The pandemic that has hit the planet must make us realize that nothing will ever be the same again. There was a pre-coronavirus. There’s now going to be a geopolitical and geostrategic post-coronavirus. Today, several factors are cause for concern in Western chanceries: An American withdrawal from world affairs, especially in the Middle East, leaving the field open to Russia and Iran; China’s all-round offensive and divisions in Europe.
The French Foreign Affairs Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, is right in saying that “the pandemic only exacerbates the global world fractures and their amplification, which undermine the international order”. And as Serguei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, likes to repeat: “the world order that emerged in 1945 is now obsolete”.
Undoubtedly, there is an acceleration of trends rather than true breaks. The lack of real global governance makes the pandemic the continuation, by other means, of the struggle between major powers. I share the view that the exacerbation of the Sino-American rivalry is the most worrying. I will come back to this!
Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump are right to say that China has lied and concealed the seriousness of the pandemic. Disinformation has also become a major weapon in Iran, where the Ayatollahs’ regime, as that of Xi Jin-Ping, officially announced the coronavirus only 4 weeks after the start of its propagation, starting from the city of Qom, 120 km south of Tehran, where 700 Chinese theology students had stayed, making Qom the epicentre of the pandemic in the Middle East.
A pandemic is always a good excuse as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Supreme Guide of Iranian Revolution and the Revolutionary Guards are using it to ask for medical and financial aid in the name of the fight against coronavirus, whilst we pertinently know that this medical and financial aid is diverted to the benefit of the regime, its allies of Hezbollah and the pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiite Hashd Al-Chaabi militias. Qatar, its ally, has transferred 4 billion Dollars, Japan and the European Union, still as naive as ever, have each released 20 million Euros and the regime is demanding 5 billion Dollars from the IMF. The regime says it has no money, yet Ali Khamenei, according to our sources, has a personal fortune of 200 billion Dollars (140 billion placed in accounts in Dubai, Qatar, Turkey, and 60 billion in cash).
If he has no money, then how can be explained the fact that during his trip to Syria, in the week of April 19th to 25th, Mohammad Javad Zarif gave 100 million dollars to Hezbollah and 65 million to Bashar al-Assad.
As for the number of victims of the pandemic, the Iranian regime is lying to us. It announces 5,700 deaths, whereas our hospital sources inform us of a figure of over 30,000 fatalities. And, meanwhile, it is accelerating its nuclear programme.
In the same disinformation category, let’s examine the example of Russian President, Vladimir Putin, who, for a long time, told us that he mastered the fight against the coronavirus. We then very quickly realised that Moscow, the capital and its 13 million inhabitants, had been contaminated up to two-thirds, that the propagation of the virus had spread to all regions where makeshift hospitals were being set up. Vladimir Putin even had to airlift a hospital to the Arctic, on the border with Norway, where Russian soldiers were affected by the coronavirus.
This pandemic goes to show that the world and its leaders, whoever they may be, are all fragile and vulnerable, just like ordinary people. As did Xi Jin-Ping and Vladimir Putin, it does not prevent them from playing on the fragmentation of the European Union, hence the call from the French authorities for Europe “to find itself a destiny of leadership with a more asserted sovereignty rather than questioning on itself”.
The pandemic is very frustrating for Vladimir Putin and his ambitions. With a heavy heart, he had to postpone, to an undetermined date, the constitutional vote that would have kept him in power until 2036.
Let’s now return to the Sino-American rivalry which is being fuelled by this coronavirus crisis. It is leading to a rapid deterioration of relations between the two countries, the worst since they established diplomatic relations in 1979. The pandemic has blown up the beginnings of a normalization that took shape with the signing of a new economic treaty earlier this year.
That being said, was Donald Trump right to call the pandemic a “Chinese virus”? Even if the American president has, of course, objective and legitimate reasons to blame Xi Jin-Ping for hiding the seriousness of the epidemic, it must be added that Donald Trump rightly sees China’s rise to economic and military power, with the hidden will to supplant the United States.
As some experts say: “There is no doubt whatsoever that we are entering a dangerous period. Tensions created by the pandemic could lead to a profound transformation of international relations as they usually occur after a major conflict”.
Today, Europeans rightly consider China as a strategic rival. That is why, slowly but surely, time has come for the European Union and its often divided 27 members to wake up to China. Emmanuel Macron, whose spearhead of his foreign policy is the revival of Europe, pleading for a political, economic and military Europe, is coming out of his naivety by criticising China’s attempts to divide weakened countries of the Union, such as Greece and Italy.
I would like to end this overview with the Middle East and Africa, where the pandemic is becoming a nightmare, especially in refugee camps. In Syria, there are 4 million refugees stacked in camps on the Syrian-Turkish border, which surpass Gaza in terms of overcrowding. Since 2011 and the beginning of civil war, 11 million Syrians have been displaced within Syria itself or to Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Lebanon. According to experts from international humanitarian organizations, consequences would be devastating.
In Iraq, which is living between a permanent political crisis and a health crisis, there are 1.5 million new displaced persons, as a result of the renewed fighting with the Islamic state rising from its ashes.
In Yemen, there are 3.4 million displaced refugees living in makeshift camps or in overcrowded neighbourhoods of Sana’a and Aden. And 10 million people are suffering from famine there.
In Africa, the assumption of a catastrophic scenario cannot be ruled out. It may find itself facing three crises at the same time: health, economic and food. The worst affected countries in Africa are South Africa, Nigeria and Angola.
Sub-Saharan Africa is in recession. This is the first time in 25 years and the risk of a food crisis has reached levels not seen since the end of World War II. The economic recession will lead to even harsher living conditions, impoverishment of people, malnutrition and ultimately death that makes little distinction between young and old. One-third of the continent is already below poverty level. An additional 500 million people will fall into poverty unless there is an urgent support plan, or even a Marshall Plan.
The situation is most critical in the Sahel. In countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, hundreds of people die every week. The coronavirus even strikes members of “Operation Barkhane”, which gathers 5,100 French soldiers, amongst whom several cases have been detected.
Daech fighters have terrorized one million displaced refugees. French troops should not withdraw, as they did in Iraq, because of the spread of the coronavirus. That would seal the rebirth and the spread of another scourge, that of Daech. The world doesn’t need this!
* Expert in international politics and diplomatic consultant.