China, America, and the International Order after the Pandemic
As people around the world fall ill, global markets convulse, and supply chains collapse, COVID-19 may also reorder international politics as we know it. No analyst can know when this crisis will end, much less divine the world we will meet at its conclusion. But as scholars have begun to note, it is plausible that China will emerge from the wreckage as more of a global leader than it began. International orders — the rules, norms, and regimes that govern international politics, supported by state power — typically shift as a product of great-power wars. For some time, foreign policy experts have observed power to be shifting in China’s favor and hoped for modest, peaceful change within the existing system, rather than U.S.-Chinese conflict. It now seems that some form of system change may be brought about by an era-defining, exogenous shock, in the form of a highly contagious virus. If world order as we know it is upended, however, it will not be the product of this pandemic alone, but of forces that began long before COVID-19’s discovery, including an American foreign policy that has sought confrontation with China while disengaging from broader international ordering efforts. It is far too soon to say how exactly the international order will change, and whether or not China will emerge stronger. Nevertheless, it is also clear that some aspects of U.S. foreign policy must be transformed if Washington is to retain a leadership role in the system.
Following World War II, the United States was a chief architect of the so-called liberal international order and became its uncontested leader with the Cold War’s end. China, with its breathtaking economic growth and vast increases in military spending, has been on the ascent for decades, but long remained focused on domestic stability and the security of the Chinese Communist Party. It clambered to center stage after 2008, when the global financial crisis appeared to signal a weakening of American primacy.
China and others took the American financial stumble as a blunder of democratic capitalism, and a moment of opportunity to advance their own agendas. Under Xi Jinping, Beijing has seen the last decade as a period of “strategic opportunity” — one it did not necessarily expect to last, as it faces its own expected economic and demographic slowdowns. It built military bases in the South China Sea in contravention of international law, launched the vast and opaque Belt and Road Initiative to spread economic and political influence, doubled down on the state’s role in the economy and prejudicial policies, and coopted international human rights bodies. Along the way, it began to develop its own global governance aspirations and visions.
With the election of Donald Trump, the United States widened Beijing’s window of opportunity with its self-inflicted political convulsion. To China’s great fortune, American foreign policy was now expressly hostile to multilateral institutions, bellicose on trade, and defined national security in terms of narrow, homeland defense. To experts in the United States and abroad this looked like a willing abdication of the system the United States had constructed and led. But alongside these fears, and in another significant shift, foreign policy thinkers from both major parties increasingly agreed that the United States and China had entered a period of a great-power competition, in part, over the future of the international order and which power would set its terms.
There was little consensus on the objectives of that competition, much less agreement on the right policies; close allies in Europe and Asia shared deep concerns about Beijing’s behavior but sought to avoid great-power entanglement. But as the Trump administration escalated its trade war and admonished allies for buying Chinese 5G technology it was clear that Washington’s strategy was not particularly focused on renovating international institutions or regimes to help them adapt. It was also ever more apparent that many of its closest partners would not join America in confrontation, even if they supported select policies. These were obvious strategic weaknesses: Alone, the United States could not hope to match China’s economic and military heft in Asia. With allies by its side, America could remain peerless and manage peaceful change. Narrow unilateralism stoked renewed perceptions of further American decline and attenuated an otherwise favorable balance of power.
Enter the novel coronavirus. It should be stunning that a virus that originated in China and spread in part due to Chinese government mismanagement may reorder the world to Beijing’s advantage, as Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi have argued. The Chinese Communist Party suppressed news of the virus to protect its own legitimacy over the health of the Chinese people and the world. But as it has seemingly brought the domestic crisis under control (although official case numbers are suspect), the party has begun to position itself as an international health leader. It may well continue to wrestle with coronavirus at home, but leaders in Italy, Serbia, and the European Union are thanking China for the provision of medical supplies.
Given China’s global aspirations, it should not surprise us that Beijing has seized the chance to recast itself as a pandemic-response exemplar: but if its offers of medical aid and coordination actually shift the structure of international politics, it will not owe to crisis aid alone. If China is perceived as a more responsible great power when this pandemic passes, it will be due in no small part to the United States.
While the Chinese Communist Party’s early COVID-19 responses were disastrous, the U.S. government’s pandemic leadership has been its own special brand of catastrophe. The American president denied the threat, rejected scientific expertise, spread misinformation, and left state and local governments to fend for themselves in public trust violations of the highest order. But this domestic calamity is also the direct consequence of an “America First” foreign policy: the fallout from a global approach that denies the role of international institutions, alliances, and formal cooperation in keeping the American people safe. In withdrawing from multilateral agreements that combat transnational threats, deriding international organizations and high-level groupings, and berating America’s closest partners over their defense spending, the Trump Administration demobilized the country’s first lines of defense. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the Trump administration’s decision to disband the foreign policy bureaucracies designed to plan for precisely this threat. With shambolic self-governance, the U.S. government has placed its own citizens in unnecessary peril, while sidelining itself from acting as a global crisis leader in a way that is unprecedented in the last seven decades. China is all too happy to fill the vacuum.
This domestic and international governance crisis could change the nature of the international order in several ways. If the United States continues to founder while China offers supplies and coordination, international partners will naturally perceive China’s leadership to have strengthened, although they will not lose sight of its flaws. China may sell or donate medical supplies to countries worldwide. But it may also play a coordinating role, using existing bodies like ASEAN or groupings of European states through the “17 + 1” mechanism. If the pandemic results in a global recession and the United States fails to manage international recovery efforts, economic and political power may both shift further in Beijing’s favor. If the United States remains absent without leave, China may take the crisis as an opportunity to start setting new rules according to its own global governance vision, displacing Washington from future ordering efforts.
Such ambitions are already visible in Beijing’s declaration of a “Health Silk Road,” presumably a global health supplement to the Belt and Road Initiative. If friends and allies begin to sign up to those rules, they will subtly shift leadership toward China, for want of a better option. And if Washington continues to prioritize confrontation with China for its own sake, rather than attempting to strengthen cooperation across afflicted countries, it will demonstrate that it cannot overcome its own pugnacity to stave off global peril, and will exacerbate this process.
It seems unlikely that the American leadership that knowingly abetted this global catastrophe will be capable of transforming its governance efforts when it has embraced poor governance as strategy. It is also probable that U.S.-Chinese competition will endure once the worst of the pandemic has passed — if Beijing is perceived as coming out on top that competition may even intensify. But if the United States is to avoid being sidelined, it will need to return urgently to international order-building for the world that COVID-19 has helped to reveal.
With the end of American primacy, there is no chance that the United States can restore itself as the unrivaled leader of the liberal international order. Instead, Washington must use its still-considerable power to help write new rules and regimes for global threats like climate change and, yes, global pandemics, as Joe Nye has argued. These borderless domains basically remain ungoverned, save by voluntary measures, but it is all but guaranteed that the world will emerge from this crisis focused on how to mitigate future ones. A strategy that is singularly focused on competition with China at the expense of transnational threats will only exacerbate the power shifts afoot.
Second, foreign policy experts have embraced the idea that the United States is in a “clash of systems” competition against autocracies, in which patterns of amity and enmity break along regime type. But COVID-19 is a threat that knows no ideology. In highly varied country-level responses, the pandemic has revealed the fundamental importance of good governance no matter the regime type. Democratic Italy has floundered, while democratic South Korea, Taiwan, and mixed-regime Singapore have displayed some of the most capable responses. The United States will need to prepare for the next such threat with these models in mind, and ought to make the promotion of good international governance a central objective of its foreign policy. In so doing, it should be willing to work with non-democracies — including China — to promote it for the sake of international security and prosperity.
Finally, the United States ought not simply recommit itself to its capable European and Asian allies, but make allied coordination the basis of its strategy going forward — against traditional military threats, as well as those that may be less visible and just as deadly. As is more evident by the day, the alternative is a system in which Washington is increasingly sidelined. If China exits this epochal crisis as a confident leader it will not be the ineluctable result of a structural shift; Beijing will have Washington’s calamitous domestic mismanagement and myopic foreign policy to thank for it. If, as part of its own recovery, however, the United States can return itself to a strategy that seeks domestic security and prosperity through international cooperation, it stands a chance of helping to build new forms of order that prevent the next crisis. The prospect feels dimmer but is not yet lost.
Dr. Mira Rapp-Hooper is Schwarzman Senior Fellow for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Shields of the Republic: Triumph and Peril in America’s Alliances (June 2020).
Image: CDC Global