At the level of imperialist tensions, the situation at the beginning of 2020 was characterised by an increase in conflicts between first, second and third rank bandits, which illustrated the intensification of 'each against all' in the struggle between imperialist powers, and provoked an extension of warlike barbarism and chaos. As a consequence,
- the decline of US leadership, especially in the Middle East, was leading to all-out confrontations and the dismemberment of entire countries, such as Iraq, Syria or Yemen;
- the economic and strategic conflict between the USA and China tended towards an increasing polarisation of the tensions between these two powers;
- the disruptive and provocative behaviour of Russia, but also of Turkey and Iran, became an increasingly strong factor of instability in imperialist relations;
- the unpredictable decisions of populist President Trump, his questioning of traditional alliances and his more or less open flirtation with the Kremlin, contributed to unstable relations between imperialist powers and accentuated tensions within the US bourgeoisie on the best strategy to follow to defend its interests.
And then the pandemic struck. The scale of infection and death in conflict zones, such as the Middle East for example (two million cases and nearly 60,000 official deaths, including 400,000 positive cases and 25,000 deaths in Iran), and the dangers of infections in the armies (cf. the crews of US and French battleships in quarantine) called for caution. Also, the intensity of military operations had, at least initially, apparently declined and a truce had even been declared in Syria and Yemen.
However, from the onset of the pandemic, China’s initial attempts to camouflage the spread of the virus, Trump's designation of Covid-19 as a ‘Chinese virus’, the refusal of many countries to ‘share’ their stocks of materials with their neighbours, or even Trump's attempt to reserve the first vaccines for exclusive use in the United States already indicated that the pandemic was not going to alleviate imperialist tensions, on the contrary. Moreover, in recent months, a range of news items during the period of lockdown confirmed that tensions continued to grow: ‘mysterious acts of sabotage’ against various buildings linked to the Iranian nuclear programme, a confrontation between Turkish battleships and NATO ships (of which Turkey is also a member), the former preventing the latter from monitoring the cargo of ships heading for the Libyan port of Misrata, a violent clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers in Ladakh in Kashmir, etc.
Consequently, there are a number legitimate questions on the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on the evolution of imperialist relations.
1. Has Trump's disastrous handling of the pandemic and the chaos it has caused led the populist president to scale back his unpredictable foreign policy initiatives?
The chaotic way in which Trump has handled the pandemic, as well as the dramatic economic consequences for the US economy and for the living conditions of the working class, with the lack of a social safety net faced with massive unemployment and the cost of going to hospital, strongly jeopardises his re-election, insofar as he intended to base his campaign on the booming health of the American economy. However, Trump is ready to do anything to win the election: to sabotage and destabilise the electoral process, by casting doubt on postal voting and by denouncing the interference of all kinds of forces aimed at manipulating the ballot, forcing drug companies to race to be the first to produce a vaccine, blackmailing other countries to get what he wants, etc.
More specifically, domestically, he has not hesitated to throw oil on the fire of the demonstrations and riots that have shaken the country in order to be able to present himself as the only defence against chaos - a mind-boggling paradox. Externally, he has systematically stirred up the trade and technology war with China (Huawei, TikTok) and exploited any incident on the international stage to rally the population behind a man who presents himself as the sole guarantee of American greatness.
This all-out attempt to be re-elected can only accentuate the unpredictability and the dangerous nature of American policy, because, even if the tendency of the US leadership to decline is confirmed, the country still has many economic and financial strengths, but above all its status as a military superpower.
2. Is China the big beneficiary of the pandemic?
The opposite is true. The Covid-19 crisis is causing huge problems for China:
- on the economic level, the Chinese economy is facing a serious crisis: independent estimates speak of 205 million unemployed (Monde Diplomatique, June 2020, according to Hong Kong sources); a relocation of strategic industries by the United States and European countries (Germany, France, Britain) is underway, not only towards industrialised countries but also towards strategically safer countries (Vietnam for example); in addition, the country faces very serious food supply problems.
- on the political level, mistrust of China is growing: the tour of Western Europe (Paris, Rome, Berlin, etc.) by Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi in the second half of August led to disappointing results: “If it was for the world’s most populous country and its chief diplomat to capitalise on this summer tour to polish its image somewhat to a sceptical European audience (…) and place Beijing back at the heart of a more European-compatible dynamic, the net benefit of this operation must disappoint its promoters” (“China: Wang Yi in Europe or the frustrated courtship process”, Asialyst, 5/9/20).
- on the imperialist level, anti-Chinese feeling is growing in South West Asia: the Philippines has confirmed an agreement on aid with the USA, Cambodia has refused the Chinese navy access to its main port, Indonesia is increasingly irritated by Chinese provocations in the China Sea, and a military mutual aid treaty has been concluded between India and Australia.
As a result, China is finding it more and more difficult to bring about the ‘New Silk Road’ project, which is due to financial problems linked to the economic crisis but also to growing mistrust in many countries and to anti-Chinese pressure from United States. Also, it should come as no surprise that in 2020 there was a collapse of 64% in the financial value of the investments injected into the ‘New Silk Road’ project
This difficult situation must be understood in the context of the shifts that have taken place in Beijing over a number of years in the balance of power at the top of the State between the different factions within the Chinese bourgeoisie: the ‘turn to the left’, initiated by the faction behind President Xi, meant less economic pragmatism and more nationalist ideology. However, “Beijing's precarious situation on several fronts can be explained in part by this cavalier attitude of the central power, Xi's great turn to the left since 2013 (…) and by the disastrous results of the ‘war diplomacy’ carried out by the Chinese diplomats. However, since the end of the Beidaihe annual retreat - but also a little before - we have noticed that Beijing and its diplomats are trying to calm things down and seem to want to reopen the dialogue” (“China: in Beidaihe, 'the Party's summer school', internal tensions come to the surface", A. Payette, Asialyst, 6/9/20). This is demonstrated by Xi's recent dramatic statement that China wants to achieve carbon neutrality for its economy by 2060.
In short, there is also a certain instability here: on the one hand, the Chinese leaders are launching a more nationalist and aggressive policy towards Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, the China Sea; on the other hand, internal opposition within the party and the state is more evident. So, there are “the lingering tensions between Premier Li Keqiang and President Xi Jinping over economic recovery, as well as China’s new position on the international stage”. (A. Payette, Asialyst, op cit).
3. Does Russia's disruptive game make it a beneficiary of the pandemic?
The Kremlin indeed has the capacity to play the troublemaker on the imperialist scene (mainly because the Russian army is still considered the second most powerful army in the world) and it has demonstrated this again recently by its particularly active efforts in destabilisation in Mali and in the countries of the Sahel against France. However, the impact of the pandemic on Russia cannot be underestimated, both economically and socially. Its oil and gas revenues are dropping sharply and its industry is doing poorly. Thousands of workers have protested against job losses. But economic success was the driving force behind Putin's popularity, and it is now at historically low levels: 59% among the general population and only 12% among those under 25.
The Covid-19 crisis highlights more clearly than ever that, if Russia is a powerful factor for destabilisation in the imperialist arena, it does not have the economic means to consolidate its imperialist advances. For example in Syria where, for lack of its own funds to begin the material reconstruction of the country (at least of certain vital infrastructure), it is forced to accept the reintegration of Damascus into the ‘Arab family’, in particular through the restoration of links with the United Arab Emirates and the Sultanate of Oman (cf. “Syria: muted return to the Arab family”, headline in Le Monde Diplomatique, June 2020).
In addition, Putin is now under significant pressure in his own backyard through the 'democracy movement' in Belarus. Meanwhile, the poisoning of Russian oppositionist Alexei Navalny, who was evacuated to Germany, heightens the threats of an economic boycott by Germany, and, in particular, the blocking of the construction of a pipeline under the Baltic Sea connecting Russia to Western Europe, which would have catastrophic consequences for the Russian economy.
These various elements illustrate the growing pressure on Russia: its fundamental structural weakness necessitates a growing disruptive aggressiveness, from Syria to Mali, from Libya to the Ukraine. “Russia copes well with ‘frozen conflicts'. It has already demonstrated this in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. This low-cost approach gives it a destabilising influence (…)” (Monde Diplomatique, September 2020).
4. Does the pandemic attenuate 'each against all' between different imperialisms?
Several factors have to be taken into consideration:
First, the two major imperialisms, the USA and China, are suffering, as we have shown above, a heavy economic and social impact from the Covid-19 crisis and, faced with this, the ruling factions in the two countries tend to accentuate (even if it goes hand in hand with strong tensions within the respective bourgeoisies) a policy of nationalist glorification and economic and political confrontation: Xi's ‘self-sufficiency’ or Trump's ‘all that matters is America’ are the quintessential slogans of an ‘each against all’ policy.
Then, the pandemic and its economic consequences also destabilise various important local imperialist actors and push them towards imperialist intransigence. In India, the populist government of Modi seeks to divert attention from its failing health policy and management of the crisis by heightening tensions with China or stepping up its anti-Muslim policy; Israel, facing massive protests against government health policy and a new lockdown, escalates tensions with Iran; Iran itself, faced with the destructive health and economic ravages of the crisis, has no alternative than to intensify warlike barbarism.
This headlong flight into imperialist confrontation is particularly striking today in the case of Turkey. As Le Monde Diplomatique of September 2020 underlines, Erdogan is under increasing economic and political pressure within the country: with setbacks for his party, the AKP, in the last municipal elections in March 2019, where the opposition won local elections in Istanbul and Ankara, two splits occurred within the AKP this year, testifying to divisions within the president's faction. In the face of this, he escalated imperialist threats with the aim of exacerbating Turkish nationalism and rallying the people behind him. “Turkey's domestic and foreign policies are intertwined. Foreign policy serves as fuel for domestic policy” (Fehim Tastekin, Turkish journalist, on the Daktilo 1984 site, 6/21/20, quoted by the Le Monde Diplomatique, September 2020).
After its intervention in Syria, its direct engagement (arms, mercenaries, elite soldiers) alongside the government of Tripoli in Libya and its unilateral claims on large areas of the eastern Mediterranean, rich in gas and oil, not only provoked an exacerbation of tensions with Greece but also with Russia, France, Egypt and Israel. More than ever, Turkey is a major driver of imperialist ‘each against all' (the founding principle of Turkish foreign policy has for decades been ‘the Turk has no friends, only the Turk’, Monde Diplomatique, October 2019).
A final level to consider is the fact that the Covid-19 crisis also emphatically heralds the disintegration of alliances that have played a major part since World War II.
- NATO is one of the major remnants of the Cold War between the eastern and Western blocs. Today, however, the ‘strategic consensus’ between the USA and European powers no longer exists: Trump also tends to favour in Europe a strategy based on totally subjugated allies, such as Poland associated with Lithuania and the Ukraine; on the other hand, tensions between NATO member countries are growing, such as between Greece and Turkey over drilling in the Mediterranean, but also conflict between France and Italy in Libya. NATO’s decomposition is becoming more and more inevitable.
- the prospect of a single EU foreign policy is also increasingly looking illusory. From the Middle East to North Africa, from the Mediterranean to Russia, Germany, France, Italy and even Spain are each pursuing their own policies inspired by their own imperialist interests.
The obvious inability of decaying capitalism to deal in a coordinated manner with the pandemic crisis can only have as a corollary a massive accentuation of the tendency towards ‘each against all', towards fragmentation and chaos on all levels. Data concerning the development of imperialist tensions largely confirm this general orientation. For the entire population and for the working class in particular, it is more than ever the prospect of an exacerbation of warlike barbarism and bloody massacres.
R. Havanais, 25/9/20