In the past 10 days a whole host of articles have speculated on whether U.S. President Trump’s lack of interest in global leadership during the covid-19 pandemic is hastening China’s emergence as an influential global power. Many of these articles follow on the alarm raised by nervous foreign-policy watchers in the U.S., who argued that the pandemic and the resulting global recession were marking a geopolitical reordering that would leave China as the winner.
Undoubtedly, China wants to take on a great power mantle, which includes leading a response to a global health crisis, but is the West ready for its guidance and what would we be giving up if the U.S. shed its role as the global system’s leader in times of crisis?
The China Challenge
In the wake of the U.S.’ slow and poor response to the virus and the Trump administration’s clear unwillingness to organize an international effort to fight the disease, as it has in past epidemics, China sees an opportunity to burnish its image as a world leader. From the Chinese point of view, as it watches Trump fight with governors over medical supplies, America is weighed down by systemic weaknesses that make it unable to effectively respond to the pandemic within its own borders—with no suggestion that it has an ability to address the crisis outside its borders. In contrast, China points to its dramatic reduction in the number of covid-19 cases as further evidence of the superiority of Communist Party rule over democracy.
To complement these views, China offered web seminars on best practice gained from tackling the virus and it airlifted medical supplies including protective equipment, testing kits and ventilators to the worst-hit countries in Europe.
Unwittingly, Trump moved to support China’s narrative when, on the 14th of April, he suspended payment to the World Health Organization (WHO), a United Nations body. Trump argued that the WHO failed to challenge China’s early claims about the low risk of human-to-human transmission. China’s response was predictable, it announced it would give another $30 million to the WHO to fill the gap and support further measures against the virus, which has already claimed over 200,000 lives.
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers
Scholars in international relations have been predicting for some time that the U.S. will surrender its position as the exceptional power—that state that others look to in a crisis because of its unique and longstanding ability to unite the world around a cause. The most well-known contribution to the American declinism narrative is Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000. Kennedy’s description of the interlocking economic and military strengths necessary for a state to achieve and preserve an ability to influence the world, attracted the interests of many who long for America’s decline. Although Kennedy published in 1987, before the end of the Cold War and certainly before China’s economic boom, he was prescient in predicting China’s rise in power.
In fact, Chinese officials have been gearing up for this challenge since 2006, after it became the second-largest economy in the world. Chinese ambitions took on added vim after the 2008 financial crisis, when the U.S. became the world’s largest debtor and China became a key holder of U.S. debt.
A world made in China’s image
While China certainly yearns for a shift in global power structures—and to be that country that states look to in a crisis—from a number of perspectives China’s structural components are not as desirable as the U.S.’ tried and tested ones. Even in those areas where China has a strategic advantage, in for example, its “mask diplomacy,” because it is the world’s largest producer of medical equipment, China ultimately failed. Contrary to what its congratulatory state media broadcast about Chinese generosity, China actually sent faulty test kits and profited handsomely from its medical equipment sales.
Even China’s argument that its response to the virus was swift and superior may backfire, since most Western capitals have come to doubt China’s official numbers and worry about China’s “truth management.”
You Can’t always get what you want
Rather than enhance its influence in the world, covid-19 may ultimately reduce China’s power on the world stage. Countries in Europe that were less willing to be openly critical, in part for fear of retribution, have begun to express concern over Beijing’s narrative of its handling of the crisis and have even begun to reduce their dependence on Chinese manufacturing and supply chains. In an age when a virus can stall economies, overwhelm excellent health systems and kill tens of thousands of their citizens, leaders in Western Europe have come to realize that they cannot depend on an autocratic China.
It could turn out that China’s reading of Kennedy’s analysis is as wrong as Osama Bin Laden’s (who wanted to bait the U.S. into exhaustion). Without cherry-picking arguments, a wholistic view of Kennedy’s line of reasoning includes an observation that the U.S. is an atypical power that could reinvigorate itself through the quality of its future choices. One clear choice that Kennedy stressed was an essential element to America’s continued prominence was to avoid lapsing into protectionism or isolationism.
Combining Power with High Purpose
In 1945, the United States, along with other founding members of the United Nations, believed a global health component to the new international organization was indispensable. The WHO was charged with showing compassion for all human beings and promoting sustainable approaches to health at a global level.
While it is true today the WHO needs reform, like most large international organizations over time, it is also true that it remains the only body that can coordinate across dozens of countries and that it continues to fulfill critical missions that cannot be replaced or replicated by any one country alone. The lack of a global health organization makes all countries less safe.
It also makes sense for powerful countries to help others in their health security and to unite the globe behind solutions in times of crisis. That is what the WHO was designed to do, whatever its current inability to weather the propaganda storm between the U.S. and China. Stopping payment to the WHO makes the U.S. and the world less safe. Hopefully, someone in Trump’s administration will be able to persuade the president that continuing to lead the world in health security is not only a global interest but an American interest as well.