Covid-19 and Geopolitics

9 September 2020

By Dr David Mussington (Director of the Center for Public Policy and Private Enterprise and Professor of the Practice at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy)

A pair of existential crises – the spread and disruptive impacts of COVID-19, and the intensification of peer competition between the United States and China – together comprise a tectonic shift in international relations that is likely to define the 21st century.  The first, COVID-19, is upon us now, with the emergence of a class of diseases catalysed by the spread of human populations into areas previously off-limits to human settlement.

The rise of globalisation, in both the movement goods and people, has created a single global environment – where items and viruses travel from one part of the world to another in hours or days. The SARS CoV 2 virus rode these systems efficiently, spreading to all countries and population centres in a matter of months. With little initial treatment available and without effective vaccines, contending with this challenge has thrown the world into economic recession if not outright depression. Recovery from these dire conditions – fuelled by possible vaccines and social and political action – is unevenly distributed around the world, with some societies appearing to adjust and recover rapidly, while others languish in prolonged lockdowns and burgeoning numbers of positive infections.

The second crisis, the rise of geopolitical competition between the United States and China, is slower moving. Economic and political competition between the two countries has always coincided with the possibility of mutual gain. However, COVID-19 has reinforced competitive dynamics because it heightens attention to political and technological factors on which the two countries differ. From market access, to the status of Taiwan and Hong Kong, sanctions launched by the US and retaliation by China have begun to disturb established globalised supply chains and relationships. The US Administration’s de-linkage strategy aimed at disconnecting key US economic sectors from technologies that China has targeted in its industrial policies has begun to affect corporate partnerships and technology markets.

COVID-19 Recovery and Embedded Competition

The un-evenness of COVID-19 impact and recovery intersects with the worsening of relations between the world’s two largest economic powers.  Not only is there the politics of blame for the spread of COVID-19, there is competition over access to resources and information required for recovery. This conflict has intensified throughout the pandemic but can be divided into two discrete phases in 2020: (1) January through April, and (2) May through September.

January – April — The Emerging Pandemic

The early period of the pandemic saw a dearth of information about the SARS CoV 2 virus, how it spread, and the actual numerical magnitude of the outbreak. Because much of the initial virus was discovered in China, information on mortality and morbidity of the disease was either incomplete, or of limited credibility.  In turn, supply chains for personal protective equipment (PPE) were actively exploited in a manner inconsistent with early positive reports about control of the outbreak.

May – September — Halting Recovery and Pandemic Escalation

As COVID-19 spread accelerated through Europe and North America, public health systems appeared to buckle under the onslaught of positive infections, expanding the number of those requiring emergency hospital admissions and intensive care. As the magnitude of the outbreak mounted, few could fail to see the difference between the initial reports of recovery and modified normalcy in China, and the contrasting ineffective and disjointed response in Western countries.  As the economic dislocation caused by COVID-19 has solidified in high unemployment and reduced economic activity, the contrast between conditions in China and parts of Asia, and those existing in Europe and the United States is even sharper.

While China’s economy has suffered injury, its early recovery constitutes an achievement for a government often criticised for authoritarianism and censorship of dissenting voices.  For the US, the continuing chaos of its recovery constitutes a disturbing erosion of its reputation for both scientific leadership and effective governance, though this perspective may change as more facts emerge (Walt, 2020).



While the ultimate impacts of COVID-19 on humanity are not clear, the current situation is one that varies from serious to dire. As millions suffer under the direct threat of uncontrolled disease, governments seek to control both the impacts on their citizens, and the responses to risks of significance to national security.  For China and the United States, COVID-19 creates incentives for both cooperation and competition.

The Virtue of Collaboration

On the one hand, cooperation on the sequencing of the SARS CoV 2 virus genome allowed for multiple parallel efforts to increase understanding of the pandemic. Private pharma companies and university-affiliated research centres around the world have worked to share understanding of virus impacts, infection dynamics, key vulnerabilities, and modalities of spread. That these insights have been shared is a testament to the value of international scientific collaboration in shortening the time necessary to develop therapies and risk management guidance.

The Impetus for Competition

On the other hand, competition between the two countries on access to PPE and supporting medical equipment such as ventilators, intersects with criticism that each country was favouring its own citizens and recovery needs over the shared concerns of the global community (Congressional Research Service, 2020). In this setting the US’ withdrawal from WHO COVID-19 vaccine development efforts, and US administration charges that both the WHO and China are not to be trusted, is a harbinger of deepening distrust and disagreement.  Into this mix, concerns have arisen that foreign intelligence services have targeted healthcare and biomedical research institutions involved in vaccine and therapy developments. This intersection of nation state competition with pandemic risk and recovery actions worsens international conditions, increasing distrust already present due to trade, political, and military differences.  China’s economic and political emergence as a global leader – and the response this development elicits from western countries – can’t help but shape economic and political relationships for years to come.



COVID-19 recovery will be shaped by the relative success of vaccines developed in China and the West. For the latter, US efforts are themselves coordinated – but not well-integrated – with the programs and vaccine distribution plans of Western countries. The US is not joining WHO-led vaccine distribution and validation efforts either, preferring a parallel process that will gain insights on others’ success through indirect means.  For China, the pace of COVID-19 recovery appears faster, but the details of its recovery – and of many setbacks it undoubtedly has suffered – are actively concealed from both its own population and from international observers. This creates a dissonance between the reality of recovery, and the politics of recovery reputation.

As US pandemic recovery negatively diverges from Europe’s experience, questions emerge as to the competence of US leadership, and of its capacity to lead at all.  The US’ turn inward further exacerbates this disintegrative element of intra-Western cohesiveness and common purpose. Will China be able to use this gap to leverage for itself greater influence on world affairs, and will the US continue to favour unilateral action over consultation with its allies? Only time will tell.

One thing is certain, however. The easy collaboration of the US and its Western European allies is likely to be ending, with US leadership on basic science, civic administration and public health all in question. For China, the opportunity exists to interpose itself in issues and sectors where it previously confronted significant barriers. These barriers may be lower as a result of the gap created by a US Administration unable or unwilling to assert its global leadership in a period of declining prestige and arguable incompetence.

Visit the hub of the social science community’s response to COVID-19.

Dr David Mussington is the Director of the Center for Public Policy and Private Enterprise and Professor of the Practice at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He is also a non-Resident Senior Fellow of the Center for International Governance Innovation and in September 2019, Dr. Mussington was appointed Visiting Professor and Research Fellow at Le CNAM, Paris – a leading French university and research center. There he leads bilateral collaborative projects on critical infrastructure cybersecurity and cyber operations.

The perspectives expressed in these commentary pieces represent the independent views of the authors, and as such they do not represent the views of the Academy or its Campaign for Social Science.

This article may be republished provided you place the following statement and link at the top of the article: This article was originally commissioned and published by the Campaign for Social Science as part of its COVID-19 programme.