COVID-19’s geopolitical side-effects

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday the 16th of April, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: geopolitics.

Washington shifted its thinking about national security in recent years, moving from anti-terrorism to managing competition among powerful nations: China and Russia, for example. 

But for many Americans, geopolitics was far removed from everyday life.

REICHARD: That perception could be changing. That’s because of new information about how our rivals are handling the pandemic. Disinformation campaigns that hurt efforts to tamp down the virus, for one thing. And supply chain disruptions that are now very real for Americans.

How will all of this affect the competition for power? WORLD’s Jill Nelson reports.

JILL NELSON, REPORTER: In 2018, then Defense Secretary James Mattis noted a shift in our national defense strategy:

MATTIS: We will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorism that we’re engaged in today, but great power competition, not terrorism, is the focus of U.S. national security.

Washington considers Beijing and Moscow as two of our greatest rivals and adversaries. And as the coronavirus wreaks havoc across the globe, distrust is growing.

Disinformation is a top concern, according to Zack Cooper, who analyzes U.S.-China competition for the American Enterprise Institute.

COOPER: In my view the thing that has really been most problematic is Chinese efforts to spread disinformation about both how the virus initially arose and where it came from and also about how various countries have been handling the virus. 

State-run media outlets have promoted conspiracy theories blaming the United States for the virus. And a new book influenced by China’s Central Propaganda Department touts the country’s victory in combating the virus.

But Cooper says the numbers coming out of China just don’t add up.

COOPER: They ballooned in Wuhan and we know that there were tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people that were moving from Wuhan out into the rest of the country throughout January and yet the numbers in the rest of China were remarkably low.

It’s unlikely the country’s claim of 81,000 cases as of mid-April is true. Some analysts put the number closer to 3 million. And that’s raising fears of a second phase of the virus sweeping the globe, especially as Beijing considers a phased re-opening of its economy at the end of April.

Russia is also guilty of disinformation. Kremlin internet trolls and state run media are blaming American scientists for the pandemic and praising the response of authoritarian regimes.

Alina Polyakova is president of the Center for European Policy Analysis and an expert on Russian foreign policy. She says the Kremlin’s response to the virus has been schizophrenic. Moscow initially closed Russia’s long border with China. Then President Vladimir Putin announced a paid vacation order. Polyakova says many Russians misinterpreted that as a travel allowance.

POLYAKOVA: And what we’ve seen since then is Putin is kind of taking a back seat, playing the good cop, the good czar so to say, not getting involved operationally with dealing with the crisis.

But that stance has become increasingly difficult as the number of cases has grown.

Russia doesn’t have as much control over information as China does. Polyakova says it would be difficult to hide the number of deaths in Russia, although some discrepancies are likely.

POLYAKOVA: There’s a longstanding history that even goes back to the Soviet days of the Kremlin trying to cover up casualties as result of the government mishandling of a crisis or a conflict situation.

Polyakova says Russian news outlets have played up coronavirus outbreaks in the West, pushing an anti-democracy narrative.

POLYAKOVA: The kind of fumbles we’ve seen in the U.S. domestic response to the crisis has also been just really wonderful fodder for the Russian disinformation campaigns, and the big message there is that democracies are not able to manage and effectively deal with crises and that authoritarian regimes like Russian and China, are much better able to sort of steer the ship.

Zach Cooper says China is steering the ship in part through detailed and invasive surveillance.

COOPER: And so they have a huge number of tools, everything from video cameras on almost every street corner and high quality facial recognition, to trackers on people’s phones. 

AUDIO: [Drones]

Drones are also patrolling the streets in China, with live voices telling people to go home or put on a mask—all troubling signs, Cooper says.

COOPER: So this is the kind of stuff that is straight out of movies, books about Big Brother and 1984, and it’s not what we allow to happen certainly in advanced democracies.

Polyakova says Russia has its sights set on the Chinese surveillance model but doesn’t currently have the resources to implement it. Instead, the Kremlin is asserting control through other means, like stiff prison sentences for publicizing “fake news.”

So how will all this play out geopolitically? First, expect some recalibration in the supply chain. Already, Japan has announced a coronavirus stimulus relief package to help move its production plants out of China. Other countries will likely do the same. But Cooper says that’s very costly, and may not be as widespread as some anticipate.

Second, with the Russian economy already in decline, expect Moscow to emerge even weaker. But Polyakova says when Russia becomes weak, its foreign policy becomes more aggressive. We should be on alert.

Third, Cooper says we need to aggressively battle disinformation, especially when countries shift blame onto the United States.

COOPER: I think this is something that should make Americans mad. I think we should talk openly about it and we should push back on those lies.

Transparency in Western democracies means more accurate reporting on the virus. That might make the situation look worse, but it will ultimately help the world win the fight against COVID-19.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Jill Nelson.

(AP Photo/Ng Han Guan) A volunteer looks out near a Chinese national flag during a farewell ceremony for the last group of medical workers who came from outside Wuhan to help the city during the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province on Wednesday, April 15, 2020. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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