“We’re in a competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century,” President Joe Biden said in an April address to a joint session of Congress. It is a contest to prove “the utility of democracies in the 21st century” against the model presented by “autocracies.” And to hear Biden tell it, the biggest obstacle before those democracies has been the pandemic. “We’re kind of at a place where the rest of the world is beginning to look to China,” Biden told New York Times opinion writer David Brooks. He recalled how the head of Ireland’s government confessed that the American model is no longer so inspiring. “‘Well, America can’t lead,’” Ireland’s Taoiseach reportedly told the president. “They can’t even get their arms around Covid.’”
That remark represents a prominent strain of thought among foreign-policy practitioners that emerged at the outset of the pandemic, and it seems impervious to contradictory evidence. As early as March 2020, economists, senior fellows, professors, and organizational presidents in the West sang China’s praises. In strong contrast to the fractious and uncoordinated ways in which the West’s democracies handled the pandemic, China reacted with alacrity and produced immediate results. The People’s Republic locked down the nation, contained the contagion, resumed normal life well before the rest of the world, and began exporting an indigenously developed vaccine while almost every other nation was still reeling. In the words of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Edward Alden, it all served to “reinforce the impression that the U.S. has nothing to teach the rest of the world.”
This was a dubious narrative at the time. It is even more suspect now that evidence mounts disconfirming the instant consensus among foreign-policy graybeards. China did not contain the virus; it allowed it to spread domestically and internationally. China didn’t prevent unnecessary deaths by welding people into their homes and building sprawling hospitals from scratch in the space of a week; it covered up its case rates and deaths. And China didn’t save the developing world through the speedy production of a COVID vaccine; it gave the world false hope.
Experts within the World Health Organization are slowly coming around to the notion that the efficacy data provided by China’s state-owned drug maker Sinopharm involving its COVID-19 vaccine should be met with “very low confidence.” In places like Chile and the Seychelles, where immunization rates are high, COVID-19 infection rates have nonetheless spiraled out of control, leaving experts to wonder whether China’s vaccine really works. The news isn’t much better for China’s Sinovac vaccine. In January, Brazilian researchers found that it, too, was far less effective than originally believed. China’s own chief disease control official admitted in April that the efficacy rates of its vaccines could be as low as 50 percent.
Both of China’s vaccines are still being exported to and administered in countries around the globe. More than 240 million doses have already been shipped abroad, and the goodwill this campaign would presumably generate for China in a post-pandemic world is still a serious soft-power challenge to American dominance. Joe Biden has recognized this and made the export of U.S.-produced vaccines a priority. But competing with China’s “vaccine diplomacy” cannot be done passively. Western vaccines enjoy the competitive advantage of actually working, but advertising that fact invites conflict with China and risks the associated repercussions. The U.S. will have to be prepared to absorb them if it is to make the most of another opportunity fate has dealt to Western democracies.
The notion that SARS-CoV-2 originated in a Chinese virology research lab is no longer a conspiracy theory voiced by fringe cranks and nativist Know-Nothings. The “lab leak” theory is getting a serious second look from public health experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci and former FDA chief Scott Gottlieb. We now know that staff at the Wuhan-based lab in question were hospitalized with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 as early as November 2019—well before China admitted to the existence of this disease. We have not yet found any viruses in the wild that would indicate an intermediate evolutionary link between an animal host and COVID-19. And as one prominent virologist told the journalist Nicholas Wade, the disease’s amino acid sequence presents “a powerful challenge to the idea of a natural origin.”
This is a great gift to an American president committed to countering and rolling back Chinese influence. Not only has Beijing gifted the world a sham of a vaccine, it did so as part of a campaign designed to trick the world into ignoring the conduct that unleashed this plague upon us all. Through neglect, malfeasance, or simple authoritarian sclerosis, China imposed the conditions on the world that ground social and economic life to a halt. China did this to us.
Biden administration officials are going to find that a hard case to make, but not because the evidence supporting it is shoddy. It will require them to make a full about-face. They will have to explain to their core supporters that the idea promulgated for a year that this was just a once-in-a-century act of God was wrong. It will force them to admit that, while America got a lot wrong in the last year of Trump’s administration, America also got a lot right; chiefly, its vaccine production and distribution regime.
The Biden administration will have to adopt a confrontational posture toward China that will inflame tensions and preclude possibilities for bilateral cooperation on issues central to its agenda, like trade and the environment. It will have to make an example of China in international forums, laying out the indictment with as much prosecutorial precision as possible. And it must prepare to be able to fill the vacuum that will be left if its efforts are successful and the developing world rejects China’s castles in the sky.
If the Biden administration is as comfortable with conflict as it claims, making the most of this gift shouldn’t be that difficult. If it cannot enthusiastically advance U.S. interests, America will need a new administration that can.