A pair of existential crises – the spread and disruptive impacts of COVID-19, and the intensification of peer competition between the United States and China – together comprise a tectonic shift in international relations that is likely to define the 21st century. The first, COVID-19, is upon us now, with the emergence of a class of diseases catalysed by the spread of human populations into areas previously off-limits to human settlement.
The rise of globalisation, in both the movement goods and people, has created a single global environment – where items and viruses travel from one part of the world to another in hours or days. The SARS CoV 2 virus rode these systems efficiently, spreading to all countries and population centres in a matter of months. With little initial treatment available and without effective vaccines, contending with this challenge has thrown the world into economic recession if not outright depression. Recovery from these dire conditions – fuelled by possible vaccines and social and political action – is unevenly distributed around the world, with some societies appearing to adjust and recover rapidly, while others languish in prolonged lockdowns and burgeoning numbers of positive infections.
The second crisis, the rise of geopolitical competition between the United States and China, is slower moving. Economic and political competition between the two countries has always coincided with the possibility of mutual gain. However, COVID-19 has reinforced competitive dynamics because it heightens attention to political and technological factors on which the two countries differ. From market access, to the status of Taiwan and Hong Kong, sanctions launched by the US and retaliation by China have begun to disturb established globalised supply chains and relationships. The US Administration’s de-linkage strategy aimed at disconnecting key US economic sectors from technologies that China has targeted in its industrial policies has begun to affect corporate partnerships and technology markets.