Much of the current discourse over the coronavirus has centred on the humanitarian and economic contagion stemming from the virus, yet precious little attention has been paid to the geopolitical and geostrategic implications of the outbreak. Policy-wise, the contagion has once again provoked debate over the future of globalisation. The spotlight has been firmly shone on the risks associated with economic interdependence in a globalised and hyperconnected world, given how rapidly and easily the virus has spread. It has provided ammunition for many critics of open borders and has been seized on as a gift by populist leaders who reject this economic doctrine. Illustration: KAREN MOOLMAN
Much of the current discourse over the coronavirus has centred on the humanitarian and economic contagion stemming from the virus, yet precious little attention has been paid to the geopolitical and geostrategic implications of the outbreak. Policy-wise, the contagion has once again provoked debate over the future of globalisation. The spotlight has been firmly shone on the risks associated with economic interdependence in a globalised and hyperconnected world, given how rapidly and easily the virus has spread. It has provided ammunition for many critics of open borders and has been seized on as a gift by populist leaders who reject this economic doctrine. Illustration: KAREN MOOLMAN

Much of the current discourse over the coronavirus outbreak has centred on the humanitarian and economic contagion stemming from the virus, yet precious little attention has been paid to its geopolitical and geostrategic implications of the epidemic.

A deep and protracted crisis threatens to have hugely disruptive effects on the existing global order. Indeed, the fallout could trigger a realignment in international relations and could result in the roles of key actors being fundamentally altered as they aim to quell the political and financial disruptions to their economies. With a recalibration of strategic priorities, it naturally follows that the outlook becomes more ambiguous and uncertain.

These geopolitical considerations are important for Africa to consider because the interplay between global superpowers has profound ripple effects on the continent’s economic wellbeing. African policymakers will need to be aware of these evolving dynamics and, more importantly, position themselves to be on the right side of the equation when the dust eventually settles.

A more insular China, with less financial firepower to achieve its international aspirations, may result in its benevolence and patronage to external partners being reduced significantly as it concentrates on stabilising its domestic economy.

Beyond the here and now, a number of critical questions need to be considered. First, what does this outbreak mean for China’s global ambitions? In recent years, as much of the Western world has retreated into a more protectionist approach, China has stepped into the void and emerged as the champion of globalisation. However, the unexpected shocks emanating from the coronavirus threatens to change this geopolitical equation.

There is a real possibility that China will now be forced to shift its attention from international to domestic considerations. A more insular China, with less financial firepower to achieve its international aspirations, may result in its benevolence and patronage to external partners being reduced significantly as it concentrates on stabilising its domestic economy.

This is particularly important to consider in the context of its Belt & Road Initiative, under which China has dramatically extended its sphere of influence across Asia, Africa and parts of Europe, and the strategic rivalry with the US, which continues to extend across currency, trade and technology spheres. A strategic reprioritisation of its interests may leave many countries that have grown reliant on China’s cheap and accessible funding in the lurch. This is significant for two reasons — it risks diluting the impressive geopolitical reach China has built through these initiatives, and it creates opportunities for other powers to plug the gap.

There are also significant geoeconomic considerations. Policywise, the contagion has once again provoked debate over the future of globalisation. The spotlight has been firmly shone on the risks associated with economic interdependence in a globalised and hyperconnected world, given how rapidly and easily the virus has spread. It has provided ammunition for many critics of open borders and has been seized on as a gift by populist leaders who reject this economic doctrine.

Nationalistic and protectionist impulses may now be accelerated as a result of the fear and uncertainty invoked by contagion. How electorates respond will be telling; it could be a seminal moment in terms of global policy trajectory. Furthermore, whether by design or default, this has sparked conversations over the global economy’s reliance on China as a manufacturing hub, given the huge disruption to global supply chains. Already, the need for diversification away from China is gaining prominence in global business circles as a result of companies being blindsided by recent developments. In essence, a rethink of the current, dominant economic models has begun in earnest, which may have far-reaching consequences.

Amid an array of issues for the global political economy to contend with, the calculus for African countries will be economic considerations. From a funding perspective, significant resources will be required if they are hit by the coronavirus in a major way, which could set a precedent for how they decide to engage with external partners. But this economic diplomacy will need to be done in a manner that is sharp, strategic and subtle.    

Diplomatically, decisions will need to be made over the ability of countries to navigate sensitive considerations. A delicate balance will need to be struck between protecting their populations from exposure vs the risks of sullying ties with key strategic allies. While a number of African countries have already cancelled direct flights to and from China, it was telling that Ethiopia has maintained routes in the face of public pressure. Beijing has a long memory when it comes to this sort of loyalty, and this show of good faith will certainly not go unnoticed.

Conversely, African states that have decided to pursue the opposite route may find access to Chinese finance more difficult to come by. Some of these states may have computed that overexposure to China represents concentration risk and decide to use the current shake-up as an opportunity to diversify funding partners — especially given the steady stream of interest emanating from nontraditional sources.

For the likes of India, Russia, Turkey and other new partners, the potential vacuum could create the necessary pathway to position themselves as the continent’s preferred allies. For Russia especially, the withdrawal or pause of UN peacekeeping missions in Africa by major powers provides an opportunity to supplant its rivals in vulnerable countries facing power vacuums and security crises — in much the same way it was able to in the Central African Republic.

The big winner here could be the US, whose strategic rivalry with China is now playing out on the African continent. A considered approach aimed at winning hearts and minds and offering support to countries in need may open a huge opportunity for Washington to make up lost ground in what has become a critical arena for this competition. Its recent efforts in brokering a new trade deal with Kenya were seen as a direct response to China’s economic approach in Africa and an attempt to assert a more muscular foreign policy agenda.  

Of course, there are a couple of important caveats to these scenarios. The first is premised on coronavirus’s longevity and the ensuing contagion, which remain uncertain. Second, how severely the virus affects the Chinese economy remains to be seen. If China is able to mitigate the disruption quickly (as it was able to do with the SARS epidemic), these outcomes could become tail risks and nothing more. Given the authoritarian nature of its political system, China will be able to impose draconian crisis management measures in a manner that many Western democracies cannot. This is likely to help soften the impact of the outbreak.

There is a great deal of speculation on how this will play out. African countries should be attuned to the dynamic nature of the crisis and its unplanned consequences. It would be negligent not to consider the possibility of a global geostrategic reset and its cascading consequences. Current developments may serve as the perfect catalyst for a rethink of the manner in which Africa engages with foreign partners. The continent’s policymakers will need to guard against exploitation in the midst of such a crisis and be alert to the risks associated with new partners bearing gifts and promises.

Regardless of the likely economic pressures, African policymakers should not appear desperate, nor underestimate the strategic value that the outbreak offers to global powers. Smart and strategic thinking is necessary — if a crisis is imminent, it would be best not to waste it.

• Gopaldas is a director at Signal Risk and a fellow at The Gordon Institute of Business Science.