The Pandemic Crisis In Context Of The U.S.-China Competition
Ambassador Dr. Ezzat Saad
Director of ECFA
A number of senior American writers, including Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Affairs() and Joseph Nye, a professor at Harvard University() agree that the crisis of the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) does not represent a turning point in the geopolitical competition that has been going on for some time between the United States and China. But it is a stop on a path in which the international system has been going on for some time in the direction of multipolarity, although the United States still retains most of the trump cards.
And what Haas, Nay, and others mentioned, is consistent with the fact that the pandemic has hit the world in the midst of a fierce geopolitical competition between the two most powerful world economies, namely, the United States and China; coinciding with a political-cultural crisis for the West against the rise of the East. The crisis management revealed the success of the Asian countries, including South Korea, Singapore, Japan and Taiwan, with their disciplined cultural heritage and their tendency to work together, as well as their superiority in the use of advanced technology, big data, and artificial intelligence (AI) systems, in controlling and containing the pandemic, while on the other hand the United States and Western European countries were floundering and facing a clear stumbling block to the management of the crisis.
As a reminder of the fact that such geopolitical conflict existed before the pandemic harshly struck the world , the National Security Strategy() (2017) and National Defense Strategy() (January 2018) and the U.S. National Intelligence strategy() (January 2019) classified China as a geopolitical rival that must be confronted as a threat to national security and the key challenge Washington must address. China also dominated the geopolitical discussion of the last Munich Security Conference (MSC) which was held on last February 14-16. Participants from the United States and Western Europe have emphasized, in different ways, what China’s economic and security policies mean for the rest of the world. In this context, U.S. Secretary of Defense Esper emphasized the security challenge China poses to his country and its allies, and Foreign Minister Pompeo denied that tension of any kind exists between Washington and its European allies, stressing the need for a unified response to face China’s expansion().
In other words, Washington used the Munich conference to convey a message to Europeans that the great common challenge that can bring transatlantic relations together is China. But few European countries seemed willing to take this message seriously.
The U.S. global campaign to prevent its closest allies from using the Huawei 5G network has failed spectacularly, as no one has listened to it, including the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Spain, with the exception of few states (Australia, Japan, and Poland). The battle against Huawei is one of the U.S.-led confrontation stations against China, aiming at containing Beijing’s influence and power and ensuring that the world’s second-largest economy does not dominate the advanced industries that might provide it with economic and military power(). In this context, Washington has led an intensive diplomatic campaign under the previous administration to persuade its allies not to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which was established by China in 2015 and its membership was opened up to all world countries, but this campaign has also failed spectacularly. As U.S. allies raced to join the bank as founding members, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Egypt, Canada, Israel, India, Turkey and many others.
Beyond the U.S.-China Trade War:
President Trump’s trade war with China since 2018, and his focus on addressing the major trade imbalance, between the two countries which is not in the interest of the U.S.A, has obscured the main source of tensions between the two sides, namely the transfer of technology and the flow of knowledge among States. In this regard, the United States regards China’s success as an unfair insult to the economic competitiveness and geopolitical status of the United States of America, and also as evidence of the naivety of the slogan of economic integration and economic globalization(). Indeed, the major problem facing the international community , since the spread of the pandemic, is the lack of coordinated political commitment among world economic and trade powers in order to stop international protectionist measures against the movement of international trade. The pandemic has put the international trading system to a rigorous test, and Trump’s protectionist policies have left the WTO less prepared to deal with the pandemic than it could have done before Trump(). The administration has gradually and reluctantly lifted tariffs on respirators and surgical masks imported from China since March 11, covering 75% of its imports, but 10 days later, Trump restricted his country’s exports of respirators and masks on the basis of the Defense Production Act (DPA). Due to the USA’s stance, the G20 Ministers of trade Meeting on March 30, failed to merely discuss the pressures of protectionist measures and what the G20 countries could do about them.
In the aforementioned context, and for the purposes of restricting technology transfer to China, the United States intervened, under the imperatives of protecting national security, to restrict broad scientific cooperation among research institutions in the two countries. One aspect of such intervention was the investigation and deportation of Chinese-American scientists and researchers, including a chemistry professor at the University of Florida who, upon his return, developed a coronavirus test that gives results in 40 minutes().
The Pandemic is a New Tension Point:
Many people believe that some of the shortcomings in Washington’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic were due to Washington itself(). This is indicated by the U.S. not replenishing the strategic reserves of medical supplies that have fallen back ten years before the pandemic, and the worsening deficit due to tariff escalation on Chinese medical products. They also believe that the U.S. response to the pandemic was consistent from the start with the slogan of “America First” that Trump has raised since entering the White House. Before the crisis, the U.S. administration began to reduce the volume of foreign aid, especially those related to global health. And amid worldwide news about the spread of COVID-19 last February, the U.S. government decided to reduce foreign financial aid for fiscal year 2021 by 21%, including the aid directed to global health programs by 35%. In his speech to the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly on September 25, 2018, President Trump declared that “The future does not belong to globalists … The future belongs to sovereign and independent nations, who protect their citizens, respect their neighbors and honor the differences that make each country special and unique.” And he added: “We will examine whether the countries who receive our dollars and our protection also have our interests at heart. Moving forward, we are only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and, frankly, to our friends().” In China, with the discovery of the first patient infected by the epidemic on December 8, 2019 in the city of Wuhan, the country went into a state of complete closure and isolation, and by January 7, 2020 the virus was identified as the Novel Infectious Coronavirus; whereas the Chinese Government has approved numerous prevention and control measures and launched a well-coordinated and comprehensive campaign to defeat the virus, and on March 12 China announced that the peak of the epidemic on its territory has ended and that new cases are declining and the situation is generally improving().
China has been the target of a campaign launched by the U.S. media, including for example that the crisis will put an end to the Chinese Communist Party, that China will inevitably be out of the international system and that it must be decoupled from this system, as the pandemic will force the major international companies operating there to move their production chains out of China, which the Chinese call “Chiext”, modeled on the term that refers to Britain’s exit from the EU, and even saying that unstable Chinese financial markets may be more dangerous to the world than wildlife markets that produced the Coronavirus(). They provided projections of the imminent collapse of Chinese power and the deterioration of its financial situations().
In fact, with the start of China’s success in controlling and containing the pandemic, and in light of the clear reluctance of the U.S. to lead any alliance in this regard, as happened during the Ebola epidemic for example, Beijing began an active, broad and multi-dimensional diplomatic campaign to provide relief aid and assistance to various world countries, in which for the first time using its armed forces, parading its military logistical capabilities, and transporting medical equipment and teams outside the borders to at least 20 countries out of a total of more than 170 countries and five international organizations that have received Chinese aid. Although Beijing has not yet explicitly announced a coordinated official strategy on its pandemic associated humanitarian assistance, it has made enormous efforts to activate various diplomatic mechanisms through which it has provided its aid. In this context, China has moved on a purely bilateral basis, without coordinating or participating with the multilateral health system, which has been completely absent because of the U.S. position that has prevented any binding UN Security Council resolution on the pandemic. Such situation has given China a unique exceptional advantage for which no other donor had contended.
China has provided assistance not only through the central government, but also via the armed forces, provincial governments, local councils, non-governmental organizations and businesses. It is important to point out to China’s interest within the framework of its diplomatic activity to convey its successful experience in addressing and containing the epidemic by communicating with countries and regions that have partnerships and cooperative relations with China, via video conferences between health officials and their counterparts in Europe, Africa, the Arab region, Asia and Latin America. China’s global health diplomacy also included intensive communication at the presidential and ministerial levels with the leaders of a large number of friendly countries, including Egypt; during which solidarity to confront the pandemic and cooperation in dealing with its effects, including joint cooperation to produce the vaccine needed to overcome it, were stressed. Chinese assistance has extended to areas of conflict and tension, such as Syria, Iraq, Venezuela, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya and others.
Indeed, the logic and facts on the ground call on any objective observer of the events, to acknowledge that China’s experience in addressing the novel Coronavirus is full of inspiring lessons that other countries can benefit from. In this context, any positive assessment of China’s experience in combating the epidemic remains a major irritant for the U.S. leadership and media. In both cases, there is a clear determination, in collusion with the World Health Organization, to hold China guilty of spreading the epidemic all over the world. This comes at a time when well-known American writers, such as Nicholas Kristof, argue that “Thousands of Americans would be alive today if President Trump had spent more time listening to the World Health Organization instead of trying to destroy it,” pointing out that stopping the U.S. contribution to funding the organization’s budget amidst a raging pandemic is a dangerous attempt to find a scapegoat for his failures(), adding that Trump did not provide any global leadership against the Coronavirus, and “feared China’s rapid response to the pandemic,” and he tweeted on January 24, saying: “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus … I want to thank President Xi,” Kristof also added “But if Trump insists on holding people accountable … He can gaze in the mirror.” Others emphasized that the current administration’s efforts were directed only to the U.S. and ignored the outside. And in this connection, Trump tweeted, saying: “I am the president of the United States of America…not the president of other countries, so we have to focus on this country, while they work for their countries”().
In fact, until February 27, 2020, Trump and his assistants believed that the outbreak of the virus would not exceed China’s borders, confirming that the number of infections inside all U.S. states was close to zero. White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow affirmed that “Washington has already been able to contain the risks of the spread of such virus against a backdrop of the near-total closure of its borders”(). President Trump’s focus has always been on the need to preserve the pre-pandemic economic gains, mainly for electoral purposes. In contrast, China’s assistance campaign provided to the world in connection with the pandemic has reinforced the fact that much of what the world depends on in fighting the pandemic is being manufactured in China().
In fact, despite the failure of the U.S. administration in managing the crisis as efficiently as required, in comparison to China, and moreover focusing on the interior in addition to its stance towards the World Health Organization and the multilateral cooperation frameworks in general as previously discussed, and its reluctance to exercise its leading role as was previously the case; but China, for its part, does not seem ready to take on the mantle of global leadership, although it has provided support and assistance to many countries, and Chinese officials have not at any time claimed this role for themselves, as they remain steadfast in their sense of belonging to developing countries, they also see that the current international system, in its entirety, fulfills their interests and indeed, they do not deny that they owe the environment provided by this system a debt for their huge economic and commercial progress, despite their reservations about some of its aspects. In this context, China does not view the new Coronavirus crisis as a globalization crisis, but as a crisis of the current global governance with its economic and political dimensions. Whereas, the United States does not seem ready to take the interests of the rising economic powers into account, adopting an approach based on international competition rather than cooperation and working to reduce or even abandon its responsibilities and pledges in many fields. China does not conceal its emphasis on the fact that the Asian rise and its leadership of the international economic development process is turning the focus from transatlantic relations towards the Asia-Pacific region, which requires reconfiguration of the global power structure as well as the pattern of distribution of interests, a reconsideration of the situation that has lasted too long during which a minority of Western countries have dominated global governance, and that the international community must recognize such imbalance and seek to adopt new mechanisms and means to allow all powers to interact positively with the international system.
The previous analysis thus leads to emphasizing the fact that no superpower can alone meet the world’s needs, and that cooperation among the U.S., China, and a third party like the EU is needed to fill such gap, as nationalism and protectionism cannot rebuild the global economy or combat pandemics that know no borders. As some have rightly emphasized, supporting a balanced and structured flow of goods, individuals, ideas and public health services will require a new international consensus and a vision based on broad cooperation rather than competition(). In this context, it is important for Egypt to continue its foreign policy strategy of diversifying and expanding its economic, political and security options by opening up to all, with sufficient attention given to developing and modernizing Egyptian capabilities in the fields of education, science and advanced technology, including the applications of artificial intelligence (AI), where their vital importance in containing the pandemic has been revealed by the pandemic itself.
- Richard N. Haass: “ The Pandemic Will Accelerate History Rather Than Reshape It”, Foreign Affairs, April 7, 2020.
-Joseph Nye. Jr., “ No The Coronavirus Will Not Change The Global Order”, Foreign Policy, April 16, 2020.