Updated: May 16, 2021
The Covid-19 pandemic is perceived as the greatest challenge in the 75-year history of the United Nations. The outbreak is the first major world crisis since globalization became a fundamental reality. Today’s world is highly interdependent and globalized, pulled together by the flows of goods, capital and people. It is now a “global village.” The world’s two largest economies, China and the United States, became epicenters of the pandemic. The US is the world’s most important center for political, economic, technological and cultural exchanges, followed by China. The outbreak in China disrupted the global “real” economy and global supply chains, and then the epidemic in the US impacted the global virtual and real economy.
China was the first country to report cases of the new coronavirus. The source of the virus has become a controversial issue in international relations, as we witness different scientific reports pointing to different sources and timings of the first cases. The question of the source of the virus should be left to scientists to study, but unfortunately, it also has been highly politicized, affecting international co-operation in fighting the pandemic. The lockdown in Wuhan was controversial at the time, but there now seems to be a global consensus that the lockdown was a necessary measure, although people’s normal lives were severely affected and the social and economic costs were high.
The pandemic has changed the world, disrupted normal life and also made the relationship among nations more tense and anarchic. The global crisis requires a global response. Facing the first truly globalized public health crisis, the major countries did not unite the world; on the contrary, the outbreak prompted greater strategic competition and disagreements over ideology between the great powers.
The responses of China and other Asian countries to the pandemic were in general better organized, exhibiting the authority of central governments, as well as the coherence of society and political unity.
The Covid-19 pandemic has intensified the overall competition between China and the US and increased the risk of a new Cold War. There are significant differences in the ways and effects of responding to the crisis. China’s aid and co-operation with other countries and organizations was criticized by some US politicians as promoting the China Model and ideology, a view that might be shared by some in other developed countries. They invented many notions to demonize China’s policies and efforts, including referring to Covid-19 as the “China virus” and peddling the theory that the virus leaked from a Wuhan laboratory or was actually developed by Chinese scientists. Some even called for China to pay compensation for spreading the virus.
China hawks in the launched a war of public opinion at home and abroad, mobilizing propaganda resources and means similar to what was seen during the Cold War, using the pandemic to stoke hatred against China and divert domestic attention away from the Covid-19 disaster in the US itself. At the same time, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other issues were used to launch propaganda campaigns against China. A Pew poll found that 73 percent of the US public have a negative view of China, a result of the propaganda war. This “smearing” of China’s ideology and political system was aimed at forcing other countries from Europe to the Asia-Pacific region to take sides.
Due to the impact of Covid-19 and great power competition, the future world is full of uncertainty. Thomas Friedman argues that the world will be divided into a pre-epidemic and post-epidemic era. Some analysts are also debating whether the coronavirus is “China’s Chernobyl moment” or “America’s Suez Canal moment,” harkening back to the crippling crisis suffered by Britain over the Suez in 1956. The notions reflect the worry in the minds of many people.
Global supply chains will be reshaped around national security and public health security. The outbreak of the epidemic from China to Europe and the US to the vast number of developing countries has exposed the inherent vulnerability of global supply chains. Developed countries are calling for “public health” as a goal of their national security strategies, and there are increasing calls to adjust and restructure supply chains with the aim of reducing over-reliance on Chinese-made medicines and medical protective supplies.
The development model of “free trade” and “free markets” on which economic globalization depended, has been challenged. The contradictions and competition between these economic and governance models are important factors in the conflict between China and the US and between China and Europe. Strategic competition, ideological competition and geopolitical competition among major powers will intensify under the new global situation after the pandemic.
Public opinion in a number of countries seemed to reflect a growing hawkishness among national governments. Australia, which saw the biggest increase in negative views toward China, has traditionally seen China as a valuable market for its natural resources. However, Australia has recently sought to investigate the origins of the coronavirus and increase defense spending in the Indo-Pacific region—indicative of Australia’s growing perception that China is a threat to the country’s democracy and sovereignty.
In Europe, China was flying high just a few years ago. Today, it is battling a growing perception that it is a destabilizing actor. The United Kingdom, which once defined itself as “China’s best partner in the West” saw a jump in unfavorable opinion of China from 55 percent to 74 percent. The Netherlands, once very open to business with China, has recently taken a more defensive posture to protect its technology industry.
In the latest sign of international diplomatic pushback, Britain and Germany secured support Tuesday from 37 other countries for a statement before the U.N. General Assembly human rights committee denouncing China’s treatment of Hong Kongers, Tibetans, and Uighurs. A similar resolution last year secured only 23 votes.
Non-traditional security threats such as pandemics can be more dangerous and costly than major power conflict. It is a wake-up call to the security hawks obsessed with US-China and US-Russia great power competition. In today’s world, the US should be the country best prepared for this kind of public health crisis. The world needs to co-operate to tackle the Covid-19 crisis as soon as possible, and major countries need to mend relations to create a win-win future for the whole world. The most important thing for China-US relations is to increase strategic consensus and political trust.
Written by: Aishika Manu