China and the US may be heading to a virus-inspired cold war
Both Trump and Xi are getting flak domestically over their handling of Covid-19, and neither are assured of another term
As the push to reopen economies intensifies, world leaders face mounting pressure to successfully balance health concerns, national economies and their own political futures. That’s true of US President Donald Trump as he heads into his re-election campaign this autumn, but a surprise addition to this list of vulnerable world leaders is Chinese President Xi Jinping.
This new reality may bring the US and China to the cusp of a cold war.
Xi was supposed to be immune from this kind of political pressure. China isn’t a democracy, and Xi has spent his years in charge consolidating power at an impressive clip. Even a costly trade war with the US did little to damage his political standing at home. But the initial cover-up of the coronavirus enabled its spread both in greater China and the wider world, provoking unprecedented domestic and international backlash to Chinese leadership.
China’s continued decision to be less than forthright with what it knew and when it knew it hasn’t won it many friends; neither has its attempt at crisis diplomacy, undercut by faulty medical equipment. And that’s before China began threatening countries pushing for an international investigation into the origins of the virus.
The virus has left Xi feeling the political heat like never before, in China and outside it. For the first time, there are rumors from Beijing that Xi isn’t assured a third term.
Not that US leadership has much more to boast about. Trump spent much time downplaying the threat of the virus in the early days of the pandemic. The US still lags stated goals in getting a widespread testing regime in place, a prerequisite for reopening the economy safely. And while China at least attempted to signal some international concern, the Trump administration did even less — in a virtual vaccine conference this week, the US didn’t even bother to show.
China, in other words, is indispensable to the restart of the global economy. And at a time when more of the world is moving online, its imminent rollout of 5G only increases its geopolitical footprint
But for Trump, most concerning of all is the devastation of the short-term US economy, which strength was supposed to be the linchpin of his re-election campaign. Trump is falling behind Joe Biden in critical battleground states, according to his campaign’s internal polling.
But while Xi and Trump are both feeling the political blowback of their early Covid-19 missteps, the coronavirus actually strengthens the US and China over the long run relative to the rest of the world. And that combination of political pressure at home and additional strength abroad is a combustible mix.
For China, much of its international strength is tied to its critical position in global supply chains, as well as its general importance in 21st-century international trade and credit markets. Its key role in the global medical supply chain means that it will be essential in the coronavirus fight, damping international criticism of Beijing.
China is also in a better position to economically emerge quicker from the crisis given its reliance on surveillance and isolation techniques that don’t work nearly as well in democracies; China, in other words, is indispensable to the restart of the global economy. And at a time when more of the world is moving online, its imminent rollout of 5G only increases its geopolitical footprint.
That latter point is critical, and underscores a similar advantage for the US: while some of the tech companies best prepared to help the world cope through a lockdown and our new social-distancing reality are Chinese, many more of them are American, and no other country is anywhere close. American allies who are wary of Chinese tech will have no choice but to accept Washington’s standards because the tech companies they’ll depend on will have to as well.
Factor in food and energy independence at a time of increased nationalism — not to mention the continued dominance of the dollar as a safe haven in the times of economic crisis — and the US is poised to emerge even stronger on the back of this crisis, at least compared to its allies.
This combination of leaders’ short-term political weakness and their countries’ long-term structural strength makes it all the more likely both Xi and Trump lash out at each other to deflect the political heat at home, and will be doing so from positions of international strength. Hard as it may be to believe, the coronavirus may be just the beginning of the world’s geopolitical troubles.
• Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media and author of Us vs Them: The Failure of Globalism.
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