Containing coronavirus: Why US, China compete about that, too

Why We Wrote This

Who has a better model for confronting the novel coronavirus, a democratic or authoritarian regime? And which nation is more trustworthy? Big power competition has not ended with a global pandemic.

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AP
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a State Department press conference in Washington, March 25, 2020. He said the Group of Seven advanced economic powers were all aware of China's "disinformation campaign" regarding the coronavirus outbreak.

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prefers the term “Wuhan virus” to remind the world that experts trace the novel coronavirus back to the Chinese city. It’s not just a matter of nomenclature, he says, but a means of calling out China for a lack of transparency and for early attempts at a cover-up of the virus’s existence that he says contributed to its spread.

For many experts, perceptions of how the world’s two major powers handle the pandemic both at home and on the international stage will go a long way in determining whether China or the U.S. comes out of the crisis with the upper hand. For some, the early absence of the U.S. from a leadership role in addressing the crisis could cement the perception of a U.S. in retreat.

“This pandemic is going to upend many aspects of the international order in ways that will further challenge U.S. global leadership, but it will also be an opportunity,” says Muqtedar Khan at the University of Delaware. “The authoritarian model may appeal even more to a lot of developing countries, so this also becomes about saving the American model globally – private enterprise and capitalism, liberal democracy, human rights,” he says. “All of that’s at stake.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on a mission when he took part in a virtual meeting of the Group of Seven foreign ministers last week: Get Western allies to join him in using “Wuhan virus” to describe the coronavirus behind the global pandemic.

Mr. Pompeo’s colleagues didn’t bite. If anything, there was public rejection of any effort to pin responsibility for the crisis on one country.

In a post-meeting statement, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said he had “underscored the need to combat any attempt to exploit the crisis for political purposes,” adding that “the unity of all in order to effectively combat the pandemic” is now the priority.

The brouhaha over virus terminology and provenance has taken center stage in the rising tensions between the United States and China. The two world powers have added the coronavirus crisis to the other battlefronts – from South Asian sea power to trade and 5G technology – in their accelerating global competition.

Editor’s note: As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

Moreover, for many geopolitical experts looking ahead to the post-pandemic period, perceptions of how the world’s two major powers handle the pandemic both at home and on the international stage will go a long way in determining whether China or the U.S. comes out of the crisis with the upper hand.

For some analysts, the early absence of the U.S. from a leadership role in addressing the global health and economic crises could cement the perception of the U.S. as a retreating leader of a creaking international order.

China is busy filling that leadership void with a double-edged global messaging campaign – painting a picture of domestic success in addressing the virus while at the same time sowing disinformation and a sense of disarray about the West’s response – that it hopes will serve it well in the post-pandemic period, Western intelligence officials and analysts say.

“Opportunity” to challenge China

But others see an opportunity for the U.S. to seize on the disruption the pandemic will wreak on international governing structures and diplomacy to reassert its role in the global order.

“This pandemic is going to upend many aspects of the international order in ways that will further challenge U.S. global leadership, but it will also be an opportunity to reset our grand strategy and to reassess the strategic options available to the United States,” says Muqtedar Khan, a professor of international relations at the University of Delaware in Newark. “The U.S. can use this opportunity to better challenge China while reasserting its role in the world.”

So far, the Trump administration has largely focused on keeping China in the international hot seat by putting a spotlight on its role as the source of a virus that has spread to much of the world.

While Mr. Pompeo has preferred “Wuhan virus” to remind the world that experts trace the virus back to the Chinese city, President Donald Trump has used “China virus” and “Chinese virus” to drive home the same point. But with Asian-Americans citing the nomenclature as a factor in rising racist attacks, Mr. Trump backed off that practice last week, saying “everybody knows” already where the virus originated.

Mr. Trump held a phone call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Friday and said in a tweet that the two countries are “working closely together” to address the pandemic, though he did not specify how. He added he had “much respect” for Mr. Xi’s handling of the crisis. 

Mr. Pompeo says his use of “Wuhan” is not just a matter of nomenclature, but a means of calling out China for a lack of transparency in the Chinese system and for early attempts at a cover-up of the virus’s existence that he says contributed to its global spread.

And despite the president’s pledge of cooperation, the State Department is not backing off its crusade against what Mr. Pompeo describes as the Communist Party’s “disinformation campaign” concerning China’s response to the coronavirus.

Aly Song/Reuters
Barber Xiong Juan cuts a customer's hair at a residential compound in Wuhan, Hubei province, the epicenter of China's coronavirus outbreak, March 30, 2020. China says its domestic policies have been successful in containing the spread of the virus.

Diplomats at the United Nations report that U.S. demands that China be held responsible for actions that contributed to the pandemic have stymied passage of a Security Council coronavirus resolution.

And on Friday U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sent a letter to Secretary Pompeo encouraging him to launch a “multilateral” inquiry with like-minded “democracies” into China’s “coverup and disinformation campaign.” Beijing’s censorship of early information about a new virus is now “putting millions of American lives at risk,” he said.

Chinese make their case

China, for its part, has not sat idly by. First Beijing circulated unsubstantiated claims that the virus was introduced to Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, by visiting American military officials. Then China’s media seized on the notion that the first cases of coronavirus may actually have surfaced in Italy.

But more recently, the Chinese have seized on mounting signs of the virus’s weakening hold on the country by touting their intervention measures, comparing them favorably to Western efforts, including in the U.S. Moreover, they have taken to intimating that their authoritarian system is a better match for such a social threat than are democracies prioritizing personal freedoms.

“China’s signature strength, efficiency and speed in this fight, has been widely acclaimed,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian declared recently, adding that China was now recognized as having set “a new standard for the global efforts against the epidemic.”

For some analysts, the sparring between the U.S. and China simply adds a new chapter to the ongoing great-power competition.

“We’re in a long-term competition where this [pandemic] messaging battle enters as a new element, but I don’t see that anything is going to change drastically,” says James Carafano, director for foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

“This administration has been calling balls and strikes on China from early on,” he adds, citing Mr. Trump’s frequent warm words for Mr. Xi even as the administration has taken China to task over its trade practices, human rights violations, “predatory” economic relations with developing countries, intellectual property thefts, and more.

“We’re going to be in the middle of this messaging war for a long time,” Mr. Carafano says, “but the administration knows the U.S. can compete there.”

Other experts in international relations are not so optimistic.

Some cite the generally good press China is getting, particularly in Europe, for its pledges of assistance to stricken countries, and they are contrasting that with what they see as America’s absence from its usual leadership role. A common narrative is that China is demonstrating increasing sophistication at soft-power diplomacy, a realm in which the United States long excelled and China didn’t even attempt to compete.

Some go so far as to warn that the pandemic could one day be looked back on as the turning point that marked the end of the American century of global leadership.

Comparing lockdowns

Yet no one is calling that outcome inevitable or deeming China’s victory in the pandemic messaging wars a foregone conclusion. The U.S. can still carry the day by showcasing the strengths of a system that promotes democratic responses and individual ingenuity, some say.

“You’re absolutely seeing the difference between lockdown policies in authoritarian regimes and lockdown policies in democracies,” says Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “What we’re seeing in the West [is] the bottom-up approach, that you have neighbors helping neighbors and you have states making decisions. Certainly it’s ad-hoc and looks chaotic,” she adds, “but I think there are some strengths in that response as well that a top-down state-led government cannot allow for.”

The U.S. needs to take China’s successes in the soft-power arena as a wake-up call that America’s pullback over recent years from its leadership role in the international arena is not going to go unchallenged, says Dr. Khan of the University of Delaware.

In the post-pandemic period, he adds, the U.S. will have to undertake a robust return to multilateral dialogue and institutions, and be more proactive about challenging China’s efforts to undercut U.S. leadership and the Western governance model.

“The authoritarian model may appeal even more to a lot of developing countries, so this also becomes about saving the American model globally – private enterprise and capitalism, liberal democracy, human rights,” he says. “All of that’s at stake.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

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