Covid-19 will belong in history as one of the most seminal events to shock the world. Like WWII and the fall of the Berlin wall they had a monumental effect on the world in the 20th century. The Covid-19 pandemic is the third major shock in the 21st century that followed the 9/11 attacks and the 2008 financial crisis.
These events all proved to be significant, but their fundamental importance lies in what followed. The rise of Asia was happening before these shocks ever took place, however, there is now compelling arguments that suggest the 21st century will be an ‘Asian century’, if so the Covid-19 pandemic may well prove to be its turning point.
In 2011, Danny Quah estimated that the center of the global economy was in the mid-Atlantic in 1980, and after 2008 with the rise of China that center of gravity had been located around Eastern Europe. By 2050, Quah estimated that the world’s economic epicenter will be located along the Sino-Indian border. Like all extrapolations, in time they may prove somewhat inaccurate, but what may make this prediction most compelling is the sheer weight of numbers that will live in Asia.
The work of Han Rosling the distinguished physician of the Swedish Karolinska Institute predicts that the worlds pin code by 2050 will be 1125, meaning there will be 1 billion in Europe, 1 billion in the America’s, 2 billion in Africa and 5 billion in Asia.
Since the time of those aforementioned predictions, the greatest test of governance and economic resilience would follow. With the exception of New Zealand and Australia, the west has failed to adequately deal with the pandemic as the EU and US are all in varying degrees of lockdowns. Proving that without a vaccine, the west will have to learn to live with virus indefinitely. The most poignant evidence of the west’s failure lies in the death toll, where per million the numbers are in the thousands.
The most extreme examples come from Belgium (1,845), UK (1,659), Czech Republic (1,609), Italy (1,509) and the US (1,400). This is juxtaposed by the efficient competency of many Asian countries such as South Korea (28), Singapore (4.9), China (3.3), Thailand (1.1) and Vietnam (0.3). There have been clear discernible outcomes across the world between those who have suppressed the virus and those who have not. The full economic impact of Covid-19 was estimated in a recent IMF report that Asia experienced 1.0% positive economic growth, down from 5.5% while in comparison to the US, growth declined from 2.3 to -5.9%.
The initial failures by the Chinese government to take the necessary actions led to catastrophic outcomes for the world. However, once the Chinese government recognized the scale of the threat, The Chinese executed the virus with brutal efficiency that quarantined the City of Wuhan, home to 11 million people, which quickly extended across the country with public transport, factories, shops, and universities all shut down. By March 18th China had announced zero cases of coronavirus and no deaths by April 7th.
Likewise, in countries such as South Korea, Singapore, and Vietnam who used widespread testing, smartphone app-tracing technology and mandatory quarantine centers to tackle the virus. What these states have learned in their development is the importance of strong state capacity and major investments in science and R&D which has proved pivotal in combating the virus, meanwhile as the pandemic emerged across the world the Trump administration cut funding for the CDC (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention).
Incompetence at home was met with alienation abroad, the most egregious example of this was Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the WHO, claiming it to be a pawn the CCP (Chinese Communist Party). This utter contempt for multilateralism has been evident with Trump’s attitude to NATO and its European allies, who banned travel from the EU without any notice, ultimately products of ‘America first’, a sentiment not exclusive to the US but across western Europe as was evident with the Brexit referendum in 2016. Both Trump and Brexit are a mere symptom of a much bigger problem, which is the emboldenment of the far-right across western Europe and the US.
These movements threaten the very fabric of democracy as is evident with the Republican congressional members who challenged Joe Bidens election victory and the far-right protesters who stormed the capital. Moreover, far-right anti-vaccine protesters attempted to storm the German Reichstag, while in the Netherlands, angry farmers, led by the far-right Farmers Defence, have been destroying state buildings and endangering politicians since 2019.
Amid this absence of global leadership and domestic rupture, China has been cunningly taking strategic advantage through the exportation of medical equipment and teams to more than a hundred countries around the world, particularly the developing world. This at a time when China is increasingly becoming a shaper and maker of globalization. The starkest demonstration of this through China’s ‘One Belt, One Road initiative’ that aims to connect a series of highways, railways, ports across Eurasia, the Middle East and Africa.
Over 140 countries have signed up, consisting of mostly developing countries in need of vital infrastructure. Furthermore, China’s role in the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) trade agreement proved instrumental in getting fourteen countries to sign the world’s largest trade agreement that covers 2.2 billion people and 30% of the world economic output. Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea signed the deal, alongside the 10 members of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) alliance.
The irresistible rise of Asia will prove to be fraught and polarizing. The ripples of its effect can already be felt across the world. The most obvious is in the Middle East and Gulf states, where the American order is crumbling and its commitment to the region becoming increasingly questioned by its allies. China is the now largest investor in the region and is making major strides in 5G technology, as eleven telecom firms from the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Countries) of UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman have signed up to 5G contracts with Huawei.
It is suggested by 2025, 5G will house much of the GCC countries. Today China is the largest importer of oil, outside of Russia, Iraq is China’s largest trading partner when it comes to crude oil. According to Iraqi Prime Minister, Sino-Iraqi relations are primed to take a “quantum leap” and his fellow cabinet minister wrote “China is our primary option as strategic partner in the long run.”
This does not mean all states will solely pivot toward a Sino-centric world order and many countries around the world would have breathed a sigh of relief when Joe Biden was declared the victor of the 2020 US election. Most countries wish for continued US engagement in the world, yet they do not want to be forced to choose between China or the US, however President Biden has proposed to convene a Summit for Democracy that will do just that. Such a summit will reinforce an already divided world and will not help in collaborating on common threats such as climate change and Covid-19