy Xi” [the Chinese president] also disappeared from view, and the population felt as though it had been left in the lurch. Once the outbreak had been established, however, the Chinese government took strong and decisive action, and now – in view of the tardy, slipshod responses from western governments showing a lack of capacity, solidarity and leadership, and rising death tolls – people are reassessing the Chinese approach. Although state propaganda was certainly used, the Party has benefited greatly from the poor responses in the rest of the world. My Chinese colleagues have been telling me they feel like they're living in the safest place in the world right now.’

China vs America
In response to the question of whether America is ceding its position as a world leader to China, De Graaff explains: ‘In a time when other leaders are retreating, China is visibly doing the opposite. It is offering assistance in the form of data and resources, while America is still preaching “America First”. Donald Trump and other American government leaders are talking about the “Chinese” virus. That's not earning them any brownie points on the world stage, and it also plays right into the Chinese propaganda strategy. And China now seems to have the virus under control – unlike America, where infection rates are growing exponentially. The country is in shutdown, and Trump says that if the coronavirus only costs between 100,000 and 200,000 lives, then he's done a good job.’ The long-term geopolitical consequences remain difficult to predict, says De Graaff. ‘The existing tensions are under additional strain. The blame-game between China and America, about who bears greater responsibility for the corona pandemic, is certainly not helping international relations, which were tenuous to begin with. Even though the dollar still means that America retains a strong geopolitical position, the world's number one economic power is currently teetering on the brink of an economic depression of historic proportions. Over the past weeks, the crisis has cost 16 million workers their jobs. Of course, China also faces economic challenges of enormous proportions, but they are trying to take full advantage of their head-start in rebooting their economy, by strengthening their position in the world market (in areas such as 5G and AI) and by demonstrating international leadership. That's also why Xi has been on the phone to practically all of the world's leaders. America is now too preoccupied with itself, characteristic of Trump's behaviour until now. Viewed in this light, China might just emerge stronger from this crisis.’

In Europe, too, collaboration seems scarce. ‘The coronavirus has exposed Europe's Achilles heel. In Italy, for example, it wasn't northern Europe but China that lent its aid in the form of doctors and face masks. In this part of the world it seems like it's every man for himself, and there is no evidence of any clear EU policy direction. It's a shame, because it’s precisely developments like the coronavirus that provide opportunities for a more integrated Europe. We should be thinking much more along these lines. If Europe were to think collectively about how to combat the crisis, we would achieve much more.’
Although the coronavirus at first seems only to be exacerbating the disparities and strained relations present in the world, there are also theories that it may help to foster greater equality and collaboration. ‘In addition to a global health crisis, corona is also an unprecedented economic crisis – which will also extend to the financial markets – and a huge source of social upheaval. But the pandemic also offers opportunities, by showing us that drastic change is both possible and necessary. It will depend greatly on what leaders do with these opportunities, and on what we can do to keep our leaders engaged and alert. As a race, we humans have got ourselves into quite a pickle with this outbreak. Hopefully the crisis will lead to new social, economic and ecological relations, more widespread collaboration and greater solidarity. Stimulation of local production and a fair supply chain, jump-starting the transition to green energy, shortening the working week and introduction of a universal basic income, re-evaluation of essential professions such as nurses and teachers, investments in a strong and just healthcare system, and so on. There are plenty of good ideas. Hopefully these opportunities will be put to use, although the way things look now, I am a little sceptical’, says De Graaff.

The state
Concerning the internal balance of powers, De Graaff posits that a re-evaluation of the role of the state is on the horizon. ‘As we saw during the financial crisis, we are now also witnessing a “comeback of the state”. Which actually isn't a comeback at all, since the government has always been there. Without the government the market would cease to function, a fact that becomes eminently clear in times of crisis. The market's self-efficiency always falls short, since private interests stand too much in the way of the common good. Only the state can impose measures of adequate scope and efficiency during a crisis such as this, especially when stimulating the economy and keeping businesses afloat, as we saw with the government's support to KLM.’

The government aid also increases the state's influence, which according to De Graaff, should be used to safeguard public interests in the long term. ‘Of course employees need protecting, and support for companies and business owners is of vital importance. But the state might also attach certain conditions to that aid. When pouring billions of public funding into the aviation industry, for example, the industry should be bound to certain conditions serving the public interest, such as reaching the agreed climate targets.’