China, America, and the International Order after the Pandemic

By Mira Rapp-Hooper – 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.

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.

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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.

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. more>

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