Foreign Affairs, Nova York – 17.9.2021
The Center Cannot Hold
Will a Divided World Survive Common Threats?
Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Washington was coalescing around a new bipartisan consensus: great-power competition, especially with China, ought to be the main organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy. For some, the pandemic called that notion into question by suggesting that transnational threats pose an even greater danger to the American public than ascendant rival powers. Skeptics of great-power competition, such as Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, argued that the United States should seek to de-escalate tensions with China so that the two countries can work together to manage borderless risks such as pandemics and climate change.
But the debate over whether great-power competition or transnational threats pose the greater danger to the United States is a false one. Look back at strategic assessments from ten years ago on China and Russia, on the one hand, and those on pandemics and climate change, on the other, and it is clear that Washington is experiencing near-worst-case scenarios on both. Great-power rivalry has not yet sparked a hot war but appears to be on the brink of sparking a cold one. Meanwhile, the worst pandemic in a century is not yet over, and the climate crisis is only accelerating.
What COVID-19 has made powerfully clear is that this is an age of transnational threats and great-power competition—one in which the two phenomena exacerbate each other. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Chinese government has been obsessed with maintaining its grip on power and has refused to cooperate with the international community to fight the virus. For its part, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump framed the international dimensions of its pandemic response almost exclusively in terms of competition with China, extinguishing any hope of a multilateral cooperation, even with other democracies. At the height of the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) became an arena for U.S.-Chinese rivalry, leaving the rest of the world to fend for itself.
Great-power rivalry and transnational threats will both shape U.S. foreign and national security policies in the years to come. Washington cannot downplay one in order to better deal with the other. Attempting to ease tensions with China to make cooperation on global public health possible won’t work, partly because Beijing cannot credibly commit to being more transparent and cooperative in the future. By the same token, ramping up competition with China without a plan to rally the world to deal with transnational threats (which can themselves fuel rivalry between great powers) would only guarantee future disasters.
The United States needs a strategy to address transnational threats under the conditions of great-power competition. It must aim to cooperate with rivals, especially China, to prepare for future pandemics and to tackle climate change. But in case cooperation fails, it must have a backup plan to rally allies and partners to provide a much greater share of global public goods, even if that means shouldering more of the costs. None of this will be easy, but all of it is necessary.
SECRECY AND SURVIVAL
Competition between the United States and China has made the pandemic worse, and the pandemic, in turn, has deepened U.S.-Chinese rivalry and inhibited international cooperation more generally. But the negative synergy between great-power rivalry and transnational threats was evident even before COVID-19. In the decade after the SARS epidemic of 2002–4, the United States and China had developed a working relationship on global public health. On the eve of the current pandemic, the United States had dozens of public health professionals stationed at the U.S. embassy in Beijing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institutes of Health, and the Food and Drug Administration. Among them was a team of approximately 12 CDC officials working on infectious diseases and pandemic preparedness. (The Trump administration had redeployed a number of CDC officials working on AIDS funded through the President’s Emergency Plan for aids Relief to countries such as Uganda, but the embassy team working on pandemic preparedness remained in place.)
But as a number of U.S. embassy officials told the foreign policy analyst Colin Kahl and me for our book Aftershocks, this team’s cooperation with the Chinese government became more challenging as U.S.-Chinese rivalry intensified, largely because of China’s actions. In 2018 and 2019, for instance, Chinese officials refused to fully share samples of a strain of bird flu known as H7N9 with the WHO’s “collaborating centers” for influenza, frustrating their U.S. counterparts. At the time, public health experts believed that this form of influenza, or some variant of it, could potentially be the source of the next global pandemic.
Chinese public health officials also grew more reluctant to engage with their U.S. counterparts. In 2019, the U.S. embassy in Beijing hosted an event to mark 40 years of U.S.-Chinese relations. U.S. officials had planned to highlight public health cooperation—widely regarded as a success story in a sometimes tumultuous bilateral relationship—and several Chinese public health officials were slated to speak. But 24 hours before the event, amid rising trade tensions, all the Chinese officials canceled. It was a harbinger of things to come.
When COVID-19 hit, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) maintained near-absolute secrecy. All channels of communication between Beijing and Washington went silent, as they did between Beijing and other governments. Chinese leaders sought to conceal vital information about the emerging epidemic in China from the rest of the world, even attempting to prevent Chinese scientists from sharing the genetic sequence of the virus with scientists in other countries. (A Chinese scientist deliberately disobeyed the order and collaborated with an Australian counterpart.) Beijing also pushed the WHO not to declare the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern,” an official designation that would have required a coordinated international response, and not to support or even remain neutral on placing travel restrictions on China.
What COVID-19 has made powerfully clear is that this is an age of transnational threats and great-power competition.
The Chinese government’s actions put the WHO in a difficult position and constrained its choices. During the SARS epidemic, Gro Brundtland, the director general of the WHO, called out the Chinese government for covering up the outbreak and refusing to cooperate fully with the international community. The strategy helped persuade Beijing to shift course and eventually to engage with the WHO. The United States had hoped the WHO would use the same playbook with COVID-19 and publicly criticize—or at least refuse to praise—Beijing for withholding cooperation.
But senior WHO officials believed that Chinese President Xi Jinping was more dictatorial and less susceptible to outside pressure than his predecessors. If they tried to call him out, he was likely to shut them out completely. WHO officials also believed that working with China offered the only hope of stopping the virus. If that required publicly flattering Beijing, then so be it—a calculation that put the WHO on a collision course with the United States.
It is impossible to say for certain why the Chinese government behaved the way it did, but secrecy and control make sense in light of what the vast majority of China experts believe to be Xi’s top priority: regime survival. Xi did not want to facilitate an international response to COVID-19 that could have attributed blame to China or isolated it through travel restrictions, either of which might have damaged the regime’s domestic legitimacy. Instead, Xi leveraged the pandemic to his advantage: China’s suppression of the virus became a matter of national pride, held up by Beijing in sharp contrast to the experience of the United States.
Once it had controlled the virus at home, China became more assertive in its foreign policy. It linked pandemic assistance and, later, access to its vaccine to public praise for China and to favorable policy choices, such as participation in the health component of its Belt and Road Initiative. It also retaliated against Australia for seeking an international investigation into the origins of COVID-19. As the world reeled from the pandemic, China imposed a draconian national security law on Hong Kong, provoked a deadly border spat with India, and engaged in combative “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy around the world—aggressively responding to criticism, including by peddling falsehoods and disinformation. For China’s leaders, the pandemic revealed the inexorable decline of the West, confirmed Beijing’s power and capabilities, and created more latitude for the CCP to do as it wished.
THOMAS WRIGHT is Director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.
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