COVID-19: What’s there to worry about? Part Two: Chinese subversion on the international stage

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Photographs courtesy of economist.com

In the second segment of this series, we will continue exploring issues of the current pandemic that you might not be aware of but should find concerning. We turn to China and their attempts to take advantage of the current crisis to usurp the United States’ position on the international stage as a global leader. While the status of the U.S. as a global leader is a controversial topic on its own, for the sake of argument, we’ll take it as a given here. 

Let’s face the hard truth first – we screwed up. The U.S. government bungled both the preparation for the pandemic and its response. Prior to the current crisis, the Trump Administration sought cuts of $25,000,000 and $18,000,000 from Office of Public Health and Preparedness and the Hospital Preparedness Program in the Department of Health and Human Services, respectively. In 2018, the National Security Council’s global health security team was disbanded by then-National Security Advisor John Bolton. Since the crisis began there have been shortages of ventilators and testing equipment along with widespread public anxiety – if not outright panic. The Trump Administration has approached the problem with its characteristic incoherence and confusion, failing to provide a unified national policy, issuing contradictory recommendations and, most importantly, failing to step up and take a leading role in guiding the world through this difficult period. 

The combined impact of all of this has been a body blow to the legitimacy and prestige of the United States on the international stage, and China has been stepping in to fill the gap. Chinese media has downplayed the Chinese government’s bumbling during the initial outbreak in Wuhan and highlighted the perceived success of Chinese containment efforts (I qualify the Chinese success as perceived because there have been questions regarding the accuracy of the existing data) against the fumbling of the United States. Chinese government officials have even promoted the unsupported theory that the Wuhan outbreak was started by visiting members of the U.S. Army. Additionally, the Chinese government and individuals with close ties to the Chinese government have been providing significant material assistance to countries facing particularly severe outbreaks, such as Italy and many countries in Africa, while conducting serious diplomatic efforts at the regional level to coordinate and advise COVID-19 response efforts. 

This article is not meant to criticize the Chinese government for offering aid to countries in need or trying to demonstrate leadership in a time of crisis. These efforts are laudable, of course, but as a student of political science I’ve found it axiomatic that one should always look for self-interest in a country’s foreign policy. This is particularly appropriate because, when it comes to foreign policy, one should always look a gift horse in the mouth. In this case, the United States has failed to fulfill its traditional responsibilities as a leader on the international stage, and China has taken this opportunity to expand its influence and legitimacy as a global leader while delegitimizing the U.S. and weakening its status in the world community. The antidote to this is simple, if difficult to apply. The United States needs to step-up and fulfill its responsibilities as the preeminent superpower – otherwise this pandemic could be another step forward in its demise as the world’s leading nation.