WASHINGTON – Global health crises are geopolitical events, and the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus is no exception. That incipient pandemic is not simply testing the global health system. It is also an acid test for a Chinese regime that intends, in the words of President Xi Jinping, to “take center stage in the world.”
Much has been made — appropriately — of how China’s authoritarian system has been the taproot of its worst failures in responding to COVID-19. Yet the episode also shows why an authoritarian China will struggle to create a constructive, consensual international order, no matter how much power it wields.
It may not look that way at first: Beijing has been accused of using its growing influence to escape criticism by the World Health Organization and many countries. Yet the ultimate test of a great power is not the ability to compel silence, or even to challenge the existing hegemon. It is the ability to bring other countries into an international order over which it presides, and here the COVID-19 epidemic has revealed glaring weakness.
Constructing an international order based on something other than simple coercion is not easy. It requires providing public goods — security, prosperity, leadership in addressing shared challenges — from which others benefit. It demands demonstrated competence in solving complex global problems, particularly the transnational ones that cannot be addressed by any single state. And because leaders of these systems bear such tremendous international responsibility, they must build a reputation for basic truthfulness, good faith and responsible stewardship — perhaps not on every issue, but on most issues.
For all its faults, the United States has passed these tests more often than it has failed over the past 75 years. During the Ebola crisis of 2014, for instance, President Barack Obama’s administration catalyzed an international response that attacked the outbreak at its source and limited its geographic spread. It did so by committing U.S. resources, rallying multilateral efforts and promoting the information-sharing required to get ahead of the disease. If recent events are any indication, China will find such demands far harder to satisfy.
During the critical early phase of the current crisis, China unapologetically placed regime stability above the prompt coordination and transparency necessary to keep an epidemic from turning into a pandemic. Its obsession with squeezing Taiwan out of all international forums — including the WHO — impeded global cooperation and information-sharing.
China’s diffidence toward even receiving foreign assistance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, perhaps for fear of revealing its own errors in handling the crisis, bodes ill for its willingness to provide leadership on other global challenges in the future. Not least, Beijing has threatened to punish countries that restrict travel to and from China, and it has displayed a penchant for secrecy and obfuscation that makes good global governance that much more challenging.
The coronavirus crisis has underscored a central irony of China’s rise. Beijing’s growing boldness in world affairs has been linked to Xi’s centralization of power within China. Yet that centralization removed many of the guardrails — collective rule, term limits, incremental policymaking — that were instituted after Mao Zedong’s death to avoid the catastrophes that personalistic rule can produce. Xi’s systematic removal of those checks and balances has allowed him to go further and faster, at home and abroad. But it has also heightened China’s vulnerability to those pathologies of dictatorial rule that may ultimately limit its ascent.
This may all seem like cause for optimism — geopolitical optimism, at least — in the U.S. Here too, though, there are warning signs. President Donald Trump is not a dictator, but he periodically displays certain characteristics — a worrying detachment from reality, an inability to distinguish between his own political interests and the national interest — that plague illiberal regimes. The president and his aides seem intent on repeating certain Chinese errors, such as downplaying the severity of the threat for political purposes and making statements that are utterly implausible.
The coronavirus crisis won’t make many people around the world look forward to Chinese global leadership. Yet so far, the crisis probably isn’t restoring faith in American leadership, either.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and a professor at Johns Hopkins University.
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