The COVID-19 pandemic has inflamed global risks: one comes from escalating tensions among nation-states.
The 2021 G7 and NATO meetings pointed fingers at Russia and China in particular.
Demonizing rivals continues to be a dangerously common practice on all sides.
Ordinary people share a desire to live their lives in peace without worrying about geopolitics.
But, with nine countries now either armed with nuclear weapons or close to it, the risks of catastrophic conflict – deliberate or accidental – have steadily increased, especially since state aggression remains the reality.
The combination of authoritarian governance, corruption, and aggression towards neighbours continues to yield particular trouble. Russia continues its revanchist expansionary moves towards the Ukraine, having already annexed Crimea in 2014.
Iran and North Korea continue their development of nuclear weapons and delivery systems.
The Middle East roils perpetually in multi-dimensional strife.
Africa still suffers from tribal conflict and extreme poverty.
Numerous other failed or failing states in other regions of the world produce fresh flows of refugees who are forced to flee violence and economic collapse.
But centre stage in any geopolitical risk analysis goes to the worsening U.S.-China relationship.
In their respective security strategies, the two countries have literally issued recipes for conflict, setting up a classic challenger versus hegemon, “Thucydides trap”.
Unlike the last Cold War, though, this more closely resembles a competition between plutocracies than ideologies.
Ruled by a 95-million-member communist party that brooks no external opposition, China also happens to be a highly successful capitalist economy with a GDP of $15 trillion and giant state-owned enterprises responsible for nearly $10 trillion in annual revenue.
It has become the workshop of the world and lifted hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty, building impressive infrastructure in support.
This has come, though, at the cost of human rights and civil liberties.
Even Chinese corporate leaders fear running afoul of the confiscatory practices of the Party.
As a result, despite its economic success, China does not suffer from mass immigration.
The Chinese poor continue to face abject hardships, while the elite send their children to schools in the west, a flow that goes unreciprocated.
How long the formidable Chinese people will accept these trade-offs is an open question that only they can answer.
The U.S. itself is a deeply cleaved country, with a partisan media and a rapacious corporate class capable of exerting undue influence through lobbying and campaign financing.
Though the world’s largest economy with a GDP of $23 trillion, the country suffers from crumbling infrastructure, an alarming level of violence, drug addiction, and racial conflict – all combining to undermine its moral authority globally.
Still, with over 700 military installations at home and in 80 countries, and a nearly $750 billion defense budget, it remains the preeminent military power by far, one still capable of doing both enormous harm and good around the world.
Driven by its military-industrial-political complex, it is guilty of multiple foreign interventions since WWII, toppling regimes at will.
Since 9/11 alone, it has fought dubious and costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, launched rocket and drone attacks on Syria, Iran and others, and imposed sanctions on numerous rivals and allies alike.
Paradoxically, the U.S. also remains the main sponsor and defender of the liberal international order that it created to promote peace and prosperity following WW II.
A multicultural democracy that, in theory at least, values individual liberty above all else, it attracts multitudes of both legal and illegal migrants pursuing the American dream.
The Trump presidency unsuccessfully sought to plug the porous southern border. It also eschewed costly foreign entanglements and punctured the already weakening consensus on globalization.
One of the great challenges for the rest of the world in the aftermath is to keep America positively engaged, as it retreats increasingly from the very international system it created.
To paraphrase Churchill, America tends to do the right thing, but only after exhausting all other alternatives.
China’s relations with the U.S. and the rest of the world have clearly been aggravated by the still spreading coronavirus itself, which so far has resulted in over 200 million recorded infections and over four million deaths worldwide.
Unreported cases put the numbers much higher and new variants continue to spread.
The toll includes more than 35.5 million Americans infected and over 620,000 deaths, all due to a pandemic that began under suspicious and deliberately shrouded circumstances in Wuhan, the site of a level 4 virology research laboratory.
The global economy and individual livelihoods have been significantly damaged everywhere.
Meanwhile, China’s recent effective takeover of Hong Kong in violation of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration raises alarms over its aggressive intentions. Its wolf-warrior diplomacy has included inhumane imprisonment of innocent Canadians in retaliation for the contrasting luxury-house detention of Huawei ‘s Chief Financial Officer in Vancouver on a U.S. extradition request.
Allegations of genocide of Uyghurs in Xinjiang also raise serious alarms, as do China’s border skirmishes with India, its control of Tibet, and ongoing disputes with various other neighbours.
Rather than continuing the approach of his modernizing predecessors, Xi Jinping has reverted to the Maoist model of simultaneous control over the government, the military, and the Communist Party. This makes for a potentially fragile governance system. Its sustainability depends increasingly on nationalism built upon the age-old device of hostility to outside enemies, real or imagined.
On top of this, territorial tensions over the South China Sea and Taiwan provide active potential flashpoints for hot war.
The fact that China controls the largest share of the world’s rare earth mineral supplies and has a paradoxically recognized, yet resisted, claim to sovereignty over Taiwan, sets up the conditions for further strategic instability.
Dominated by the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, Taiwan has the world’s largest semiconductor foundries accounting for 60% of the global market.
Choking off supplies would spell industrial catastrophe around the world. At the same time, such countermeasures as blocking supplies of Middle East oil to China would be equally disastrous. In short, economic decoupling seems like a self-defeating strategy for both sides.
Yet, heading in opposite directions on trade in recent years, the U.S. has turned inward, withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, while China has pursued its breathtakingly ambitious Belt and Road Initiative aimed at expanding its reach across all of Asia, to Africa and Europe as well.
As part of this unprecedented expansionist plan, China established the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2014, with an initial $100 billion capital base coming from over 100 members.
In 2020, China also concluded the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with 15 Asia Pacific partners accounting for some 30% of global GDP.
While China has been careful to maintain friendly relations with Russia, putting past border disputes behind it, the same cannot be said for its relations with India.
These are inflamed by China’s plan to build roads through disputed northern routes to the port it has built at Gwadar in Pakistan.
The Art of War by 5th Century Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, prescribed a stealthy approach to defeating a stronger enemy.
He couldn’t have imagined how useful today’s technologies would be in such a strategy.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) has recently ranked the cyber security capacities of 15 leading countries.
The U.S. and its allies remain in the lead but with China among the credible and motivated challengers.
To cite but one example, the alleged attacks by Chinese government sponsored hackers on Microsoft’s systems in March 2021 reveals how antagonists can indeed wage invisible cyberwar and get away with it.
In fact, the trouble with this kind of modern warfare is that it’s hard to know for sure if it’s even happening, or who the attacker is, whether a state, organized crime, or a private hacker, state sponsored or otherwise.
Whereas the use of nuclear and biological weapons has been deterred since WW II by the risk of mutually assured destruction, cyber-attacks can be launched quite readily, making them devilishly difficult to deter.
While nuclear weapons were said to have made war obsolete between those who possessed them, cyber weapons have put it back on the table.
The level of attack that would constitute an official act of war has not been defined.
Yet, as noted, the more our societies evolve towards electronic dependency, the more debilitating these attacks can potentially be on our socio-economic and military systems.
Even short of such attacks, we have seen how covert use of social media can be effective in manipulating public opinion, fomenting conflict, and even sowing doubt about election outcomes.
While cyber-attacks may be most effective for the stealthy softening of targets, advanced mechanical weapons systems are being deployed as well.
This includes recently established Space Force branches of militaries.
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) remains well ahead of the curve, of course. Already in the Afghanistan war, we saw the increased use of remote-controlled drones for surveillance and lethal attack.
Signalling the ease of their proliferation, over-the-counter drones have already reportedly been used by the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist group against traditional militaries in Iraq and Syria. Widespread use of autonomous weapons armed with artificial intelligence cannot be far off.
As with nuclear war, the key to avoiding conflict is deterrence. And deterrence can only come from strength.
Echoing George Kennan’s famous 1946 Long Telegram on how to contain the Soviet Union, a fully developed prescription for how to counter the rise of China was published early this year by an anonymous U.S. policy expert.
Taking the cue, the Biden administration is addressing concerns over the security of supply chains with a new initiative prioritizing domestic production of pharmaceuticals, rare earth minerals, semi-conductors, and batteries. If implemented successfully, this kind of decoupling may boost U.S. security of certain supplies. By definition, however, it will run counter to global cooperation.
Given its Cold War genesis, NATO could play a role in reinventing new international mechanisms to meet these modern threats.
The NATO 2030 plan is rightly focused on securing infrastructure, supply chains, and communications. Equally important, the alliance has also signalled its intention to preserve the international rules-based order.
But it has not yet spelled out how it intends to do so.
The goal should be mutually beneficial coexistence. Existing deterrence architecture is mostly based on preventing war in a simpler bipolar world.
For deterrence to work in today’s multipolar system, organizational capacity is required to shift military assets to wherever threats need to be deterred.
At present, the U.S. relies on a piecemeal alliance structure in the Asia-Pacific.
The objectives are to maintain freedom of navigation through international waters and to deter China from invading Taiwan or other neighbours. Initiated by Japan in 2007, and revived in 2017, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue group, comprising the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia, should be scaled up.
NATO members have been divided over how far to go in countering the rise of China, due to their differing economic interests and fear of sending the wrong signals.
However, the notion that G7 and NATO countries would not be impacted by, and therefore drawn into, any major conflict between the U.S. and China is sheer fantasy.
If attacked, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and ASEAN countries would need to be aided by other western allies.
As if to demonstrate the point, on its maiden voyage this year, the new British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth II is sailing through the South China Sea to visit friendly ports in Asia. India and Germany are deploying ships there as well.
Other NATO allies including Canada have been joining U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval war planning exercises since 1971.
These arrangements should be formalized in a regional collective security treaty.
At the same time, for counterbalance, China, Russia, and India – all of whom have been RIMPAC observers – should be brought into a permanent security dialogue for the region.
A complementary initiative on the economic front, would be to pursue a merger of the TPP and RCEP trade agreements to harmonize trade rules and level the playing field.
Actions that could be taken to strengthen both deterrence and confidence-building, include:
- NATO should either be reformulated to respond to threats globally, or an interoperable RIMPAC-based Asia Pacific Treaty Organization should be established in the Pacific region.
- NATO countries should strengthen their own defences, not only by meeting the target of 2% of GDP for defence spending, but also by shifting an even greater proportion of procurement to cyber and other modern defence systems.
- NATO should develop a new global deterrence architecture for a multi-polar world, including a target list of new treaties required to preserve peace and security.
- An Organization for Security and Cooperation in Asia Pacific, with China, India, Japan, ASEAN, and others included, should be established, modelled on the 57-member OSCE in Europe.
- Trans-Pacific Partnership countries should negotiate with the U.S. to rejoin, and initiate discussions on merger with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership countries.
Conclusions: Heading off a future we do not want
The COVID-19 pandemic has inflamed at least three other global risks: rising global debt, growing technological vulnerability, and increasing great power tensions.
These three areas of risk reflect uneasy relations among governments, corporations, and individuals, all situated within national and international systems inadequate to regulate them.
With widespread economic disruption, increased reliance on unregulated technologies, and a deepening rift between the world’s great powers, COVID-19 has increased rather than decreased these risks.
If we are content with a future defined by ever-increasing debt and dubious currencies, spiralling technological dependence driven largely by poorly regulated corporations, and potentially catastrophic challenges to the current world order from heavily weaponized usurpers, then there is always the option of doing nothing. In short, if we are content to let the existing liberal international order erode, then we are on the right trajectory.
But for those who believe that the system built following WW II is worth preserving and modernizing, resolute action will do better than rhetoric.
If advance warnings of a widely predicted global pandemic fell on deaf ears before December 2019, the greatest lesson to be learned from it is that we cannot afford to let other risks go unheeded.
Just as we have seen with the pandemic and climate change, we need proactive global solutions to transboundary challenges.
Turning to the international system for solutions may be the last resort for many governments.
But all countries rely on its stability for prosperity and security. With multilateral initiatives at the United Nations usually bogged down by bureaucracy and the sheer number of countries involved, the G7, G20 and NATO groups offer key plurilateral forums for initiating meaningful global action, as do the Bretton Woods institutions formed after WW II.
Rather than huddling in isolation or abandoning the global institutions that have been built over the past seven decades, the goal should be to build upon these foundations in pursuit of ongoing peace and prosperity. Though the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet over, it is time to start mitigating the other global risks cascading from it.
The G20 summit at the end of October in Rome offers an opportunity for more unified action, given the participation of China, India, and Russia.
Only time will tell if today’s world leaders have the vision to work together and lead us through such challenges.
They should not wait for yet another full-blown crisis to take the actions required to head off a future we do not want.
1 Wade, N. (2021, May 5). The origin of COVID: Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan? The Bulletin. https://thebulletin.org/2021/05/the-origin-of-covid-did-people-or-nature-open-pandoras-box-at-wuhan/
2 International Institute for Strategic Studies. (2021, June 28). Cyber capabilities and national power: A net assessment. International Institute for Strategic Studies. https://www.iiss.org/blogs/research-paper/2021/06/cyber-capabilities-national-power
3 Volz, D., & McMillan, R. (2021, April 7). Suspected China hack of Microsoft shows signs of prior reconnaissance. The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/suspected-china-hack-of-microsoft-shows-signs-of-prior-reconnaissance-11617800400
4 Anonymous. (2021). The longer telegram: Toward a new American China strategy. Atlantic Council. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/content-series/atlantic-council-strategy-paper-series/the-longer-telegram/
5 The White House. (2021, June). Building resilient supply chains, revitalizing American manufacturing, and fostering broad-based growth. The White House. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/100-day-supply-chain-review-report.pdf
6 Stoltenberg, J. (2021, May 31). Press conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg ahead of the meetings of NATO Ministers of Foreign Affairs and NATO Ministers of Defence. North Atlantic Treaty Organization. https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_184341.htm?selectedLocale=en
7 n.a. (2021, May 1). HMS Queen Elizabeth leaves Portsmouth on maiden deployment. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-hampshire-56956070
The author is a three-time Canadian ambassador and former VP of BlackBerry, who also served as Director for Foreign Policy and DG for Asia.
He currently heads MankGlobal Inc. and serves as a Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and the Balsillie School of International Affairs.
He is co-author of a forthcoming book: Crisis and Pandemic Planning: Quarantine, Evacuation and Back Again.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of CEIM. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion. The content on this site does not constitute endorsement of any political affiliation and does not reflect opinions from members of the staff and board.