According to the experts, this was supposed to be the “Chinese century.” For some of those experts, it will be China’s century still. In their eyes, the unique coronavirus that the People’s Republic incubated and, as a result of myopia, paranoia, and old-fashioned autocratic lethargy, loosed upon the world hasn’t slowed China’s ascension. The pandemic may have even accelerated it.
“The Chinese are in a much stronger position,” said Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer. “They’ve basically contained the virus through technology-powered, authoritarian surveillance,” he added, “and they’ve leveraged this success by providing aid to Europe and emerging markets.” The chief economist at High Frequency Economics, Carl Weinberg, agreed. “The Chinese built a hospital with 2,000 beds in 10 days from start to finish,” he marveled. “The pandemic is going to reinforce that the United States is simply not the highly functional, advanced role model it used to be,” Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, lamented. As the U.S. is now on track to experience a more widespread pandemic than even Italy, Alden concluded that this virus could only “reinforce the impression that the U.S. has nothing to teach the rest of the world.”
At the risk of sinning against the inviolable cult of expertise, I’d take this bet.
First, it seems that the full and uncritical internalization of China’s dubious self-reported statistics is the basis for much of this wisdom. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that many of the lessons these experts have drawn are predicated on, at best, half-truths.
Those miraculous emergency hospitals that sprouted up like mushrooms around the epicenter of the Coronavirus outbreak in China did not function and were left all but vacant after opening to much global fanfare. China’s authoritarian lockdowns, which were so draconian in some instances that they included barricading people in their infected apartment buildings, did not arrest the spread of the disease, according to local officials. Some Wuhan residents believe the city’s death toll is more than ten times what the Chinese government admits. Doctors who go public with their concerns are compelled to write dubious self-recriminations when they don’t disappear entirely. Far from being intimidated by China’s supposed influence, Western governments, including those in the U.S. and U.K., are openly blaming Beijing’s secrecy and paranoia for the scale of this pandemic.
The People’s Republic has positioned itself as a first responder on the world stage, shipping emergency medical supplies across the planet and relieving the stresses put on public health systems around the world. But this, too, is a façade. Spain announced that the COVID-19 tests it acquired from China correctly identify infections in patients maybe 30 percent of the time, rendering them functionally useless. The story is reportedly much the same in Turkey and the Czech Republic. The Netherlands has recalled 600,000 face masks because they did not meet standards. Nevertheless, with almost nowhere else to turn for personal protective equipment, governments around the world—including the U.S.—depend on Chinese beneficence to meet this moment. That cannot last.
The national-security rationale for establishing industrial policies aimed at reducing international reliance on Chinese manufacturing for vital goods has been firmly established. The logic of that conclusion—that dependence on China involves unacceptable risk—may extend beyond supply chains that are critical to national survival. Why was it that places such as Iran and Italy were hit so hard and so early by the Coronavirus outbreak? The answer is trade. Italy, the first G7 nation to sign on with China’s Belt and Road Initiative in defiance of its allies, relied on China for critical infrastructure investments. Iran has turned to the PRC for relief from crippling international sanctions, and cities like Qom, where economic links to Beijing are the most robust, have been devastated as a result. Iranians chafed under this dependency even before the outbreak, and their anxiety hasn’t abated amid the pandemic. “We were unhappy with all these crappy Chinese goods everywhere,” one daring Iranian housewife told the Wall Street Journal. “Now, they brought us this crappy virus, too.”
National-security professionals and trade protectionists alike have long warned that the globe’s reliance on Chinese manufacturing is a profound vulnerability. Still, untethering global commercial needs from the Mainland’s ability to meet them entails much economic pain and hardship. This vulnerability has been allowed to fester. Well, the pain that public officials so wanted to avoid imposing on their publics is here today. Amid full-scale trade hostilities, American analysts have long feared that China would play its ultimate ace in the hole: the weaponization of the many hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of U.S. treasuries it holds. But China has been steadily unloading these holdings for months, and the increasing issuance of U.S. debt (which has exploded alongside pandemic-related stimulus measures) has diluted the theoretical power of this weapon. If there was ever a time when the pain of recalibrating the West’s commercial relationship with China could be justified and absorbed, it might be now.
China’s geopolitical influence may contract as a result of the present crisis, but that is not to say that this will be an advantageous process for the United States. If protectionism is the order of the day, it will sacrifice trade as a powerful tool for the promotion of liberalism, to say nothing of the human flourishing and geostrategic stability that it promotes. This crisis is sure to accelerate already prevalent trends away from integration in international institutions and toward a more atomized, nationalistic understanding of geopolitics.
China’s fragility was apparent well before this crisis. The precarity of its nationalistic project was evident, and the scant independent reporting now escaping China paints a grim picture of social and political instability. It would seem like an odd time for Beijing to ratchet up military tensions in potential flashpoints like the South China Sea absent some significant domestic political pressures, but that’s precisely what the People’s Republic has done. This is a challenge the U.S. is obliged to meet, but Washington can only deter China by guaranteeing that the risks associated with Beijing’s provocations outweigh the rewards. Under the strain imposed on it by this virus, China may be willing to accept a whole lot more risk.
This is a period of intense flux, and it’s difficult today to forecast the events of next week much less next year. But it is a shallow analysis that suggests China will be the unqualified beneficiary of the crisis it imposed on the world.