International affairs is not unfamiliar with non-traditional security risks. We have all spent years planning contingency plans for sudden developments such as a pandemic. Yet, despite all of the effort and time spent, the COVID-19 Pandemic still left the world woefully unaware.
There are many important implications for the U.S. and China relationship, including the lessons learned from the pathetic handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 is a COVID-19 that has both damaged international institutions and boosted the power of nation governments. The WHO should have responded to the COVID-19 crisis much sooner than it did. National governments are now the best way to protect their citizens. We are seeing the return to absolute leadership of the national state in international politics, both on the global pandemic as well as the slowing economic recovery. It is worth paying attention to this phenomenon, as COVID-19 has given the state new power and the potential for new intrusions into society. This includes new surveillance technology that was previously reserved for authoritarian political system. These implications are not only for China but for all democracies worldwide.
The rise in nationalism is a byproduct of these growing powers of the state. This nationalism has primarily taken two forms: “COVID nationalism” and “vaccine nationalism.” With people around the world looking to their national and provincial governments for confidence and security, the consequence is that societies turn inward and become more guarded, more selfish, less globally-oriented, and more nationalist. This is also evident in the global obscenity in vaccine distribution. In this system, vaccines are distributed in an uncoordinated manner, often without regard to human needs and driven by foreign policy imperatives. The losers from vaccine nationalism are the most vulnerable, who have fallen off the world’s political radar screen.
COVID-19 is also having a devastating effect on the world economy. Economists are still measuring this, in terms of lost production, economic “scarring”—particularly on employment—and a burgeoning and re-legitimized protectionism as global supply chains have failed on distributing both PPE and vaccines. For example, America’s workforce is 8.5 million people smaller than 12 months ago. These are just a few examples of the economic impacts of job loss. In 2020, global foreign direct investments also declined 35 percent. Although around two thirds of this loss were recovered by 2021, recovery has been uneven. Many economies across the globe are facing the same challenging picture.
COVID-19, which has also accelerated pre-existing strategic dynamic between China and America, has made the relationship more difficult than it was before. COVID-19 was a chance for global leadership and bilateral cooperation. Both the governments fell apart. Instead, Beijing went into political hyper-drive to try and prevent being blamed for the original outbreak in Wuhan so as to protect the party’s political legitimacy at home and abroad. As for Trump’s interest in dealing effectively with the pandemic, either at home or abroad: the less said the better. However, the failure to coordinate bilateral public health efforts in the middle of a real global crisis was not only tragic but it could have been avoided. The global community worked together in the G20, under the direction of Barack Obama and George W. Bush, thirteen years ago when the financial crisis hit. This approach was successful in large part. It’s a shame that we have abandoned both the political spirit as well as the vital public policy machinery, which was used so efficiently just over 10 years ago.
The last aspect of the crisis facing us is the question: What kind of world emerged from the public, health and economic ashes of COVID-19? China has taken a tough stance against COVID-19 and implemented a zero tolerance policy. China is the UN’s 193 member country with a total strategy for virus suppression and elimination. While there was some debate within Beijing over whether it is still a realistic, cost-effective strategy in the face of the rise of new viruses, the Chinese leadership has so far resisted any attempt to change their policy. The outcome of this will affect how the rest world engages with China. The future of travel, diplomacy and business is all at stake here. It is also a question of hardening mindsets, as China cuts itself off from the rest of the world and runs a risk of becoming a second “hermit kingdom” similar to North Korea. We do not know yet the full consequences of China’s self-isolation on how Beijing now views the world, and how the rest of the world views Beijing. But it’s certainly not going to help.
Isolation will also serve to underscore the radical differences between the two countries’ competing political ideologies and systems. While the Communist Party claims that virus suppression is evidence of the superiority and effectiveness of its system in 2021, it ignores its failures to contain the virus at its source in 2020 when there was still time. This happened because the local officials were afraid of being retaliated from the top. However, freedom-loving West is generally fumbling in their efforts to suppress one variant after the other. Gordon Brown reminded us recently that neither China nor West seems to be able to grasp the fundamental fact that all mutations are possible. We must also inoculate and contain COVID-19 both in the developed and developing worlds.
Therefore, the repercussions of COVID-19 on global politics and the economy are very real. As we witness the return of the state and rising appeal of nationalalism, as well as the discrediting global institutions, this is causing the largest setbacks in global poverty reduction for decades. This has resulted in the U.S. and China relations being at their lowest level for half a century.
Today, it is a decade in which we live dangerously. China and America should therefore learn from their past mistakes and create new diplomatic structures to better manage their strategic rivalry, allow effective dialogue and facilitate collaboration in handling future viral mutations.