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In the Post-Coronavirus World, Chinese Power Is Overrated

A global resurgence in national self-reliance might actually be a good thing for America’s place in the world.

A paramilitary police officer stands guard in front of a portrait of Mao Zedong at the Tiananmen Gate in Beijing on Jan. 28.
A paramilitary police officer stands guard in front of a portrait of Mao Zedong at the Tiananmen Gate in Beijing on Jan. 28. NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images
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EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here. You can also listen to our weekly coronavirus podcast, Don’t Touch Your Face, and subscribe to our newsletters here.

On March 18, U.S. President Donald Trump invoked the Korean War-era Defense Production Act, casting himself as a “wartime president” fighting for “total victory” against an “invisible enemy”: the new coronavirus. Two days earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron had issued his own declaration of war on the coronavirus. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s coronavirus war became personal when he himself entered the casualty lists, spending a week in the hospital. Political leaders in Australia, India, South Africa, South Korea, and of course China have also cast their response to the pandemic in decidedly martial terms. In Brazil, the legislature has even tried to force the country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, to declare war against his will.

All this talk of war inevitably raises questions about the shape of the postwar world. Analysts polled by Foreign Policy all agree that the coronavirus will bring big changes, but they hold widely divergent opinions about just what it will change. Perhaps not surprisingly, each one seems to believe that the world after the pandemic will be reshaped much in the same way they predicted or warned before the pandemic.

A recurring theme in coronavirus-induced geopolitical dystopianism is the failure of U.S. leadership coupled with the rise of China. Considering we’ve been told that the war in Iraq, the global financial crisis, and the election of Trump each marked the end of American global leadership, there must be very little American leadership left to lose. There is always the possibility that this time is different and the pundits are finally right, but there are strong reasons to believe it isn’t. When the world is running smoothly, friends take U.S. support for granted, and foes take advantage of that complacency. When the going gets tough, the world rediscovers just how important U.S. leadership is.

All this talk of war inevitably raises questions about the shape of the postwar world.

Global leadership is one of those diffuse concepts that is hard to pin down and thus beloved of commentators who hate to be pinned down. Get down to details, and leadership becomes much more tangible. Leadership in specific regions and on specific issues is much easier to grasp, examine, and evaluate. And, in the end, it’s only real-world places and problems that count. Practical power in the world’s most consequential policy domains is the stuff of which that fabled global leadership is composed.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

Looking at a map of the world, it’s easy to be alarmed by China’s coronavirus propaganda gains. They include places as far from Beijing as Ethiopia (where China plans to build a new home for the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention), Serbia (where President Aleksandar Vucic showed up at Belgrade’s airport to greet the arrival of donated Chinese health supplies) and Venezuela (where state food stores rely on Chinese imports for nearly half of their stock). Put these propaganda gains in economic perspective, and they recede into insignificance. All of these are marginally important economies in their corner of the world.

Take Africa, where China’s key partners are Ethiopia and Angola. Their economies are dwarfed by that of Africa’s economic giant, Nigeria, which is a firm security partner of the United States. Chinese investment has provoked a popular backlash in the continent’s second-largest economy, South Africa. These geopolitical fault lines have stood the twin tests of Ebola and the Boko Haram insurgency; they’re not going to shift as a result of the coronavirus. China may pick up a few poor, vulnerable, badly governed countries as allies, but the big prizes remain firmly attached to the broader U.S.-led international system.

Looking at a map of the world, it’s easy to be alarmed by China’s coronavirus propaganda gains.

It’s the same story in Eastern Europe. Serbia’s public embrace of China for investment, military exercises, and even police technologies has alarmed many European observers. Yet even as its political rhetoric faces east, Serbia maintains very strong security ties with the West. And Serbia is a relative minnow in Eastern Europe. Firm NATO allies such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, and Greece have economies that range from four times to 10 times the size of Serbia’s. And China has virtually no political presence in Latin America’s two giants, Brazil and Mexico, which together account for more than half of the region’s economic output.

In Western Europe, China’s timely emergency assistance to Italy might undermine the popularity of the European Union in that country, but that’s more of a problem for the EU than for NATO. Former European Commission President Jacques Delors has gone so far as to label Europe’s lack of coronavirus solidarity a “mortal danger to the European Union.” But the EU’s structural problems go far beyond Chinese meddling, and there’s no reason to believe that even a catastrophic collapse of the European project would geopolitically favor China over the United States. If anything, it would likely make NATO membership even more important to newly orphaned and newly exposed former EU members.

Shifting to Asia, the main theater of the geopolitical struggle between the United States and China is the broader Indo-Pacific, the region that runs from Japan to India, pivoting on Australia in the middle. The coronavirus pandemic certainly hasn’t made China any friends in Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan. Facing Chinese power head-on, these East Asian economic giants are virtually immune to Beijing’s influence. In Australia, the pandemic has emboldened the China hawks, with stories breaking that China bought up high-quality Australian-made face masks in January but is now exporting faulty Chinese masks to Australia.

Indian sensibilities have been offended by Trump’s extraordinarily undiplomatic public demands for an unproven coronavirus drug, hydroxychloroquine. But China will find it difficult to make any inroads in India while maintaining its “all-weather friendship” with Pakistan. When India wants to distance itself from the United States, it turns to Russia, not China. But Russia’s economy is in freefall, so it is in no position to take advantage of any coronavirus-related stumble in U.S.-Indian relations.

The coronavirus pandemic may indeed drive a wedge further between the United States and some of its key allies, particularly in Western Europe. European countries really were outraged when Trump slapped travel restrictions on the 26 Schengen Area countries on March 11. Yet within two weeks, nearly all of them had slapped similar travel restrictions on each other. Europeans don’t like the way Trump has put “America first” in response to the pandemic, but they are behaving exactly the same way. Some European countries, including Germany and France, briefly banned the export of emergency medical equipment—even within the EU’s supposedly borderless common market. Germany even seized a shipment of Chinese face masks bound for Switzerland.

If there is one lingering geopolitical effect of the coronavirus pandemic, it may be this: Countries may be a little more skeptical about globalist platitudes and a little more keen to take care of themselves. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing for U.S. leadership. Quite the contrary.

The United States has been berating NATO allies for years about taking more responsibility for their own defense. Greater European self-reliance would be a boon to U.S. global power, not a challenge. And a more nationalistic, less cohesive Europe would actually promote American global leadership, as a diminished EU would be less likely to pursue a competing strategic agenda.

European countries acting alone, rather than shielded by the EU umbrella, would also be much less likely to strike deals with China or Russia. Without the security of being part of a strong bloc, countries such as Germany would be much more wary of making separate deals with Russia on gas supplies and other ties. Similarly, EU members in Central and Eastern Europe who now use China’s 17+1 initiative as leverage against Brussels might be much more careful with Beijing if Brussels weren’t there as a backstop.

From the U.S. perspective, the most cost-effective form of global leadership is one in which Washington helps those who helps themselves. That’s been the secret of U.S. success in East Asia, where the hub-and-spoke alliance system connecting the United States to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan individually (with only minimal cooperation among these partners) encourages each one to provide for its own defense. Political pundits tend to prefer the good feelings of NATO’s Article 5 commitment to collective defense, but it’s the East Asian allies who most consistently support American global leadership. China need not apply.

If the coronavirus really does mean war, then it can only be positive for U.S. global leadership. Unfortunately, Trump has chosen not to make international relations hay out of this fact. He could have reinforced U.S. leadership by taking a much more generous approach to global appeals for support and cooperation. No matter. When the crisis is over, the United States will be even more central to global power networks than it was before. China will chafe at that. But China needs a free and open international system more than anyone, and for that, it needs U.S. leadership.

Salvatore Babones is an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney and an associate professor at the University of Sydney. Twitter: @sbabones

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