The second prognosis conjured a future in which one power overcame the other and then helped set the trajectory for the rest of humanity. In this scenario, competition between Washington and Beijing beat out cooperation. This was the world of Cold War thinking, decoupling, zero sum and, to use the Chinese phrase, “you die, and I live.”
To be fair, a few scholars questioned this binary perspective. But, generally speaking, no one really wrestled with the ramifications of a world with neither country on top.
The woeful response of both nations to the coronavirus and the petulant game of gotcha being played in Washington and Beijing provides an opportunity to reconsider these theories and ask the question: Is it possible that neither the United States nor China is capable of world leadership? And if so, which nation can step into the breach?
Despite an onslaught of mind-bending “fake news” from Beijing, China’s slow response to the coronavirus clearly created the conditions for the global pandemic. China’s failure to share information with the World Health Organization and the WHO’s apparent pandering to China’s interests made the crisis worse.
China’s unwillingness to provide accurate statistics continues to be an issue. For one, it has been clear that China has been lowballing its death count. The Post and others reported that people dying in their homes and outside hospitals awaiting medical attention were not counted in the official tally. It’s also quite possible that China underreported its total number of covid-19 cases due to political pressure from the Chinese Communist Party to declare the epidemic under control.
These faulty statistics matter because what happened in Wuhan is now unfolding tragically in other places, such as northern Italy and New York City. China’s refusal to be transparent about fatalities and infections has made it even more difficult for the rest of the world to prepare for the onslaught.
In reacting to the crisis, China’s government, led by Communist Party boss Xi Jinping, has punished whistleblowers, muzzled citizen journalists and arrested dissidents. It has tried to play a blame game with the United States, deputizing its spokesmen to spread confusion about the source of the virus. China also sought to leverage the aid it is giving other countries and to frame every misstep by the United States as something that will benefit Beijing. In WeChat postings, prominent Chinese have reacted with glee to the news that the disease is spreading rapidly in the United States. “It’s your turn!” exalted a leading anchor on Chinese state-run television.
China’s economy, which was already slowing, faces even greater headwinds with covid-19. Huge problems loom on the horizon involving massive government debt, demographics and a widening drought in northern China. The virus could only bring these issues forward, forcing an even more abrupt reckoning for Beijing.
Of course, the United States has not acquitted itself with glory either. The U.S. response has been led by a feckless president who did not recognize the seriousness of the problem. His underlings have also been less than stellar. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s botched manufacturing of test kits set the country back weeks, if not months, in its response to and understanding of the outbreak.
And members of President Trump’s national security team have often seemed more intent on scoring points against China than in confronting what is now a global menace. Just consider Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s performance during a meeting of his counterparts at the Group of Seven in late March, during which Pompeo wasted valuable minutes failing to persuade his colleagues in Europe to name the disease “the Wuhan virus” to ensure that China got its fair share of the blame. The United States is even getting into a bidding war with its Western allies over the purchase of medical supplies.
The United States, too, has punished whistleblowers. Witness the execrable treatment of Navy Capt. Brett Crozier, who was removed from the command of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier after his appeal to evacuate his crew of 4,000 following a covid-19 shipboard outbreak was leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle.
To be sure, there are differences between the failures in China and the United States. The United States remains a free country, and the debate over how to deal with the disease is being held publicly and without the censorship that colors China’s regime. But neither country can argue that its approach to the virus is worthy of imitation.
Other countries have done a far better job. In Asia, South Korea and Taiwan stand out as models. And in the West, Germany and Canada are faring better, in how they are protecting both their people’s health and their economies.
These differences matter. How these nations emerge from this once-in-a-generation crisis is going to remake the world order. Americans and Chinese who believed they were going to remain at the top of the world, either decoupled or engaged, will be in for a rude shock when they discover that the future no longer belongs to them.