It took a pandemic and an American president with no respect for the rules and no understanding of the fragility of international relations for all hell to break loose, with China at the epicenter. One had to be historically ignorant or in complete denial to fail to see that China’s growing strength economically as well as strategically would bring about geopolitical change. The United States and Europe have long wished to believe that it would take decades for China to turn into a superpower. However, China already is an economic giant. The Asian country has kept a low profile in order to avoid irking its partners. It has been more interested in domestic peace and growth. After all, why would it step in to shoulder the burden of policing the international system prematurely? The Americans and the Europeans had taken the responsibility of keeping trade routes open. Meanwhile, their military interventions caused more problems than they solved and, often, sparked many a nation’s anger against them.
Undisturbed, China was able to expand its commercial, and increasingly political and strategic, contacts, deepening its ties with Africa and Latin America. At the same time, it tried to placate its Asian neighbors which were anxiously watching it develop huge powers, and occasionally also use those powers.
The huge economic crisis which originated in the US in 2008 made it clear that China would not be able to hide in plain sight forever. If it did, then others would make decisions for it, and Beijing would simply suffer the consequences.
For these and other reasons, China spread its wings and through the Belt and Road Initiative (a modern version of the Silk Road), it tried to show that there are more paths for growth available to the countries of the world, and that the country had something to teach on the basis of its experience and its course. China offered a much-craved alternative, particularly to developing nations. It also took the opportunity to militarize the islands in the South China Sea and launched its first military base in Djibouti in East Africa. Pursuing very active economic and political diplomacy, China was able to embrace its partners, grounding the relationship in a philosophy of mutual benefit.
This naturally started to worry the US more and more and Barack Obama had already turned his attention to Asia, withdrawing US troops from the Middle East where one crisis appeared to be succeeded by another. However, it was the incumbent president that overturned every pretext that held until then. Donald Trump had been fiercely attacking China since his election campaign, triggering commercial and political antagonism. He used different ways to send contradictory messages to the international community about what he wanted to do with China. At the same time, he attacked Europe, a traditional ally of the US, which was also worried about China’s precipitous rise in the global system.
However, economic interdependence is so deep that Europe is neither able nor willing to sever ties with China. Nevertheless, it knows that it will have to take a stand on many levels: politics, democratic values, human rights, technological developments (artificial intelligence and 5G networks) and dealing with climate change.
Then the pandemic struck. The world saw the enormous push made by China in January to contain the epidemic and even though its efforts in the first weeks of the crisis may not have been the best possible (as it recently admitted), we went on to see first-hand how the crisis was managed by many European countries (with Greece as one of the brilliant exceptions), culminating in utter chaos in the United States. After dragging their feet, everyone has now homed in on China as the easy target. I have been closely watching which voices are pointing the finger at China and how they’re doing it. It’s as though we didn’t know that a pandemic was almost inevitable, that governments had allowed their countries’ health systems to collapse and failed to apply the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO), that the poor would bear the brunt of the virus. But we chose not to believe all this because we did not want to take responsibility for the economic impact nor implement a timely response. And now, voices like that of the American president are growing in intensity against China, both for reasons of domestic consumption but also to shield the incompetence of Western political leaderships, which is not China’s fault. Unfortunately, China’s reactions to all this have served as fodder for the critics. Not only has it lashed out at critics – sometimes even rudely – but it has also sought to brazenly tighten the one-party state’s hold, especially in Hong Kong, perhaps because it feels the next crisis coming. Transparency and close cooperation with the international community should go without saying. Let whatever investigations need to be carried out proceed, but not with the aim of diverting public opinion from the most important and pressing matters. Thousands of people have died from the virus and millions have lost their jobs. How economies are restarted will play a crucial role. Diversification and preparations for the fourth industrial revolution that has already begun are key priorities, with a social safety net being essential.
What is needed above all else in such times is stability and seriousness in the handling of international relations, as well as meaningful cooperation. This means that the voices which are part of the problem need to be quiet so that we can get down to the task of building a future that is more resilient to the new global challenges. The next big fight will be technological (cyber). Unfortunately, dealing with the biggest of all problems – climate change – will once more fall by the wayside, even though its impacts – once it is too late to do anything about them – will make the pandemic seem small in comparison.
Sophia Kalantzakos is a global distinguished professor at New York University and Fung Global fellow at Princeton University. She is the author of “China and the Geopolitics of Rare Earths” (Oxford University Press).