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Coronavirus: History’s Great Divider

BLOG - 20 May 2020

The fight against the coronavirus pandemic, which strikes countries irrespective of their ideological or economic positions, could have been an opportunity to bring together yesterday's enemies – China and the United States in particular – in a common fight against the disease. However, that is not the case. On the contrary, Dominique Moïsi explains the war against the coronavirus has aggravated tensions between China and the Western world. And it is most likely only the beginning.

London, April 3, 1848. Queen Victoria could hardly hold back her tears as the rain began to fall. For more than twenty minutes, with her forehead stuck to the ground as a sign of respect and allegiance, she has been waiting for the arrival of high dignitaries from China.

It is with this imaginary tale that English historian Ian Morris opens his book, Why the West Rules – For Now, published in 2010.

This rewriting of history has the merit of shedding light on China's intentions. Fundamentally, the Chinese intend to turn the page on a world for too long dominated by the West, first European, then American.

It is interesting to read Ian Morris' book in light of recent events. The coronavirus crisis did not pan out as it should have, neither for the Americans, nor the Chinese, nor for advocates of a united international community.

The new Cold War

The pandemic could have been the occasion for a rapprochement between today’s two great powers. Washington could have seized the opportunity presented by the pandemic, originating from China, to extend a generous and compassionate arm to Beijing. Health aid and masks would have travelled from West to East, just as the Marshall Plan had done economically almost seventy-five years ago.

Things are not going quite that way , to say the least. The coronavirus crisis has, in fact, led to an accelerated deterioration of Sino-American relations, further undermining the world’s geopolitical balance and economy. For example, in the first quarter of 2020, China's direct investment in the United States was only $200 million, compared to $2 billion for the same period in 2019. The new cold war that has been slowly developing between the two countries in recent years is now taking a new and worrying turn. How can trust be rebuilt when it has so completely evaporated on both sides?

America's accelerated decline

The time for denouncing "Western lecherous vipers" almost seems to be back.

Caught in initial silence and lies, but emboldened by the inconsistencies of the American response to the pandemic, Chinese authorities probably considered that offence was the best form of defence. Beijing has employed acts of propaganda on all fronts, sending medical equipment and doctors alongside harsh denouncements of the US and, more broadly, the West.

Listening to recent speeches by very young Chinese diplomats, I almost feel 50 years younger, which, at my age, is not unpleasant. The time of denouncing the "Western lecherous vipers" almost seems to be back. As long as it was in a phase of catching up with the West, China could (perhaps) reconcile a capitalist economy and a communist political system. Now that it aims to overtake the West in all fields, is this model, especially in this highly centralized and authoritarian version, still viable for Beijing?

However, China's self-doubt is more than compensated, transcended even, by the conviction of America's accelerated decline. In the eyes of History, one of Donald Trump's greatest sins" will remain that of having given the Chinese excessive self-confidence.

In a radically new situation, Europe is thus torn between fear of an almost pitiful American nation, and fear of a China that has lost all sense of limits. Admittedly, Chinese tanks are not two stops away from the Tour de France cycling race, as the Soviet tanks were, to paraphrase General de Gaulle's words, in 1947.

Divide and conquer in Europe

China has turned arrogant and provocative, possibly in an attempt to conceal  a deep concern about the dramatic fall in economic growth, and the equally impressive rise in unemployment. Is the Chinese social and political pact, an extreme version of the model advocated by Guizot in France of "Enrich yourself, I'll take care of the rest", not fundamentally called into question?

How can Europe choose between two giants with feet of clay, who have made the "other" the scapegoat for their own contradictions?

How can Europe choose between two giants with feet of clay, who have made the "other" the scapegoat for their own contradictions? The stated aim of Beijing is to break transatlantic solidarity, dividing Europeans from Americans, if not dividing Europeans among themselves.

How can you be so dependent on a country that does not mean you well? Washington's objective is to keep Europe in the Western camp, but without any gesture in return, apart from disparaging China’s trade practices. Where China and the United States profusely insult each other, Donald Trump expresses nothing more but contempt for the European Union.

Europe is more than ever an object, rather than a subject, of the new cold war between China and the United States. It will be tempted not to choose between an American nation that, under Trump’s leadership, no longer embodies  the common values on which the Alliance was founded, and a China that is no longer hiding its real intentions.

The Second World War led to the Cold War. The war against coronavirus did not create, but certainly gave a spectacular boost, to the Second Cold War, dividing people further where the fight against the epidemic could have brought them together.

 

 

Copyright: Brendan Smialowski / AFP

Courtesy of Les Echos (published on 15/05/2020)

 

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