Throughout history, great wars have overturned the international order, making and breaking entire countries and their political systems while increasing the power and status of some and reducing those of others. Modern weaponry has become far too powerful to permit conflicts on the scale, for example, of the two world wars of the last century, but in this century a variant has appeared: global crises. The one that began in 2008, with the near-meltdown of the American financial system leading to the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression, boosted the confidence, increased the aggressiveness, enhanced the international stature, and generally accelerated the rise of China. The present crisis, the direct result of the coronavirus pandemic that began in China, could reverse those gains.
The surge in Chinese power and prestige after 2008 did not come out of the blue. It followed three decades of remarkable, double-digit annual economic growth in that country, and the evolution of a central role for China in the global economy as a critically important link in multinational supply chains, on which much of the world’s production has come to depend. By pouring immense sums into its own economy the Chinese government managed to make the economic downturn that China suffered in the wake of the financial crisis less severe than it was almost everywhere else. As a result of its success—and the failures, by comparison, of the Western democracies—China’s confidence and international standing soared.
The Chinese leader who came to power in 2013, Xi Jinping, abandoned his predecessor Deng Xiaoping’s admonition to “hide the brightness”—that is, to practice modesty—in its relations with other countries. Instead, Xi began openly to assert his confidence in his country’s power. His phrase “the China Dream” came to describe his national vision, with the implication, according to some interpretations, of its primacy in international affairs.
China claimed virtually all of the western Pacific as its territorial waters and began building artificial islands there with military installations on them. For the first time since the Maoist era, its government promoted the idea that the Chinese political system offered lessons, and indeed a model, for other countries. Beijing launched the ambitious “Belt and Road Initiative,” a huge program of infrastructure across Asia and Europe with the goal of tying other countries to China economically and politically.
For more than a decade after 2008, that is, the Chinese government enjoyed, in geopolitical terms, the wind in its sails. Then, this year, came the coronavirus, which originated in China and the existence of which the Communist government initially denied and then covered up, allowing it to spread worldwide. With countries everywhere feeling the need to quarantine their citizens, thereby administering serious and ongoing shocks to their economies, China bears the ultimate responsibility for the enormous suffering around the world. The failure of the Chinese Communist Party to acknowledge the virus and protect the world is likely to reverse China’s post-2008 gains in power and prestige.
Just as China’s rise began before 2008, so too were signs of resistance to that rise apparent even before people began falling ill in Wuhan last November. The Trump administration opened a trade conflict with Beijing with which other governments, even those least friendly to this particular American president, sympathized. The Chinese rate of growth began to fall from the lofty heights it had sustained for 30 years. Other Asian countries, along with the United States, objected to China’s maritime claims and began to cooperate militarily with an eye toward countering them.
The coronavirus has made it clear that China poses dangers to its neighbors and the world in addition to its territorial ambitions in the Pacific. The country has a habit of generating serious health hazards: This virus is the most serious in the last quarter-century but hardly the only one; the SARS pandemic of 2003 also began there. Because its political system rests on secrecy and the determination of the ruling Communist Party to avoid responsibility for anything that goes wrong, local outbreaks of disease in China can easily spin out of control, which is what occurred with the coronavirus. As Charles Lipson put it:
All the people locked in their homes in California, all the people lying in intensive care units in Milan, Marseille and Seattle desperately ill, all the people being carried from those ICUs to cemeteries around the world: they are there because of policy choices by the Chinese Communist Party.
Moreover, the global economy’s dependence on China now looks doubly perilous. Even if the coronavirus crisis had remained within that country’s borders, the tactic that Chinese authorities used to try to contain it—quarantining large parts of the population and shutting down major parts of the economy—would have imposed major losses on other countries, which depend heavily on supply chains that run through China. In addition, the world has discovered that much of its medicine and medical equipment is made in China. This affords, in a crisis such as the current one, powerful leverage over other countries to a regime that combines repression and incompetence at home with bullying abroad.
In the wake of the coronavirus crisis, therefore, diminishing China’s global role will seem all the more attractive to others. Efforts to reduce global dependence on products made or partly assembled there—a process known as “decoupling”—are likely. The American government’s warnings to its European counterparts against relying on communications equipment made by the Chinese firm Huawei will receive a more receptive hearing than they have thus far. Neighboring countries may well find the Belt and Road initiative less attractive and, given the economic losses the virus has inflicted on China, the Chinese government itself may deem it too expensive to carry out as planned. The Communist Party’s initial mishandling of the outbreak of the disease, with its high costs in lives lost and output foregone, will make China a far less appealing model in the eyes of non-Chinese.
Aware of the likelihood of such developments and the danger they pose to their country’s international standing, the authorities in Beijing have launched a propaganda campaign in their own defense. They claim that the coronavirus was brought to China by American soldiers, a wholly false charge that Chinese without access to uncensored media may believe but that foreigners will not. They also assert that China is coping with the pandemic in a more effective fashion than other countries, which remains very much to be seen, and in any event does not eliminate the Chinese responsibility for beginning it.
In 1977 the distinguished historian William McNeill published a book entitled Plagues and Peoples, which charted the large historical effects of major epidemics such as the Black Death in 14th-century Europe and the smallpox that the Spanish brought to the New World in the 16th century. The coronavirus pandemic, there is every reason to hope and good reason to believe, will not cause devastation on the scale of those two horrific events; both occurred, after all, long before the development of modern medicine. But if it serves, as seems entirely possible, to reverse the major geopolitical trend of the last decade, it will deserve its own place in future such chronicles.