The latest plot twist is a stunner in our ongoing global drama, “Major Power Struggle in the Era of Coronavirus.”
President Xi Jinping, who just days ago seemed to have been put on the ropes by this killer pathogen, appears to have turned the tables on the disease, his critics, and his ideological adversaries. Some initially thought the virus might even cost him his job.
Instead, his authoritarian colossus, the People’s Republic of China, is rapidly leveraging its position of being the first country to emerge from the worst of the COVID-19. To be sure, China is still suffering its biggest economic hit since the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, with still incalculable damage to growth, industrial production and its role in global supply chains.
Yet with head-spinning speed, President Xi is revving up his stalled economy with fiscal stimulus and is tightening the screws of his authoritarian surveillance state with new technologies. He is ramping up a domestic and international publicity campaign, trumpeting his triumph over the virus and donning the garb of the global champion working to protect others.
At the same time, Chinese authorities are taking aim at the United States by tossing its top journalists out of Beijing, by wooing American allies from Tokyo and Rome in common cause, and by contrasting its perhaps draconian approach to COVID-19 to that of President Trump.
“China can pull together the imagination and courage needed to handle the virus, while the US struggles,” trumpeted the People’s Daily, the Communist party mouthpiece. Xinhua news agency claimed that Xi’s handling of the crisis has demonstrated his “pure heart, like a newborn’s.”
Pure heart or not, Xi is demonstrating an iron will. This week he stepped up threatening flights near Taiwan, a warning that he won’t abide any move toward independence.
In the latest incident on Monday, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said it scrambled air reconnaissance and patrol aircraft to drive away Chinese J-11 fighters and KJ-500 early warning aircraft on nighttime missions.
The not-so-hidden message to Washington: We know from our experience how long this virus will drain you and distract you from your external obligations. You also have your messy elections to manage. What better time than now to demonstrate to the world the advantages of China’s system and embrace?
Meanwhile, COVID-19’s epicenter has moved to Europe – where this week Italy surpassed China in the number of fatalities. It has spread in the United States to all 50 states, prompting an economic shutdown that could make the 2008-2009 financial crisis seem mild by comparison.
It’s hard to engage in long-term strategic thinking about the neighborhood when your house is burning. However, the Trump administration needs to do precisely that. U.S. policy makers need to wake up to the geopolitical perils of the coronavirus crisis.
American global leadership has enjoyed a wide measure of acceptance not only because of military power or economic might. It also was perceived by its partners as defending larger, common interests and for convening global coalitions when required.
It was precisely that brand of leadership that characterized the U.S. response to the financial crisis of 2008-2009. Even so, that crisis shattered much of the world’s confidence in the United States’ financial leadership. Mismanaging the coronavirus could accelerate further the end of the American era.
“Beijing understands that if it is seen as leading, and Washington is seen as unable or unwilling to do so,” write Kurt M. Campbell and Rush Doshi in Foreign Affairs, “this perception could fundamentally alter the United States’ position in global politics and the contest for leadership in the twenty-first century.”
The authors in this must-read analysis remind us that global orders change gradually at first and then all at once. “In 1956,” they remind us, “a botched intervention in the Suez laid bare the decay in British power and marked the end of the United Kingdom’s reign as a global power.”
So how do United States policy makers avoid their own “Suez moment?”
My column last week offered a starting point. It suggested that President Trump, instead of introducing a European travel ban unilaterally March 11, should have triggered NATO’s Article 5 for the second time in history. That is the provision, crafted to deter the Soviet Union, that an attack on one member should be treated as an attack on all.
Overly literal readers of that column argued such a response was either ill-advised because it would militarize U.S. response or impossible, as Article 5 was designed for response to an “armed attack.” What both arguments missed was the symbolic significance of such a declaration, as was the case when Article 5 was triggered by U.S. allies after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
That’s particularly true given current transatlantic divisions.
Even if NATO could muster such political will, it would still be insufficient. As the current chairman of the G-7, the United States could convene a “Coalition Countering COVID-19” that would rally the seven leading industrial democracies, the European Union, NATO and, perhaps most importantly, the G-20.
It would thus also involve China as a central and collaborative actor against a common foe.
Yet no other country, including China, has the wherewithal to summon that sort of global response. Failing to do so would further erode U.S. legitimacy as a global leader, a position already damaged through trade wars with its allies and the failure to join galvanizing projects from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Accords.
The need is all the greater given Europe’s fragmented response even as the virus rages, with the significant exception of European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde’s rallying this week of eurozone central bankers.
“European solidarity does not exist,” Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic
on his national television as he announced his country’s state of emergency. “That was a fairy tale on paper. I believe in my brother and friend Xi Jinping, and I believe in Chinese help.”
We’re only in the opening scenes of this epic COVID-19 drama, which will continue without intermission. The Chinese rebound could prove to be a welcome twist in the plot.
Imagine the far-happier ending, however, if the United States and its allies manage to join forces globally even as they isolate socially.
Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper’s European edition. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week’s top stories and trends.
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