One of the major effects of the COVID-19 crisis is on relations between states. This pertains to immediate questions affecting the treatment of the virus ‒ closure of borders, quarantine, the development of a vaccine, questions of international property rights in relation to medicines.
But the crisis is having a whole range of effects which go well beyond the immediate medical dangers. Perhaps the most important is the situation of the world economy, the growing threat of recession and the highly insecure future that millions are facing.
This looming economic crisis is serving to exacerbate tensions and competition between different nation states and blocs. Economic tensions and military competition often go hand in hand and this crisis will be no exception. The build-up of arms and military planning across the major powers not only makes conflict more likely, but will also worsen existing tensions, creating refugee crises at borders and leading to even greater build-up of arms internationally.
Despite the call from the United Nations for a global ceasefire at the outset of the pandemic, there is no sign of this happening, or of the major powers considering for a moment putting resources that are earmarked for the military into fighting the virus. Instead, the economic threats make them more determined to protect their interests by force.
Existing conflicts continue – as we are seeing with Israel’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank – and new ones loom.
The crisis itself has not led to more cooperation between states, and we are certainly not going to come out of it with greater cooperation internationally ‒ given economic rivalry the opposite is likely. Even arguments in Britain and elsewhere about how and when to ease the lockdowns, imposed in response to the virus, are framed very much in terms of economic competition with other countries. So, we are likely to see a new and intense form of this competition, which will inevitably take on a military dimension.
The British government increasingly talks of the main threat militarily coming from great power conflict rather than the war on terror, which has dominated their thinking for the past two decades. That preoccupation is now shifting and has for some time been focused on Russia as a potential enemy, but in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis is increasingly turning to China as the main “threat” to western interests.
Nowhere is this more the case than in the United States, most strongly put by President Donald Trump, where the White House now talks about the enemy, meaning China, of the “China virus”, and of breaking relations with China.
Trump threatens the World Health Organisation with withdrawal of funding because it allegedly neglected to share information about the virus in China. This, plus blatant anti-Chinese racism, is creating the backdrop to potential military conflict. While there has long been anti-Chinese rhetoric coming from Trump’s administration, this is at a new level and against a background of world crisis is more of a threat.
Trump is supported by many across Europe on this. Manfred Weber, conservative politician and leader of the People’s Party in the European parliament, is demanding a 12 month ban on China buying up European companies that go bust as a result of the crisis.
British foreign secretary Dominic Raab has declared that we “can’t have business as usual” with China after the crisis. Politicians like Michael Gove and Ian Duncan Smith urge cancellation of the 5G deal with Chinese company Huawei. With the International Monetary Fund’s projection of a deep recession, in which the US will do considerably worse overall than China, we can only see a worsening situation over the coming months.
We do not know exactly how this will develop, and we should not assume that a “hot war” is necessarily imminent. But there are too many signs of conflict not to sound the alarm. Any such development will have its impact on a number of existing conflicts around the world, will increase economic rivalry – and, most importantly, will face the threat of wider war.
The US is the world’s biggest military power. China too is a major military power which is extending its weapons capability. Both are nuclear powers. Any conflict between the two would be deadly for many people around the world. It would threaten a third and most destructive world war from which there would be no winners.
The anti-war movement has long opposed any such development, and has also opposed supposed humanitarian intervention which has failed to even approach its goal of protecting human life, but has led to a series of war zones, instability and humanitarian crises across the world. A potential clash between the US and China would have even worse consequences than these. We cannot allow the outcome of this crisis to be growing militarism and competition, but rather should stand for peace and cooperation rather than this escalation.
[Reprinted from Stop the War UK.]