Will China seize the day?

Dr Kurt M. Campbell, who was, amongst many other things, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Obama administration where he was widely credited as being the architect of the “pivot to Asia,” and Dr Rush Doshi, who is the director China Strategy Initiative at the Brookings Institution, argue, in an article in Foreign Affairs, that “With hundreds of millions of people now isolating themselves around the world, the novel coronavirus pandemic has become a truly global event. And while its geopolitical implications should be considered secondary to matters of health and safety, those implications may, in the long term, prove just as consequential—especially when it comes to the United States’ global position … [because, as they explain] …  Global orders have a tendency to change gradually at first and then all at once … [for example] … In 1956, 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 … [and] …  Today, U.S. policymakers should recognize that if the United States does not rise to meet the moment, the coronavirus pandemic could mark another “Suez moment.”

The authors opine that “It is now clear to all but the most blinkered partisans that Washington has botched its initial response. Missteps by key institutions, from the White House and the Department of Homeland Security to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have undermined confidence in the capacity and competence of U.S. governance. Public statements by President Donald Trump, whether Oval Office addresses or early-morning tweets, have largely served to sow confusion and spread uncertainty. Both public and private sectors have proved ill-prepared to produce and distribute the tools necessary for testing and response. And internationally, the pandemic has amplified Trump’s instincts to go it alone and exposed just how unprepared Washington is to lead a global response.” I agree with that assessment and I would only add that: Singapore and Taiwan seem, to me, to be the gold standard for national responses and Canada’s political response was and still is, confused and half-hearted at the federal level and was, finally, kicked into action by a few provincial premiers.

At the grand strategic level, Drs Campbell and Doshi explain, “The status of the United States as a global leader over the past seven decades has been built not just on wealth and power but also, and just as important, on the legitimacy that flows from the United States’ domestic governance, provision of global public goods, and ability and willingness to muster and coordinate a global response to crises. The coronavirus pandemic is testing all three elements of U.S. leadership. So far, Washington is failing the test.” I would argue that Xi Jinping’s China failed those same tests, and failed them even more miserably, but an aggressive and effective (albeit dishonest) Chinese propaganda (information warfare) regime coupled with media that, Screen Shot 2020-03-21 at 07.53.56in the ‘free’ world (especially Asia, Europe and North America), is, broadly, anti-Trump, means that China is perceived to be the ‘better’ world leader. I’m not 25844arguing that President Trump’s response was, in any way, even adequate ~ he and Prime Minister Trudeau are, in my opinion, tied for bottom-of-the-barrel ~ in political terms, in 2013 and 2015, both the Canadian Liberals and US Republicans really did choose from way down there.

But, as Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi say, very correctly, “As Washington falters, Beijing is moving quickly and adeptly to take advantage of the opening created by U.S. mistakes, filling the vacuum to position itself as the global leader in pandemic response. It is working to tout its own system, provide material assistance to other countries, and even organize other governments. The sheer chutzpah of China’s move is hard to overstate. After all, it was Beijing’s own missteps—especially its efforts at first to cover up the severity and spread of the outbreak—that helped create the very crisis now afflicting much of the world. Yet Beijing understands that if it is seen as leading, and Washington is seen as unable or unwilling to do so, this perception could fundamentally alter the United States’ position in global politics and the contest for leadership in the twenty-first century.

After recounting the truly horrible story of how China responded to the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, the authors say, again correctly, that “Even though life in China has yet to return to normal (and despite continuing questions over the accuracy of China’s statistics), Beijing is working to turn these early signs of success into a larger narrative to broadcast to the rest of the world—one that makes China the essential player in a coming global recovery while airbrushing away its earlier mismanagement of the crisis.” It takes two things to pull off that kind of public relation coup: real chutzpah and, in the West, a willing audience, especially in the media. The article goes on to explain that, “A critical part of this narrative is Beijing’s supposed success in battling the virus. A steady stream of propaganda articles, tweets, and public messaging, in a wide variety of languages, touts China’s achievements and highlights the effectiveness of its model of domestic governance … [which has been part of the Chinese propaganda narrative since Xi Jinping took power in 2013] … “China’s signature strength, efficiency and speed in this fight has been widely acclaimed,” declared Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian. China, he added, set “a new standard for the global efforts against the epidemic.” Central authorities have instituted tight informational control and discipline at state organs to snuff out contradictory narratives … [and Drs Campbell and Doshi say] … These messages are helped by the implicit contrast with efforts to battle the virus in the West, particularly in the United States—Washington’s failure to produce adequate numbers of testing kits, which means the United States has tested relatively few people per capita, or the Trump administration’s ongoing disassembly of the U.S. government’s pandemic-response infrastructure. Beijing has seized the narrative opportunity provided by American disarray, its state media and diplomats regularly reminding a global audience of the superiority of Chinese efforts and criticizing the “irresponsibility and incompetence” of the “so-called political elite in Washington,” as the state-run Xinhua news agency put it in an editorial … [and, in the sort of thing that would make Goebbels proud] … Chinese officials and state media have even insisted that the coronavirus did not in fact emerge from China—despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary—in order to reduce China’s blame for the global pandemic. This effort has elements of a full-blown Russian-style disinformation campaign, with China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman and over a dozen diplomats sharing poorly sourced articles accusing the U.S. military of spreading the coronavirus in Wuhan … [the authors suggest that] … These actions, combined with China’s unprecedented mass expulsion of journalists from three leading American papers, damage China’s pretensions to leadership,” but I am not so sure. The deep divisions in Western society, especially here in North America, almost guarantee that ⅓ to ½ of all Americans and Canadians are ready to believe the worst about their current government and its leaders and, therefore, are equally ready to believe Chinese propaganda.

The authors explain the problem that the US-led West faces because it is too dependent on China for manufactured goods. We, Americans, Australians, Brits, Canadians, Danes and other Europans are unwilling to pay the high costs that goods made in Canada or Denmark would demand if they were made here and there, by local labour working under our existing wage and standards regimes. But we are happy to buy essentially the same item at Walmart or Costco if it is sold cheaply because it is made in China where wages are low and working conditions are unsafe. The end result is that President Trump, for example, is using the Defence Production Act to “compel American companies to suspend their normal production schedules and begin manufacturing particular materials needed in a time of crisis … [whihc, in this case, means that] … the administration can work with companies to ramp up production of protective gear needed by health professionals on the front lines of the pandemic.” Justin Trudeau has followed suit and his “government has announced a plan to help Canadian companies ramp up production of medical supplies needed to handle the COVID-19 pandemic.” Other countries, like Italy, are appropriately grateful when China sends tons of medical supplies … foreign aid, of a sort but it helps China to cement a growing commercial relationship with Italy.

China’s chief asset in its pursuit of global leadership – in the face of the coronavirus and more broadly – is the perceived inadequacy and inward focus of U.S. policy,” the authors claim, and they add that “The ultimate success of China’s pursuit, therefore, will depend as much on what happens in Washington as on what happens in Beijing. In the current crisis, Washington can still turn the tide if it proves capable of doing what is expected of a leader: managing the problem at home, supplying global public goods, and coordinating a global response.”

And, Drs Campbell and Doshi conclude, hopefully, that “Ultimately, the coronavirus might even serve as a wake-up call, spurring progress on other global challenges requiring U.S.-Chinese cooperation, such as climate change. Such a step should not be seen—and would not be seen by the rest of the world—as a concession to Chinese power. Rather, it would go some way toward restoring faith in the future of U.S. leadership. In the current crisis, as in geopolitics today more generally, the United States can do well by doing good.

But asserting traditionally generous American leadership does not seem, to me, to be america-first-720President Trump’s style. Even in the midst of a global crisis, he seems hell-bent on asserting ‘America First‘ in all things. He is, I think, even b083fe955fbe193af43114less inclined to work with China on other global issues … he is, I believe, an instinctive isolationist and his appeal is to a very large minority of Americans who want to retreat back into Fortress America and stay there. If he does that then I think Kurt Campbell’s and Rush Doshi’s worst fears will come true.

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