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ALMA Reviews Blog: The geopolitics of COVID-19: US-China rivalry and the imminent Kindleberger trap

Riham Bahi, Professor of Political Science, Cairo University, Egypt

Published in Review of Economics and Political Science, 2021, Volume 6, Issue 1, 76-94.

Available at

Given the political and economic turbulence Egypt has endured in the aftermath of the 2011 “Arab Spring”, academic work at Cairo University has not been easy during the last decade. Nonetheless, a remarkable achievement has been the creation of the periodical Review of Economics and Political Science, a journal edited at the prestigious Faculty of Economics and Political Science (FEPS) under the editorial leadership of Prof. Heba Nassar, former vice president of Cairo University.

Since its first issue appeared in 2015, the journal has featured an impressive number of articles that analyse current developments in Egypt and the Arab world, as well as in other parts of the globe. Most authors are affiliated with universities and research centres located in the Global South, and all articles are published by Emerald as open access. Since no authors’ fees are collected, the journal provides a wonderful opportunity, especially for junior scholars from the Global South, to present their research in the English language to a global audience.

Among the recent articles in the journal dedicated to the COVID-19 pandemic, a contribution by Riham Bahi, an associate professor of International Relations at Cairo University and head of the Euro-Mediterranean Studies Programme, provides an interesting perspective. Her article “The geopolitics of COVID-19: US-China rivalry and the imminent Kindleberger trap” discusses aspects of how the worldwide health crisis has affected the competition for global leadership between China and the United States. She observes that the world “seems to be falling into a ‘Kindleberger Trap,’ in which the established power is unable to lead while the rising power is unwilling to assume responsibility” (p. 76). Noting the complete absence of US leadership during the pandemic, which in the long run could lead to a “breakdown of the international order” (ibid.), Bahi asks whether this can be compared to Charles Kindleberger’s original observation that the Great Depression of 1929 also resulted from the global power shift from the UK towards the US: while the former could no longer provide sufficient support to the world economy, the latter was not (yet) willing to do so.

Bahi’s starting point is the (hardly surprising) observation that global challenges such as the pandemic, but also climate change, require analytical responses beyond the classic tool kit of realism. Here, Bahi refers to the work of Nayef al-Rodhan (2018), who identifies seven features as central for modern statecraft, among them social and health issues as well as environmental concerns and scientific potential. For al-Rodhan, modern statecraft consists of the ability both to provide domestic stability and to guarantee room for manoeuvre within the international sphere (p. 77).To counter a pandemic, these potentials have proven more relevant than the classic elements of state power, such as military might or economic supremacy.

As a result, argues Bahi, global leadership has become less dependent on traditional power tools, while the ability to distribute public health provisions has become increasingly important. Donald J. Trump’s “America first” rhetoric and his obvious inability to react appropriately to the COVID-19 pandemic helped China take a lead in the global fight against SARS-CoV-2. And, as Bahi asserts, “[u]nlike threats like Iran or terrorism, China’s challenge is systemic. It can upset the US-led international order” (p. 81).

The article contains a concise and easy-to-understand overview of US-China relations during and after the Cold War, a competition that has turned into a rivalry now often referred to as a “second Cold War” (p. 81); the struggle over the 5G telecommunications standard and the “currency war” between the dollar and the Yuan testify to this. China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative exemplifies the two different perspectives: while the US calls it a “debt trap” for participating countries, the Chinese government sees it as a unique chance for enhanced trade relations and growing wealth for those involved. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has elevated this rivalry to yet another level. Each side has accused the other of being responsible for the virus: China claimed its origins were to be found within the US army, while President Trump consistently referred to Sars-CoV-2 as the “Chinese virus”. Whereas China was particularly affected in the early days of the pandemic, the United States quickly became the epicentre of infections. The article compares various key aspects of how the two countries dealt with the pandemic, such as the existing health systems, control over citizens’ behaviour and governmental transparency. Not least, it compares their cooperation with the World Health Organisation (WHO): while the United States cut ties and openly refused to support the WHO’s COVAX initiative, China included it in its “Health Silk Road” project, meant to distribute medical and protective equipment to countries in need.

Given their differences, both countries rejected cooperation in the fight against COVID-19, a circumstance that rendered the global response to the pandemic dramatically less effective. The author sees enhanced multilateralism as the way out of this tragic situation, suggesting that the G20 could be the driving force for global (health) governance (p. 89).

This conclusion could, however, have been spelled out in greater detail. Why the G20 but not the UN, for instance? If countries had adhered to the internationally accepted rules and norms, as primarily embodied by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in the case of COVID-19, public health cooperation on a global level would already have succeeded. Thus, it remains questionable whether an unpredictable Trump, a populist Bolsonaro or a lying Johnson would have acted more cooperatively if they had been bound to a new set of rules established by the G20 rather than to the already existing ones. Thus, while Bahi’s call for more multilateralism is undoubtedly correct, the reference to the G20 as a way to overcome the harmful rivalry between China and the US would need more elaboration to convince her readers thoroughly.

Another area that Bahi could have explored in greater detail is the question of whether the inadequate US response was a matter of leadership, notably resulting from Trump’s individual policy choices, or if there were structural issues at work. In other words: would things have gone differently if the US President at the time had been Obama or Biden instead of Trump? 

There is, however, a fascinating observation in Bahi’s analysis that deserves particular mention here. At some point, Bahi calls China incapable but willing (p. 79), but elsewhere capable but unwilling (pp. 76, 78) to provide global public goods. What at first looks like an apparent contradiction should probably better be understood as a recognition of the reality’s complexity: unlike in Kindleberger’s analysis, states and governments cannot be classified as either strong or weak, willing or unwilling, rising or descending. They are both at the same time, probably to a varying extent, but they are definitely too disparate to be sorted into one category or the other. This is the best reason for further critique of the “Kindleberger Trap”– and likewise the “Thucydides Trap”, which Bahi briefly mentions as well (p. 81): both have fundamental shortcomings when used to analyse and predict conflict developments in our contemporary complex world order. Bahi’s analysis could have benefitted from a further elaboration of the implications emerging from her nuanced choice of words. Overall, however, she has provided a thought-provoking critique of the geopolitics of the COVID-19 response that definitely deserves a broad readership. 

Reviewed by: Charlotte Jung and Jan Claudius Völkel

Works cited:

Bahi, Riham (2021): The geopolitics of COVID-19: US-China rivalry and the imminent Kindleberger trap. In Review of Economics and Political Science 6 (1), pp. 76-94.

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Foto: ©Cynthia Matonhodze, Harare, Zimbabwe

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