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Foreign Policy

Strategic Wrangling Amid Coronavirus Epidemic

Mar 11 , 2020
  • Tian Feilong

    Associate Professor, the Law School of Beihang University

The COVID-19 outbreak is an extraordinary incident that affects both global trade and world history.

For China, the inception of the “new era” has been full of challenges. From the trade war with the United States that began in 2018 to extended protests in Hong Kong against an extradition bill, and then elections in Taiwan and the ongoing coronavirus epidemic, the country has absorbed consecutive blows. Its participation in global governance, its “one country, two systems” concept and its domestic governance practices have been tested.

From the perspective of a new Cold War between China and the U.S. or the so-called Thucydides trap, every test has either been actively planned or promoted by the U.S. or been taken advantage of by it. American strategic behavior has always been oriented toward obstruction of China’s national rejuvenation and its building of a community of shared future for humanity.

The outbreak of the current epidemic has also been politicized and utilized by the U.S. Rather than understanding and cooperating with China, it has increased the ferocity of its strategic wrangling.    

Since the start of the epidemic, the positions of both the American public and government have reflected hostility.

First, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been consistent in his “iron curtain mission.” He seems adamant about creating an effect similar to Winston Churchill’s mobilization for the Cold War; he misses no occasion to smear China, preventing countries, especially Western allies, from in-depth cooperation with China.

Second, anti-China legislation has been proceeding apace through the U.S. Congress, with the latest — the Taipei Act of 2019 — further violating Chinese sovereign rights and challenging the political foundation of China-U.S. diplomatic relations.

Third, the U.S. reacted excessively to the coronavirus outbreak by restricting travel and trade, inspiring other countries to follow suit. This was inconsistent with the World Health Organization’s concrete policy advice given when it designated the outbreak a matter of international concern, as well as with WHO policy recommendations about nondiscrimination and global epidemic control cooperation.

Fourth, the U.S. media’s politicized analysis and attacks on China have been out of line — from the Wall Street Journal calling China the “sick man of Asia” to The New York Times labeling the Chinese approach to epidemic control as “authoritarian.” The distorted characterization sof Chinese endeavors by U.S. media have both reflected their own values and confirmed their readers’ prejudices.

Fifth, conspiracy theories on the origin of the virus that attack China and mislead public opinion have directly damaged China’s national interests and image, and prevented the two countries from effective collaboration in controlling the epidemic.

U.S. hostility is also reflected in its negative anticipation of the epidemic’s impact on the Chinese economy. U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross openly stated that the suspension of production in China and reduced trade will help return manufacturing and jobs to the U.S. This is a kind of zero-sun strategic thinking, not the rational, cooperative thinking that’s in line with globalization.

One can sense the unspoken U.S. expectation that the Chinese economy will rapidly recede and delink from global industrial chains as a result of the epidemic, which happens to facilitate the accomplishment of the fundamental strategic purpose of the trade war the U.S. initiated. However, its wishful thinking reflects a logic that is completely static, selfish and non-globalized. It seriously underestimates and misunderstands the size and structural resilience of the Chinese economy, as well as its deep interconnection with global industrial chains.

The epidemic and consequent reaction of the global economy have not developed as the U.S. anticipated.

First, while the epidemic started in Wuhan, Hubei Province, it has rapidly globalized. Europe and the U.S. have become new coronavirus centers.

The success of China’s epidemic control has provided a unprecedented basis for economic growth after the world health returns to normal. The ruling party’s achievement-based legitimacy, the desire of businesses for survival and people’s diligence constitute a powerful basis for Chinese economic recovery.

Second, the economy and stock markets in the U.S. are suffering because of the epidemic. The Trump administration’s “economy first” and “elections first” strategies are evolving into real public panic over the epidemic and government credibility crisis.

Third, the Chinese mode of epidemic control and its fine cooperation with the WHO as well as its composure and orderliness in helping overseas epidemic control are rapidly winning respect and trust from the international community.

With corresponding cooperation on epidemic control and industrial cooperation promoting one another, mutually beneficial connections between the Chinese and other global economies are improving like never before.

Fourth, global capital is showing a trend toward pluralism. Stimulated by the epidemic, some have chosen to withdraw and evade risks; others have ventured in, optimistically anticipating powerful rebounds after the epidemic. They are generally rational about the short-term frustration and long-term prospect of the Chinese economy.

From an objective point of view, as the epidemic globalizes and the global economy suffers, Western countries’ reliance on the Chinese economy and market will deepen.

The U.S. attempt to take advantage of the epidemic and accelerate decoupling with China may very well achieve the opposite:

China has coordinated epidemic control and is resumig production. It has preserved basic productive capacity, encouraged new capacity related to epidemic control, optimized the economic structure and comparative advantages of export trade and maintained strong overall economic vitality.

Second, China’s policies on reorientating production have cultivated powerful manufacturing capacity,  from face masks to protective gear, medical equipment and technical anti-epidemic systems.

All of these may become new growth points in foreign aid and export, thus providing powerful support for the overseas expansion and radiation of Chinese hard and soft power.

Third, Europe may sink into economic recession because of the epidemic. China-Europe economic cooperation will see an unprecedented array of mutual needs and opportunities. In-depth cooperation in such fields as 5G may break the U.S. strategic siege and achieve gradual breakthroughs. China-Europe economic integration may also mean a reconciliation between Europe and Russia and rejuvenation of the pan-Eurasia continental economic order.

Fourth under the phase one China-U.S. trade deal, a rational “anti-decoupling” consensus and motivation for action may emerge in the U.S. business community to counter the Cold War-style extremism of strategic hawks in the U.S.  

To sum up, the novel coronavirus outbreak is a significant challenge for Chinese national and global governance, and will inevitably yield further complex impacts on China-U.S. relations.

But the U.S. has taken unfair advantage of the epidemic to decouple from and contain China. Some discriminatory remarks and even physical attacks have occurred in the U.S.

Judging from the advantages of the Chinese system in mobilizing the response to the epidemic, together with its achievements in epidemic control and contributions to the global fight against the epidemic, Chinese national governance may see some strict self-scrutiny and improvements.

The Chinese ability to participate in global governance will see a structural upgrade. Mutual dependence between the Chinese and global economies will rebound and expand.

The U.S. zero-sum game under Cold War thinking has failed to resonate with its allies, much less damage the Chinese economic and political regimes. Starting with the Chinese fight against the epidemic, with the structural improvements in economic and governance interaction between China and the rest of the world making breakthroughs, the third decade of the 21st century will feature profound changes in the global order. When it comes to China-U.S. relations, the more stable and developed China is, the more trusted it will become with the international community, and the most important bilateral relationship in the world may be more easily preserved.   

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