The Gulf and Asia – OpEd – Eurasia Review
Due to the persistence of geographical conditions, the physical reality that states face as a decisive attribute of international relations demonstrates the criticality of geopolitics. The hypothesis is still relevant amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic has not only added new dimensions to geopolitics, but has also engaged multiple actors with their respective interests that result in conflicting situations in regional and global political and diplomatic spheres. In this case, the Asian continent has mostly experienced the contours of geopolitical rivalries around pandemics. The Asian geopolitical landscape surrounding the pandemic has created momentum with a variety of issues and players. The competition over vaccine diplomacy, vaccine nationalism, emergency medical supplies, mask diplomacy, the politics of regionalism has been marked by Sino-Indian, Sino-American and Japanese conflicts of interest.
Notably, in South Asia, Bangladesh has faced the dilemma of prioritizing actors in this regard. India’s failure to deliver on its promise to provide thirty million doses of a potential coronavirus vaccine to Bangladesh eased China’s entry into the game. Bangladesh then turned to Beijing, which which was remarkable for denoting the very geopolitics of the pandemic. Nepal, Sri Lanka also followed the same path. Moreover, Japanese assistance in the recovery of Bangladesh’s economy and American interests in engaging Bangladesh in the QUAD and IPS are not insignificant in this regard, while the strategic and geopolitical alliance led by India, Japan, USA and Australia are enthusiastically providing medical assistance and economic package to overcome the pandemic.
A geopolitical tilt is more visible in the Gulf. The geopolitics of the region revolves around local rivalries; fueled by internal violence and amplified by the conflicting interests of the great powers. The region was mainly covered by Sino-American competition during covid-19. This has been more common when the United States fell into a crisis of leadership and faced the question of credibility and on the other hand China emerged from a sick man from Asia as a world savior after the tangled effect of COVID-19. Moreover, as a catalyst for geopolitical change, COVID-19 connects China and the Persian Gulf via the “Health Silk Road”, accelerating collaboration in the fight against the pandemic. Beijing exploited the opportunity in the region when the United States drastically reduced its engagement and followed inward-looking policies during the pandemic. It was a lucrative turn for Beijing as the United States faces a strategic retreat and China becomes increasingly dependent on oil from the Gulf.
Additionally, China has reached out to Saudi Arabia, the United States’ preferred partner in the region. Notably, the Gulf countries themselves have reached out to each other. Saudi Arabia’s medical assistance to its great rival Iran, the reduction of Saudi airstrikes in Yemen, Chinese aid to Iran, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar are the best examples of the how the geopolitics of the Gulf unfolds under the aegis of Chinese influences. Additionally, there are rivalries between regional powers like Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. Pandemic geopolitics has also turned into a politico-religious form when there is a debate and blame game about the “Shia virus” and the “Sunni virus”.
At the regional level, the pandemic has put great pressure on economic development as countries in the region are largely dependent on crude oil exports and expatriate populations (about 90% of the total population). During the pandemic, the price of oil has come down to some extent and the pace of economic activities has slowed due to the shutdowns. Moreover, COVID-19 has also changed the margin of the defense budget which was increasing before 2020. Due to the pressure on the national economy caused by the drop in the price of oil, the Gulf countries had to reduce the budget. defence, which has implications for regional geopolitics. command and strategic calculations.
To conclude, the evolving dynamics of the geopolitics of the COVID-19 pandemic have revived political-strategic dimensions in the global order. Competing interests put forward by competing players have manifested themselves on the Asian continent. The emerging geopolitical power play in the global political order is evident. Sino-Indian competition and the relative Sino-American power play in pursuit of strategic and economic gains in the Middle East and the Gulf region clearly show how the regional and global geopolitical order is going through a tectonic shift in the midst of the pandemic. In essence, the pandemic has accelerated the dynamics of geopolitics reaching the new field and the new conditions of cooperation and competition. The vaccine nationalism and vaccine diplomacy that have been widely displayed in the confusing suits of geopolitics in Asia and the Gulf must be avoided to prove that “humanity is above all stakes”.
*Nazifa Nawar is a researcher and columnist based in Dhaka, Bangladesh.