By Hamdan Khan*
The transitioning world order is not a debatable streak anymore and the liberal world order led by the liberal hegemon has almost met its preordained fate. In this new era of great power competition, the status quo power United States of America (USA) has found a perfect revisionist nemesis in China which – after making dramatic economic rise during the past three decades – asserts its due prominence and demands substantial role in the international system. Although the geostrategic competition between the two giants was already unfolding in various spheres, the outbreak of COVID-19 again pitted the two giants in a direct confrontation, and this time the USA has found its traditional allies – which were earlier circumspect in confronting China – standing alongside.
Notwithstanding the fact that the highly contagious virus does not distinguish among its victims and has flattered the humanity as a whole, the vicious reality of power politics stormed in to undeniably overshadow if not overwhelm the global response to the pandemic.
The trade of barbs between China and its peer, the USA did not accompany the outbreak. In fact, after China announced the outbreak and later imposed a lockdown – categorized by West as “draconian” – to contain the spread, President Trump was all praise for his Chinese counterpart and the government for their dealing with the novel virus. Despite the media reports about the initial missteps by the local government of Wuhan and amidst allegations that the country may have attempted a cover-up in the early phase and is withholding information which may have allowed the infection to spread throughout the world, alarm bells did not ring in the Western capitals. Arguably, it was the period when the First World had yet to see a massive outbreak of their own and a few of them might have been amused to watch the “biggest economic miracle” of the 21st century meet its own fate.
The conjectured amusement did not last too long and thanks to globalization, the virus took weeks to reach Europe. As the First World stood oblivious and unprepared to tackle such a prodigious crisis, the disastrous aftermath was always on the cards. The virus raged through Europe killing thousands and ultimately wreaked havoc in the USA which to date is the primary hit.
As the Western countries started facing the brunt, the praise for China’s actions abruptly changed into reproach calling out the country for its initial cover-up and withholding of information. Interestingly, none other than President Trump himself – the person who had praised China’s response just weeks before – led the assault with his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo categorized as “face” of the USA’s tough approach towards China by China Global Television Network (CGTN). The blame-game soon turned into a vicious information war to control the narrative about the COVID-19; ultimately, leading towards the pressures of economic repercussions and demeaning each other in the crudest way possible, for all intents and purposes constituting a virtual “Cold War”.
Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 outbreak was initially mishandled by China and the country’s contagion outbreak detection system – developed in the aftermath of the SARS outbreak in 2003 – failed to detect the outbreak in its initial phase. To add is the complex nature of the Chinese bureaucratic model whose representatives in Wuhan – possibly to avoid political instability – reprimanded and muzzled the doctor who initially reported cases of a pneumonia-like disease in December 2019. Nonetheless, as the spread became overwhelmingly palpable, the authoritarian Chinese government swung into action and imposed brutal lockdowns, which at the end became the primary reason for the country’s obvious victory over the virus.
As China was able to significantly control the menace at home, it embarked upon “health diplomacy” which consist of dispatching relief, medical equipment, and assistance to some of the worst sufferers of the pandemic. Shrewdly, China was trying to fill the void created by the US withdrawal and the recipients of aid did not hesitate to shower their “Chinese friends” with praise and gratitude.
The US Federal Government’s response, on the other hand, was lacklustre and lethargic. President Trump initially downplayed the threat; next, he peddled dubious and unverified medical treatments to the virus; following were the spats of President with his own governors and finally, he tried to dodge the responsibility. Devoid of leadership at the federal level and without a coherent plan to combat the virus, the US health system faced overwhelming setbacks and casualties till now has touched 77,000 which President Trump fears reaching as high as 100,000.
However, humanitarian loss is only one aspect and economic devastation caused by the virus is even overpowering. The US economy shrank by 4.8% in the first quarter of 2020 and is estimated to contract by 11% in 2020 while the unemployment rate has reached as high as 14.7% – economic demolition not seen since the great depression.
A devastated economy – as opposed to a robust one, which President Trump would have marketed to win a second term in the office – is a nightmarish scenario for the Republican incumbent. Amidst his declining popularity at home, President Trump intensified his attacks on China calling the COVID-19 as “Chinese virus” and peddled unsubstantiated theories that the COVID-19 was leaked from a Chinese lab – a claim even contradicted by his own intelligence community and members of Five Eye intelligence-sharing partnership. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo also touted the virus leakage theory – only to backtrack later on – joining President Trump and both the high-ranking officials claimed that they have seen evidence to the claim. Regardless of China’s own initial shortcomings to deal with the virus, the mudslinging by President Trump and his top foreign policy aide clearly had any angle of safeguarding the declining popularity of GOP by finding a scapegoat abroad.
Imitating the response of their ally across the Atlantic, European countries at the outset also downplayed the threat and approached the calamity without apt preparation marked by overconfidence and procrastination. Resultantly, Europe became the second epicentre of the pandemic with the United Kingdom leading the count with thousands of deaths.
The initial reaction in Europe was also anti-China flare-up and as opposed to the past – when the Western countries used to maintain an equilibrium between the USA and China and evaded directly confronting China – this time the USA found cronies among its traditional allies in Europe against China. The criticism of China’s initial mishandling of the virus only softened after it lobbied extensively in European Union and pressurized some members to account positively about its COVID-19 response.
Australia – another US ally and exporting about 38% of its products to China – joined the party and called for an inquiry into the outbreak of COVID-19; a call that regularly reverberates in the Western press also along with demands of compensation from China for the damage caused by the virus.
The intense information campaign was then augmented by calls for economic coercion. As the fate of phase one trade deal between China and the USA hanged in limbo, President Trump threatened to cancel the strenuously reached contract if China does not abide by its promises – a condition which China may not be able to meet given the slowness of its economy by the virus. Furthermore, a proposal to cancel the US debt obligations of US$1.1 trillion towards China was also discussed in White House prompting Chinese media to impart the USA about the repercussion of such a move.
In response, China’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomats also did not mince words and departing from their traditional way of conducting diplomacy in a circumspect and calculated way, pushed hard against the West for trying to “demean China”. The unusually aggressive Chinese diplomatic behaviour was surprising for many and conveyed the impression that China may be offhandedly repudiating the Deng Xiaoping dictum of “hide your strength and bide your time”. Chinese State media resorted to derision for the countries criticizing and questioning China’s initial response, and personal attacks were made against the high-ranking US officials. Some of their diplomats based in the Western countries – who recently flooded the twitter with their presence – attracted the ire of their hosts owing to their reckless comments. Lijian Zhao – a deputy spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs – went as far as to peddle a conspiracy theory that COVID-19 may have been brought by the US Army to Wuhan – an observation that would earn him widespread criticism.
Shrewd business-oriented China also dragged-in the economics and Chinese Ambassador to Australia threatened to reconsider his country’s business relations with Australia if the later continues to push for the inquiry into the origins of the pandemic. These were the latest unveiled threats by China after intimidating some of the Western countries with “consequences” for their questioning of China’s human rights record.
On the face of it, China was augmenting medical aid with an aggressive diplomatic campaign and economic coercion, which in turn would benefit the beleaguered Xi regime to incite nationalist sentiments at home and thus, fortifying the domestic support base in the wake of the crisis, which irrefutably has dented the Chinese economy and has aggrieved masses. May be useful at home, the aggressive Chinese diplomatic blitz is damaging the country’s international standing and the carrot in the “health diplomacy” now seems to be overwhelmed by the stick in belligerent rhetoric and intimidation.
Undeniably, the COVID-19 crisis deepened the divisions between China and the West, especially the EU nations, and given the recently enlarged trust deficit, the relations between the deeply entangled economic partners may never restore to pre-COVID-19 state. With the USA, China is already engaged in a geostrategic tussle for global dominance, and “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy marked by aggression and bellicosity does not seem to be convincing wherewithal to woo the traditional allies of the geostrategic peer.
Undoubtedly, China has made remarkable rise during the past few decades and has virtually shaken the international system but it may be too early for China to acquire the wherewithal to act as a global hegemon. The USA may be in a retreat and the West may be facing a decline, but by virtue of globalization, the two sides are so deeply interconnected and interdependent that even a little downsizing of economic relations will be more devastating for China than the West. The trade war with the USA already slowed the pace of Chinese economic growth and if a retrenchment happens with the West also, it will be business-oriented China taking most of the brunt.
China’s own geopolitical venture, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – disguised as a benign scheme focusing on geo-economics – is in its initial stage of implementation and China has yet to erect its own world order parallel to the liberal one led by the USA. China has certainly expanded its influence in the BRI host countries and there are bright prospects of BRI turning into a Chinese led bloc; but can those countries substantially compensate for the economic partnerships at this moment if a retrenchment vis-à-vis the West happens, remains a big question mark.
Given the aforementioned limitations of China with respect to its economic relationship with the West, a more preferable and prudent approach will be to deal with the Western criticism with unyielding but discreet diplomacy while maintaining the “fighting spirit”. Unveiled economic threats and insensitive derision for other countries – as opposed to the previously exercised policy of delicately balancing between diplomatic and economic relationship – will only result in a backlash, as happening in the current scenario. Resultantly, the Western world will turn even warier of China and the dragon’s aims to strengthen its economic relations and create space for itself into the Western tech market will receive jolting shocks. The resultant state of affairs will be in complete contrast to the liberal policy of engagement which the western world adopted towards China; ultimately leading towards China’s ascendance to the world stage and will effectively push the world on a path to de-globalization.
*Author’s Bio: Hamdan Khan is a Rawalakot (Pakistan Administered Kashmir) based security analyst.