In the vast expanse of the Pacific, Australia finds itself at a crossroads, grappling with a shifting geopolitical landscape that demands a recalibration of its approach.
As 2020 wheezes its way out, perhaps it is time to reflect on how it has transformed the world and altered dynamics between the world’s nations.
Laid low by the consequences of a deadly virus that was first reported at about this time last year in China, and convulsed by a bitter election fought in the United States whose effects will really begin to be felt with the change of guard early in 2021, the world’s economies have gasped for breath, with no ventilators around to rescue nations hit by increasing joblessness, fall in demand and disrupted supply chains.
But as former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer notes in a recent essay, the year has belonged to China and will mark the transition from a “US-dominated 20th century to a China-dominated 21st century”.
This might not have seemed as likely ten or eleven months ago when China, locked in a bitter and damaging trade war with the United States, reported the first outbreak of the virus and in subsequent weeks when the numbers of cases and deaths appeared to gallop in Wuhan.
At that time, commentators had speculated on the likelihood of challenges to President Xi Jinping’s leadership for life, of the churning within the Chinese Communist Party and of the possibility of a popular backlash to the harsh containment measures put in place by Beijing. As the year draws to a close, Mr Xi remains firmly in control, and may well have smothered any dissent there might have been.
China’s economy has bounced back, recording GDP growth while its rivals wallow in despair. The virus has been largely contained in China, and rare is the day when more than a handful of cases are reported. But China’s greatest gain lies in the manner in which it has managed to assert its position globally, despite the accusations it faced around the world.
Ignoring international criticism, it launched decisive actions to quell unrest in Hong Kong. It aggressively targeted its territorial claims and while it may not have achieved all it wanted to, either with India or with Taiwan, it has kept the pot boiling to keep both on the defensive. It has dealt ruthlessly with those who challenged it, principally Australia, whose products face increasing difficulty in accessing Chinese markets and which has just been arrogantly and officiously told to “correct its mistakes”.
And as Fischer notes, describing the development as the difference between reality and reality TV, “in November, China mounted something of a geopolitical coup with the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a new trade agreement that will put it at the centre of the world’s largest free-trade area.”
All these developments suggest that even if the virus was not a Chinese creation, as has been alleged by many around the world, the global outbreak has been used by Beijing to stamp its authority on the world. Truly, this has been China’s year.