COVID-19: An opportunity for China, a setback for Russia

13 February 2021, 00:10

In any assessment of the coronavirus pandemic’s likely consequences for the international order, China and Russia deserve special attention. From the standpoint of Western countries aiming to maintain and strengthen a rules-based international order, the two countries pose daunting challenges. The US views them as its main competitors. Several of the major European countries maintain fraught relations with Russia and increasingly view the rise of China as a challenge, especially since the out-break of the pandemic. Future historians may look back at this period as a turning point in world history that produced winners and losers. Ironically, despite being the source of the virus, China may emerge, at least in relative terms, as a winner. Russia is likely to be a loser, judging by the toll that the virus has taken on public health, the domestic economy, and the state budget. 

China: In Crisis, both Danger and Opportunity 

For China, the coronavirus pandemic has had obvious negatives consequences, but has also created some po- tential opportunities (see CSS Analyses No.267). On the one hand, the downsides have been apparent. The novel coronavirus originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, creating an immediate public health crisis within China before spreading to the rest of the world. China’s first-quarter GDP plummeted by 6.8 percent compared to the same period one year earlier, threatening the economic growth and social stability on which the Chinese Communist Party depends, along with nationalism, for its legitimacy. Official mishandling of the early stages of the outbreak, including efforts by local officials in Wuhan to silence whistleblowers, provoked outrage among the public and harsh critiques from some prominent citizens, including party members. China’s failure to contain the virus within its own borders, coupled with its efforts to deflect blame for the pandemic and even to claim credit for its response, tarnished China’s image around the world. China’s relations with the US deteriorated rapidly, and its relations with Europe also soured. 

On the other hand, the coronavirus pandemic has delivered certain benefits to China, presenting Chinese leaders with opportunities to pursue their interests. Chi- na appears to have contained the virus successfully, with official statistics indicating far lower case and death tolls than in many other countries. Even if official statistics significantly undercount the true figures, the return of largely normal life, interrupted by occasional outbreaks that draw a rapid response from the government, indicates successful containment. This has resulted in a rapid economic rebound, with China’s central bank now projecting GDP growth of two percent this year. With many countries still struggling to contain the virus and the International Monetary Fund predicting negative global growth for 2020, China’s performance allows its leaders to claim the superiority of their authoritarian political system over those of the Western democracies. Despite several high-profile cases this year in which prominent dissidents have sharply criticized Xi Jinping’s leadership, the party’s grip on power appears to remain steady. 

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Since the pandemic began, China has also acted with increasing assertiveness along its periphery. China has increased patrols in the East China Sea to assert its claim to islands controlled by Japan, dispatched air and naval forces close to Taiwan’s shores with increased regu- larity, backed its claims to dominance over the South Chi- na Sea with growing confidence, imposed a national security law in Hong Kong in order to weaken that city’s democratic forces, and engaged in skirmishes with Indian forces along the two countries’ Himalayan frontier that turned deadly in June. In each case, China’s actions were a continuation of previous policies, but China may have perceived the pandemic, a period when other countries were distracted, as an opportunity to press its claims with increased forcefulness. 

In order to assess the pandemic’s impact on China’s role in the international system, it is necessary to consider the broader context. The pandemic adds new short-term trends to existing long- and medium-term trends. The long-term trend is the rise of China, which has imbued China’s leaders with growing confidence. The medium-term trend, however, is the appearance of factors that complicate China’s rise, producing anxiety among China’s leaders. These factors include a slowdown in China’s economic growth rate, growing concern among other countries about the implications of China’s rise, and nascent efforts by some of those countries to hedge against China’s growing power. 

China’s increasing assertiveness in recent years most likely results from the combination of confidence and anxiety that these trends have produced. The coun- try’s growing power gave its leaders the confidence to act with increasing assertiveness in the international arena, especially following the 2008 financial crisis and to an even greater extent under Xi’s leadership, beginning in 2012. At almost the same time, however, new developments aroused concern among China’s leaders. After de- cades of double-digit annual increases in GDP, economic growth slowed considerably, falling to 6.1 percent by 2019. China’s growing power and ambitions also aroused concern among other countries. Perhaps most worrying, from China’s viewpoint, was the growing activity of the “Quad,” encompassing the US, Japan, India, and Australia. In the years immediately preceding the pandemic, Chinese leaders may have perceived that they had a window of opportunity to act before Chinese economic growth rates declined further and international opposition became even more consolidated. The pandemic may have strengthened this trend, causing international views of China to become increasingly negative but also increasing China’s room for maneuver while other countries remain distracted. 

Russia: Further Strain on the System 

Russia has suffered greatly from the coronavirus pandemic, though it is hardly alone in this respect. The total number of recorded cases in Russia is the fourth-highest in the world. Although Russia’s official statistics show that the number of domestic coronavirus deaths lags behind that of many other countries, this figure is widely believed to understate the actual number by a significant margin. 

The economic slowdown resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, especially the collapse in world oil pric- es, hit the Russian economy hard. The World Bank projects that Russia’s GDP will decline by 6 percent in 2020. This slowdown has forced changes in Russia’s budget priorities. Next year, for the first time since 2014, Russian government expenditures to support the economy will exceed the budget for the armed forces, which will be cut by 5 per- cent. The surge of domestic spending, which will require significant borrowing, is designed to bolster the economy and people’s standard of living in advance of next year’s parliamentary elections. Moreover, Russia has been forced to delay the completion of a 25.7 trillion ruble package of state spending by six years. This package, which includes 13 national projects in areas such as infrastructure, education, and health care, was previously scheduled to be completed by 2024, but the deadline is now 2030. 

All of these factors have caused domestic political challenges for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose approval rating dipped below 60 percent during the spring before returning to a pre-coronavirus level of around 66 percent by August. The pandemic forced Putin to delay a scheduled referendum on constitutional challenges until July, but voters ultimately approved the changes, which allow Putin to remain as president until 2036. Other events not directly related to the pandemic, including a sustained anti-government protest movement in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk and the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, also created domestic political tension in Russia. 

The budget constraints resulting from the pandemic, especially the cuts in military spending, could limit Russia’s foreign policy options to some extent. In recent months, Russia’s projection of power in the Middle East and North Africa region has extended beyond Syria to include participation in the Libyan civil war, albeit at relatively low cost through the use of mercenary forces. Both of these conflicts place Russia and Turkey on opposite sides. This is also potentially true of the recent flare-up between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Coupled with recent domestic turmoil in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict adds to the tension along Russia’s periphery. Although none of these hot spots are likely to embroil Russia in costly military interventions, the military spending cuts could restrain Russia’s foreign policy ambitions somewhat. 

Despite the burdens that the pandemic has placed on Russia, the country has been no stranger to hardship throughout its history. Russia has already spent the past several years living under the weight of Western sanctions. Moreover, many countries around the world, including most of the Western democracies, have also suffered from the pandemic, which means that Russia’s relative position might not sustain significant damage. Russia is certain to retain the capacity to act as a major power in the international system. 

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Implications for International Order 

In the wake of the pandemic, the US-China rivalry is likely to intensify further. Growing concerns in Europe about China’s rise could form the basis for increased transatlantic cooperation in addressing the China question. Such developments would pose major challenges for Russia, which will face the question of how to maintain an independent course and maximize its influence in an international order increasingly shaped by US-China superpower rivalry. Russia has grown closer to China in recent years, but it may reconsider this approach in the coming decade if China continues to increase its foreign policy assertiveness. 

Further Reading 

Kurt M. Campbell / Mira Rapp-Hooper, “China Is Done Biding Its Time,” Foreign Affairs, (July/August). 

Minxin Pei, “China’s Coming Upheaval,” Foreign Affairs (May/June 2020), pp. 82 – 95. 

Howard J. Shatz, “COVID-19 and Economic Competition with China and Russia,” War on the Rocks, 31.08.2020. 

Dmitri Trenin / Eugene Rumer / Andrew S. Weiss, “Steady State: Russian Foreign Policy After Coronavirus.” Carnegie Moscow Center, 08.07.2020.

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