What shall we remember from the year 2020? A global pandemic, repeated lockdowns, protests against racism and police brutality, rallies, demonstrations, revolutions, historic U.S. presidential election, massive cyberattacks, worsening of global warming, and expansion of terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa are some examples of the significant events of 2020. The year will remain engraved in the collective psyche as a pivotal one. The entire planet’s daily life was upside down on an individual level, and, on a collective one, the pandemic seriously shook up the Western political and economic systems. The breaches in capitalism and its institutions kept multiplying while democracies slid slowly towards an authoritarian movement, a trend already observed earlier. China appears to be the winner of 2020, as the U.S. and the EU crumble under the consequences of the belatedly-tackled health crisis. Is it ominous for the West? What does 2021 have in store for the world, politically speaking?
A glimmer of hope on the horizon
The new year will start on a positive note with the vaccination of some populations against Covid-19. Countries like Canada and the U.S. have secured their vaccine reserves while developing countries will have to wait. As usual, China is taking advantage of the widening gap between the two worlds left by the West, busy with immunizing its populations and facing the pandemic’s economic consequences. With its traditional vaccine (the simplest in terms of technology), China has woven its worldwide web and secured many contracts in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
With the vaccine rollout and Biden’s election, the WHO is relieved. The organization was struggling to fulfill its mission since Trump took office. President-elect Biden’s arrival could be beneficial to its existence, especially if the U.S. takes global leadership to fight Covid-19. The MAGA consequences and Trump’s policies have weakened the U.S. and the world, which the Covid-19 has completely put on its knees. After this global war on Covid-19, the world needs a Marshall Plan 2.0 to recover. Will the U.S. help? It will depend entirely on the new president-elect.
The US: Mission impossible
In 2021, all eyes will be on the U.S. From today to President-elect Biden’s inauguration, former President Trump’s reaction is under scrutiny. The first 100 days of Biden’s presidency will be critical. A colossal work is awaiting him. Trump has left a battleground for Biden, at every level.
At the national level, divisions between Democrats and Republicans will continue to pose challenges for the newly elected president’s actions. The logistics of the vaccine rollout will keep him busy, given the statistic that the U.S. has lost hundreds of thousands of Americans more than the numbers of U.S. soldiers who died in WWI, the Vietnam war, and the Korean war combined. The far-right groups that were boosted by Trump’s declarations and actions are posing a serious domestic threat. The recovery of the economy is a must to help reconcile a large part of the American population.
At the international level, restoring the U.S.’ image and reputation is another difficult task. While Trump was shutting himself off from the world, the other powers took a stand, strengthened, and even increased their influence without the U.S., showing that there is a place for a multipolar world. The relations with China and the EU are damaged. The same applies to NATO and the UN and its agencies. And the list goes on. How will the U.S. regain its world-leader status? Will the other powers let that happen? China and Russia will certainly not want the U.S. to reassert its dominance, continue the dangerous destabilization of countries (e.g., Venezuela, Bolivia), and collude with Neo-Nazis (e.g., in Ukraine).
China: Silent work and consolidation of gains
According to the World Bank and the IMF’s latest statistics, China will dethrone the U.S. in 2024. The wind is in the sails of the Chinese ship, which, just like in 2020, will continue to act silently and diligently. With its vaccine diplomacy, China will set its tentacles on indebted countries in Asia and Latin America in general and Africa in particular. Moreover, its presence in Africa, with various projects (e.g., infrastructure, 5G, environmental cooperation, culture) will be intensified, playing on its soft power and its policy of non-interference, which perfectly suits autocratic African regimes.
China’s international purchases and control of arable land and freshwater sources (and water privateers’ purchases/commercialization of freshwater) will become critical factors as food and water are recognized for the precious, valuable resources they are. The U.S.’s continual reliance on exporting military technology/weapons for economic growth, combined with its ‘need’ for new bases around the world as global warming raises ocean levels will create a well-deserved backlash.
China will continue its expansionist aims in the South China Sea and the East China Sea while the world is busy with the health crisis. Opportunities to show off its PLA and its capabilities will increase over 2021, especially given the U.S.’ tendency to provoke. China’s troop movements and its gradual establishment of military bases (in Pakistan, the Middle East, Western Pacific), announced in 2019 by the U.S. Defense Department but put aside due to the pandemic, will become a reality.
Occasional skirmishes with India will divert attention from what is happening at the national level (public discontent, corruption, increasing tensions in Xinjiang). Unfortunately, the world will continue to witness the genocide of the Uyghurs, with timorous reactions that continually place economic/political interests over ethics and human rights.
The Belt and Road Initiative projects will resume gradually during the second half of 2021, once the Covid-19 pandemic is contained, mainly due to China’s vaccination programs. The economy will be stimulated thanks to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership signed in November 2020 that includes Australia and excludes the U.S. Furthermore, the standoff intensity between Australia and China (that the Europeans are monitoring) may lessen but will remain in 2021. In the meantime, the reaction and actions of the Biden Cabinet with regards to the Sino-Australian conflict and the trade war between China and the U.S. are ‘eagerly’ anticipated.
Finally, the unveiling in March of the country’s five-year plan (2021-2025) at the National People’s Congress is also a highly anticipated event, as it will set the direction for post-Covid-19 China. China’s top priorities to enhance China’s remarkable world record in lifting millions out of dire poverty will be as follows: Healthcare (a consequence of the pandemic), technology (a raging battleground with the West), the environment (President Xi Jinping’s goals presented at the UNGA), and economic growth (post-Covid-19 and post-Trump).
Russia: On-going opposition to the West and reinforcement of hotbeds of tension
China is not the only power to watch in 2021: Russia is very much present. Moscow has been accused of meddling in the previous U.S. election, an accusation denied by President Putin, who claimed in return that it is the U.S. who is interfering in Russia’s affairs. At the same time, he “did not expand on Kremlin denials that Russian government hackers were behind a recent digital spying operation that hit the Department of Homeland Security, the State, Treasury and Commerce departments, and the National Institutes of Health,” as reported by The Washington Post. With Biden as the President-elect, a new era of relations between the two countries is expected. Still, one cannot expect much with Putin having taken six weeks to congratulate Biden for his victory and Russian public opinion (70%) observing that the U.S. is an enemy.
The accusations of meddling are not strictly reserved to the U.S. (as in using unruled cyberspace to advance Russia’s interests). European countries make the same allegations, and it has been going on for the last decade. This interference is not the only hallmark of Russia‘s power. Seizing foreign territory by force (the annexation of Crimea), undercutting the political freedom of its neighbors (e.g., Armenia, Moldova), and supporting autocratic regimes (e.g., Syria) in their anti-terrorist efforts are examples of Putin’s signature. Systematically opposing and counter-attacking the West (the U.S. in particular) are essential priorities (e.g., Russia backed Algeria and condemned the U.S. stance on Morocco’s Western Sahara Sovereignty).
With Putin still at the helm in Russia, these strategies that have helped him succeed will remain despite the parliamentary elections in September 2021. With the revised Constitution, Putin could technically remain president until 2036. If not him, one of his puppets, despite the existence of his opponent, Navalny. Protests will continue in 2021, whether to challenge the government’s actions or the upcoming election results. Meddling in the former Soviet Republics’ affairs will remain a priority for Moscow to keep them within its sphere of influence. These Republics will be torn more than ever between Russia, Turkey, Iran, China, and the EU/U.S. With the Russian economy being hit by the pandemic, the prospects are not suitable for Russia to help compared to China.
Lastly, the Japan-Russia relations must be watched closely because of: 1) the revised Russian Constitution that “bans territorial concessions, thereby further trampling Japanese hopes of ever regaining the Russian-held Southern Kuril Islands,” as reported by RUSI; 2) the September LDP presidential race and general elections in Japan that will see Prime Minister Suga being re-elected or not, and 3) the September Russian election. Will the Kuril Islands dispute ever be resolved? It will depend on the Japanese government and its changing priorities due to the external environment threats.
Japan’s difficulties are numerous. At the national level, there are, among other issues, 1) the pandemic striking an aging Japanese population, 2) an economy that was hit hard in 2020 while it was already down and being stimulated many times by Shinzo Abe’s economic policies, 3) the postponed Olympic Games and their consequences, and 4) an absence of real leadership to equate that of Shinzo Abe or overcome it. At the international level, Japan faces threats from its neighbors China, North Korea, and Russia, and a growing environmental movement is rejecting the increasing presence of U.S. military bases. With Trump, Japan has learned not to count on the U.S. What will happen with Biden? It remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the situation is not easy for isolated Japan, especially if the observed trends of ‘coopetition’ between China and Russia are turned against Japan.
The rest of the world: Proliferation of new hotbeds of tension and intensification of current quagmires
There are other issues to watch in 2021 with the U.S., China, and Russia busy dealing with each other to gain world-leader status. Firstly, the EU will remain fragile with Brexit, the aftermath of a deadly pandemic, and its usual internal battles and double standards for its members. It will reinvent its relations with the U.S. and remain focused on its territorial/economic issues: the health crisis, the economy, migrants, and nationalist movements.
Secondly, the power games between Turkey, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East are evolving as Israel goes to the polls in March 2021. The Oil question will always remain relevant, just like the Syrian one. However, it will be Kurdistan (mainly Iraq) that will attract all the attention with a potential Turkish offensive, which (if it takes place) risks being a powder keg with consequences comparable to those of the Balkan powder keg that prepared for WWI. It could be a new kind of world war where cutting-edge technologies will be in the foreground (drones, precision-guided weapons, cyber-attacks).
Thirdly, there are the crises that the world has ‘forgotten’ due to the pandemic: the Rohingyas, the war in Yemen, the situation in Venezuela, the storming of sub-Saharan Africa by jihadist terrorists, social crises coupled with economic problems in Arab countries, the rise of the Far Right in the world, the Ebola epidemic… They did not stop in 2020. Some of them were even exacerbated.
To sum up, Trumpism applied in its egotistical logic has ended in disaster. The U.S. was the world leader, thanks to its relations with the other powers. On its own, the U.S.’s power without help and assistance from other states becomes vulnerable, like the rest of the world. The moral of the story: international relations based on mutual benefit allow all states to enjoy the peace and the flow of goods and people, thus boosting the economy. World powers will have to make informed choices for the well-being of humankind. They will have to work together without discrimination to renew themselves, learn from the global health crisis, and focus on positive things that create value while preparing for the next pandemic and putting aside unnecessary and destructive conflicts and wars. The world will come to a crossroads in 2021: a year of hope for some, reinvention for industries like tourism and renewable energy, and reconstruction for the global economy.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Dr Fatima-Zohra Er-Rafia is a lecturer at HEC Montréal and Polytechnique Montréal, a consultant, and an independent researcher. She holds a PhD in Business Administration with a focus on China and Japan. Dr Er-Rafia specializes in international affairs, geopolitics, cross-cultural management, and strategy. Her focus is on Weberian sociology, politics, economics, and history, and she uses aspects of all these disciplines to study Asia. Dr Er-Rafia previously served as a Corporate Strategist at Desjardins Group and as a Management Consultant, Director of Operations, and a Strategy and Business Development Consultant at Stratégies Internationales. She provides training for Business Executives at the international level and regularly gives presentations about Asia’s geopolitics, and its business, management, and culture. She is the recipient of several honors and awards and author of two book chapters on China and Japan, several articles and business case studies. For more info: www.fatimaerrafia.com