By Nazifa Nawar
Owing to their persistence of geographical conditions – the physical reality that states face as a decisive attribute for international relations demonstrates the criticality of geopolitics. The assumption is still relevant in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic has not only added new dimensions to geopolitics, but it also has engaged multiple actors with their respective interests that entail conflictual situations in the regional and global political and diplomatic spheres. In this case, the Asian continent has mostly experienced the contours of geopolitical rivalries over pandemics. The Asian geopolitical landscape surrounding the pandemic created momentum with a variety of issues and actors. The competition over vaccine diplomacy, vaccine nationalism, emergency medical supplies, mask diplomacy, politics of regionalism has been marked by Sino-Indian, Sino-American as well as Japanese conflict of interests.
Notably, in South Asia, Bangladesh faced the dilemma of giving priorities in choosing actors in this regard. Indian failure to keep the promise of providing thirty million doses of a potential coronavirus vaccine to Bangladesh facilitated Chinese entry into the game. Bangladesh later turned its heeds to Beijing and that was notable to denote the very geopolitics of pandemic. Nepal, Sri Lanka also followed the same path. Moreover, the Japanese assistance to the recovery of the Bangladesh economy and the US interests to engage Bangladesh in QUAD and IPS are not irrelevant in this regard, when the strategic-geopolitical alliance led by India, Japan, the USA, and Australia is enthusiastically providing medical assistance and economic package to overcome the pandemic.
A geopolitical tilt is more visible in the Gulf. The region’s geopolitics revolve around local rivalries; fueled by internal violence and amplified by the conflicting interests of the great powers. The region mostly has been covered by Sino-American competition during covid-19. It has been more frequent when the USA fallen onto leadership crisis and faced the question of credibility and on the other hand China came out from a sick man of Asia to the global savior after the entangled effect of COVID-19. Besides, as a catalyst for geopolitical change, COVID-19 is bridging China and the Persian Gulf through the ‘Health Silk Road’, accelerating collaboration in combating pandemic. Beijing has exploited the opportunity in the region when the USA has substantially reduced its engagement and followed inward-looking policies during the pandemic. It was a lucrative shift for Beijing while USA is facing a retreat strategically and China is growingly becoming dependent on the Gulf oil.
Not only that, China has extended its hands to Saudi Arabia, the apex partner of USA in the region. Notably, the Gulf countries themselves extended their hands to each other. The medical assistance of Saudi Arabia to its arch rival Iran, decrease in Saudi airstrikes in Yemen, Chinese helps to Iran, Kuwait, UAE and Qatar are the prime examples of how the geopolitics of the gulf is being proceeded under the aegis of Chinese influences. Furthermore, there are rivalries among regional powers like Shiite Iran and Sunni KSA. The pandemic geopolitics has also turned into religious-political form when there is debate and blame game over ‘Shiite virus’ and ‘Sunni virus’.
Regionally, the pandemic has exerted strenuous pressure on economic development as the regional countries are largely dependent on crude oil exports and expatriate populations (about 90 percent of the total population). During the pandemic, the oil price faced decrease to some extent and the pace of economic activities slowed down due to the lockdowns. Moreover, COVID-19 has also shifted the margin of defense budget that was rising prior to 2020. Due to the pressure on domestic economy caused by the lower oil price, the gulf countries had to cut the defense budget that has implications on the regional geopolitical order and strategic calculations.
To conclude, the evolving dynamics of geopolitics of COVID-19 pandemic has revived the politico-strategic dimensions in the global order. The rival interests put forwarded by competing actors have been evident in Asian continent. The nascent geopolitical power game in the global political order is evident. The Sino-Indian competition and the Sino-American relative power game in furthering strategic-economic gains in Middle East and the Gulf region vividly show how the regional and global geopolitical order is going through a tectonic shift amid the pandemic. In essence, the pandemic has accelerated the dynamics of geopolitics reaching out the new scope and terms of cooperation and competition. Vaccine nationalism and vaccine diplomacy which have been widely displayed in the puzzling combinations of geopolitics in Asia and the Gulf need to be avoided to prove “humanity is over all stakes”.
*Nazifa Nawar is a researcher and columnist based in Dhaka, Bangladesh.