By Michael Auslin, courtesy of the Mercatus Center
The COVID-19 pandemic that began in Wuhan, China, has led to a sharp intensification in tensions between the United States and China. With clear evidence that Beijing covered up the extent and nature of the epidemic in its early months, using the World Health Organization (WHO) to mislead the world, the Chinese government has struck back through a global propaganda campaign designed to boost China’s image. Its “wolf warrior” diplomacy, employed by Chinese bureaucrats to intimidate and browbeat both the United States and other nations, has revealed a threatening picture of China that runs counter to its efforts to present a benign face to the world in the face of its seemingly inexorable rise.
The new cold war between Washington and Beijing, however, has not been limited to rhetorical salvoes. The Trump administration has expanded its rebalancing policy that began with levying tariffs on Chinese goods. In May, President Trump took steps to block sales of semiconductor chips to Chinese telecom company Huawei, and the administration is discussing other policies to “decouple” the US from the Chinese economy. In concert with Japan and Australia, the Trump administration also established the Blue Dot Network in late 2019, to promote transparent infrastructure funding throughout Eurasia, in direct competition with Beijing’s One Belt, One Road Initiative (OBOR).
Further, the Defense Department has maintained regular freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, conducting two in May alone in an attempt to counter the expansion of China’s military presence in those vital waters. In June, the US Indo-Pacific Command sent several aircraft carriers and their strike groups to patrol different areas in the Pacific Ocean simultaneously. The administration is also moving to redress American vulnerabilities exploited by the Chinese Communist Party, by announcing that it will cancel the US visas of Chinese graduate students and researchers with ties to the Chinese military. In the latest flare-up between the two nations, Washington is mulling ending Hong Kong’s special trading status in response to Beijing’s imposition of a new national security law on the territory, effectively ending its autonomous status.
All this geopolitical jockeying raises questions not merely about the future path of US-China relations, but about China’s global position once the pandemic passes. Under the leadership of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping, Beijing has dramatically expanded its global footprint through global military deployments and OBOR, drawing widespread scrutiny of its actions. Since coming to power in late 2012, Xi has eschewed former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s well-known “hide and bide” strategy and formally announced his goal of making China a leading, if not the dominant, global power.
Until the coronavirus hit, China seemed well on its way to solidifying its global influence. Magnifying claims that Washington was withdrawing from the international stage, Xi portrayed a more powerful China in areas such as artificial intelligence and 5G, a blue-water navy, and economic institutions such as the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the like. At the same time, however, China’s economic growth rate was slowing, diplomatic tensions with many of its neighbors were worsening, and criticism of Xi’s crackdown on civil society revealed a China facing numerous challenges. China appeared both stronger than ever before, while also facing serious problems that raised questions about its future.
The sheer scale and severity of the Wuhan disaster clearly took Xi and the leadership by surprise. A bungled initial response was followed by an apparently draconian lockdown of society. That alone would have raised questions about China’s governance model, public health, and economic viability, providing a very different picture than the one Beijing carefully curated over the past decades. Once the pandemic spread around the world, and it became known that Beijing was aware of human-to-human transmission weeks before it informed the WHO, a very different, and more malign, image of China arose around the world.
Despite Beijing’s propaganda push, many nations began to question their vulnerabilities, not only to public health dangers originating in China, but to supply chain disruptions and dependency on China for their basic medical supplies and medicines. Nations such as Australia and India called for international commissions to find out how the pandemic started and spread, angering Beijing. Once it was revealed that millions of pieces of Chinese medical equipment bought by foreign nations was defective or substandard, China’s reputation as a trustworthy trade partner and high-quality producer was severely tarnished.
Meanwhile, China’s second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks has forced it to lock down other cities and provinces and severely undermined its claim to have responded effectively to the pandemic. In short, countries around the globe are now raising questions that had rarely been asked about China’s growth model, governance, and production quality.
Of course, some nations have continued to support Beijing, mostly those dependent on it for financial support or trade. Weakened economies, like Italy and Serbia, along with longtime dependents like Pakistan, praised Beijing’s response to the coronavirus. Others, however, have questioned their growing ties with China. For example, Great Britain, now seems likely to reverse an earlier decision to allow Huawei to build part of its 5G network.
The result is a mixed bag, but one that is largely negative for China. Whether or not Washington and Beijing settle into a long-term cold war, the days of expecting a cooperative relationship between the two are over, and the CCP’s relations with foreign countries—from Australia to the UK to India—are under scrutiny. Beijing’s recent imposition of a new national security law in Hong Kong, bypassing the elected Legislative Council, also revealed its disregard for democratic traditions and its willingness to abrogate international agreements.
Fears about China’s rise that had been subordinated to assumptions about the benefits of trade have been openly voiced, with Great Britain reassessing ties after the coronavirus pandemic and India once again enmeshed in military jockeying with China along their disputed border in the Himalayas. Perhaps most importantly, nations around the globe are exploring how to prudently rebalance their relations with China, reducing their vulnerabilities, countering the CCP’s propaganda, and responding to Beijing’s attempts to undermine free speech inside their societies or threaten adverse economic actions over political differences.
The world is just entering this new era of relations with Beijing. Finding the appropriate balance will take time and undoubtedly involve steps both forward and backward. Overreaction could indeed spark either political confrontation or severe economic dislocation, but most countries no longer consider ignoring Beijing’s abuse of international norms to be a viable option. The unsettled nature of Beijing’s relations with the world will define international politics over the next decade or longer. While the ultimate shape of those ties cannot currently be discerned, we are likely to see a growing distance between China and liberal nations, and the intensification of competition between them for influence around the globe.
Michael Auslin is the Payson J. Treat Distinguished Research Fellow in Contemporary Asia at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and the author of the newly released Asia’s New Geopolitics.