COVID-19 Has Reshaped International Power Structure, Emboldened China and Russia, Defence Committee Hears

November 29, 2020 Updated: November 30, 2020

Canada and its allies should brace themselves for more global instability in the post-COVID-19 geostrategic environment, at a time when China and Russia pose greater challenges, the House of Commons National Defence Committee heard on Nov. 27.

“In the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant dislocation in the economy and also in society,” said Richard Shimooka, senior fellow for Macdonald Laurier Institute.

“The pandemic has accelerated a number of longstanding trends and instigated new challenges.”

Shimooka noted that China has “weathered the pandemic better than most other developed economies,” while Russia “has continued to play its oil role despite suffering the pandemic’s effects. Thus, the challenges … will likely become increasingly acute as the decade wears on,” he said.

In a recent paper titled “After the Pandemic: Confronting a New Geo-Strategic Environment in the Post-COVID-19 Era,” Shimooka detailed how the world’s economic and military landscape is being reshaped by COVID-19.

The pandemic has served to accelerate the efforts of China and Russia as they work against the post-Cold War international structure, he wrote. The two powers’ ability to achieve their goals of usurping political systems through destabilizing policies, including “coercive economic measures, corruption, influence operations, active measures, and even direct intervention,” is the most troubling for Canada and other democracies.

“Russia has a longstanding interest in undermining the existing international order and was quick to spread pandemic-related propaganda against Western states,” Shimooka wrote.

“China, similarly, has sought to exploit the pandemic to enhance its international position and started to pursue aggressive diplomacy, which may signal a permanent shift to China’s more assertive foreign policy posture.”

While China is less prone to the use of military force to acquire territory, as Russia did with Crimea, it is reshaping the international system in an even more ambitious way, in part by using a two-pronged strategy, Shimooka explains.

This includes aggressively asserting sovereignty in China’s peripheral water and land territories, such as the South and East China seas, and seeking to construct a new international economic and political order with which to replace the existing Euro-American-dominated international system. A primary tool to this end is the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s multi-trillion-dollar international infrastructure investment project.

Shimooka notes that pandemic-driven economic consequences lead to political and military vulnerabilities. For example, several countries or regions, such as South Korea and the European Union, are already planning to curtail defence spending to support economic stimulus programs in response to the pandemic.

“Considering China’s emboldened foreign policy since the start of the pandemic, the potential for conflict may increase given the unstable military balance. One such place where this is evident is Taiwan,” Shimooka writes.

On Nov. 23, Christian Leuprecht, a professor in political science at the Royal Military College of Canada, told the National Defence Committee that the deployment of Canadian Armed Forces to COVID-related domestic missions depleted military resources that should have gone into preparing against international threats. Response programs like Operation Laser saw the deployment of more than 1,700 troops to assist at long-term care homes in Ontario and Quebec.

When asked to comment on Leuprecht’s remarks, Shimooka said such domestic use of the CAF is “reasonable” so long as it is well-planned, and the resources allocated are commensurate with the task.