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COVID-19: Challenging Times for Global Powers Politics

ISSUE 2020
No 06
Release 27 May 2020
By LUO Jing Jing* KHEANG Un**

Executive Summary

  • The strategic and economic anxiety compounded with chaotic response to the pandemic outbreak have generated a big anti-China nationalist wave in the US. The ongoing propaganda machine orchestrated by US President Donald Trump and his supporters might have burned the bridge of trust and cooperation between the two governments.
  • Rather than seeing China as a threat, the US ought to view China as a legitimate, constructive and responsible global player in solving common threats to humanity. For the sake of global stability and growth, the US should abandon its preoccupation with preserving its role of global hegemon, rather it should accept a multi-polar world that is more desirable for a complex and interconnected world.
  • The Covid-19 pandemic crisis, which has caused global systemic crisis, has been accentuating geopolitical rivalry between China and the US. The US has increasingly perceived China as a key threat to the US hegemonic power and supremacy. The ravage of COVID-19 with its disregard for national borders and races and its destructive impact to the global economy is a testimony to the need for cooperation between China and the US.


This essay divides into three main sections. Firstly, it discusses the rise of China and the factors contributing to the US’s perceived fear of China as an “evil” global actor. Given their failure in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and economic recession, President Trump and the Republican Party will intensify their scapegoating of China as a campaign issue. Secondly, it argues that rather than seeing China as a threat, the US ought to view China as a legitimate, constructive and responsible global player in solving common threats to humanity such as the issues of underdevelopment in the Global South and the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Thirdly, it contends that for global stability and growth, the US should abandon its preoccupation with preserving its role of global hegemon, rather it should accept a multi-polar world that is more desirable for a complex and interconnected world.

China’s Rise and US Anxiety

Following the setback of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution that plunged China into economic ruin and political turmoil, China, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, abandoned its centrally planned and self-sufficient economy to gradually adopt a market economy.1 Since 1980, China has experienced an average growth of 9 per cent per annum expanding its GDP from US$191.149 billion in 1980 to US$13.608 trillion in 2018, transforming it into the world’s second largest economy after the US. This phenomenal growth has transformed China as the world’s manufacturing hub and a source of outflow and inflow of foreign investment. More noticeably, China’s sustained economic growth has lifted over 850 million Chinese people out of poverty.2 As other emerging economies have expanded, the US has experienced relative decline. Although the gap between China and the US in technological innovation, military technology, and people’s standard of living remain wide, this gap is narrowing.3 Its share of global gross domestic product dropped from 50 per cent in 1950 to 25 per cent in 1991 and further down to just over 14 per cent in 2020.

China’s unprecedented economic success with political stability has proved that there is more than one way of organising a country’s society and economy. For China, its model contains unique economic and political elements. Economically, the China model is based on a mixture of public and private ownership guided by market principles and government guidance. Politically, the Chinese model is based on a system of “selection plus election” wherein top leadership are selected based on their experiences and talents in governance.5 In international politics, the Chinese model adheres to the principles of non-interference and peaceful co- existence and win-win cooperation.6 Peaceful development requires the maintenance of good relations with foreign governments, reassuring the nations in China’s neighbourhood and beyond that China’s rise will not be a threat to world order. To achieve this foreign policy objective, the PRC has adopted a new foreign policy tool based on the concept of “soft power” or “charm offensive”. 7 In contrast to “hard power,” which is projected through military force, “soft power,” according to Joseph Nye, “rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others …. [It] is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.”8 Furthermore, soft power entails not only the attractiveness of a country’s use of ideas, culture, and politics, but it also encompasses diplomacy, foreign aid, trade, investment, and market access to induce other countries to cooperate with, share or follow China’s world view.

The year 2000 was the beginning of the systematic implementation of this PRC’s sophisticated diplomacy based on “soft power”, directed largely to the developing world.10 As far as developing countries are concerned, China’s soft power projected through a “charm offensive” entails “no interference” or “no political strings attached”.11 Kerry Dumbaugh describes “no strings attached” by noting, “Chinese money generally comes with none of the good governance requirements, human rights conditions, approved-project restrictions and environmental quality regulations” commonly found attached to aid and investment from Western countries.12

More recently in 2013, drawing from its large reserves and saturated domestic construction sector, China embarked on a new Belt and Road Initiative (BRI),13 a global program of infrastructure-driven investments with an estimated aggregate pledge of at least one trillion US dollars. In response to a growing financing gap for critical infrastructures in Asia and beyond and inequitable representation within the existing Bretton Woods Institutions, China has also established the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

Facing a rising China with different values, history and interests, the US has felt anxious and uncertain about its power and role in a changing world. The US’s anxiety and uncertainty, as the political scientist Graham Allison reasons, stems from the fact that since the end of the Cold War the US has insisted, “The entire world has become a de facto American sphere.” As a result, a new consensus among the US political establishment is that “China is now a vital threat to the US both economically and strategically.” Moises Naim, the editor of Foreign Policy—an influential American policy journal, has labelled China as a “rogue state.”  To the American political establishment, the logical policy option for the US is to contain China. The characterisation of China as a rogue state is informed by realist pessimism which argues that given the persistence of international anarchy, China’s unprecedented growth and large economy will lead it to dominate other countries to advance its own interests at a zero-sum outcome for the world. This is a misperception of China that could potentially set the stage for the “Thucydides’ Trap.” As Graham Allison explains, war between China and the US is not inevitable. However, if not managed with care, US-Sino tensions over issues salient to Chinese international reputation, sovereignty, and interests could escalate into war. Key issues, according Allison, include “an accidental collision at sea,” “Taiwan moves toward independence,” “war provoked by a third party,” “North Korean Collapse” and “trade conflict.” It should be noted that Allison does not foresee a pandemic as a potential spark for Sino-US conflict. The following pages highlight how the Trump Administration’s attempt to deflect blame of its disastrous response to COVID-19 as a dangerous path that could lead the two superpowers into “Thucydides’ Trap.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, which originated in Wuhan city of China’s Hubei province in late 2019, has sent shock waves across the globe affecting over 3 million and killing over 347,000 people worldwide. In the United State alone, COVID-19 has infected over a million people and killed over 98,000 by May. Moreover, the pandemic has plunged the global economy into great depression. Initially, President Trump downplayed the potential severity of the coronavirus. Key US government agencies such as the Defence Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s Joint Staff and the White House received briefings on the virus multiple times. In fact, the warning of the potential disruption to life and businesses by the virus first appeared on the President’s Daily Brief of intelligence issues as early as January 2020. Initially, President Trump characterised the warning of the potential catastrophe of COVID-19 and the need for urgent action as a hoax—a plot by liberal “fake news” and the Democratic Party to influence the 2020 US presidential election cycle. President Trump’s remark on February 28 on this matter is worth quoting at length:

Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus, you know that right? Coronavirus, they’re politicizing it. We did one of the great jobs. You say, “How’s President Trump doing?” They go, “Oh, not good, not good.” They have no clue. They don’t have any clue. They can’t even count their votes in Iowa. They can’t even count. No, they can’t. They can’t count their votes.

One of my people came up to me and said, “Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia.” That didn’t work out too well. They couldn’t do it. They tried the impeachment hoax. That was on a perfect conversation. They tried anything. They tried it over and over. They’d been doing it since you got in. It’s all turning. They lost. It’s all turning. Think of it. Think of it. And this is their new hoax.

After its initial denial, Trump Administration’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have appeared to be confusing, disorganised and incompetent. The dismal responses by the government of the US have highlighted the fragility of democratic system and poor leadership in times of crisis. With a focus on winning the next elections, the Trump Administration has appeared to be succumbing to its parochial, ill-informed and xenophobic voting bloc. The force of globalisation has transformed the American economy and society, marginalising some social groups and states while rewarding others. The predominantly democratic states—the Blue states—have in general successfully ridden the wave of globalisation and have enthusiastically embraced an open economy and cosmopolitan values. On the contrary, the predominantly republican states—the Red states—have been unable to fully reap the fruits of globalisation. Consequently, the inhabitants of these states have clung on to their religious and rural values and have succumbed to xenophobia and conspiracy theories. America’s two-party system and electoral college system have further exacerbated the red-blue and urban-rural state divides.

Rather than cultivating national unity to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump has scapegoated the crisis in order to appeal to his rural and red-state constituents. The consensus among the US scientific community is that urgent measures such as lockdown of the society and social distancing are the best options to contain the spread of the new coronavirus. President Trump and his supporters view any proposed lockdown of society as an infringement on personal liberty. In fact, they view such lockdowns as violations of people’s constitutional rights. Furthermore, because of their religious belief and penchant for conspiracy theories, the majority of President Trump’s supporters are not very concerned about the danger of their exposure to COVID-19. A survey by Gallup Poll in March 2020 revealed that only 42 per cent of the Republicans are “very/somewhat worried” about the potential exposure to COVID-19 compared to 64 per cent among the Democrats. Perception or knowledge of the severity of the coronavirus is not only associated with American voters’ political party affiliation, but also with their sources of information. President Trump’s supporters tend to receive information from conservative sources such as Fox News and the Rush Limbaugh Show.

Donald Trump is a controversial president whose tenure has been marred by numerous scandals from alleged corruption to collusion with Russia for electoral gains to the abuse of presidential power. It was the president’s latter act that eventually resulted in his impeachment by the US House of Representatives. President Trump and his supporters believed that the “deep- state”—anti-Trump elements within the government—planted the seeds for those scandals in order to destroy his presidency, the Republican Party and most importantly “core American values.” Such mistrust of the state apparatus and experts’ assessments has indeed resulted in absence of a consistent, unified, and logical plan to fight COVID-19. Rather than seeing the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) as a scientific agency with the objectivity to safeguard the health of the American public, sizeable number of the Republicans view the CDC as part of the deep state. As researchers Jamieson and Albaracin have documented, “Republicans also were likely to believe that the CDC was exaggerating the threat of the coronavirus to hurt President Donald Trump.”31 In other words, for the “ever Trumpers,” the objectivity of CDC is nothing but another hoax to bring down the Trump presidency.

As his belated actions have failed to contain the pandemic, President Trump has escalated his scapegoating tactics. First, he intensified blame on China for concealing the gravity of COVID-19. The Trump administration’s scapegoating rhetoric pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic is viewed both as part of his re-election bid and of continuing the geopolitical struggle against a rising China. It should be noted that there exist precedents within the Trump Administration of painting China as a rogue state. Beginning with his 2016 election campaign, then presidential candidate Trump pledged to beat the so-called enemy that was China, which cost the U.S. jobs, spied on U.S. businesses and stole U.S. technology.32 This anti-China view led to the intense trade war, wherein tit-for-tat tariffs destabilised the global economy.

The social, economic and human losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted to a great extent from the failure of President Trump’s response. As the election cycle approaches, President Trump and his Republican Party must find issues and achievements to campaign on. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US and the world, President Trump could claim credit for “Making America Great Again” based on economic growth. But the economic gain throughout his tenure has been swept away by the pandemic. The Democratic Party has singled out President Trump’s incompetency in handling the COVID-19 pandemic as a cause of America’s economic malaise.

He then labelled COVID-19 the “China virus” with the implicit association of the origin of the virus with China, exacerbating conspiracy theory that the virus was manufactured in a lab in China. American conservative politicians and conservative media outlets have amplified this conspiracy. The tone of the Trump Administration is that the US is not only under attack by the virus but also by the Chinese. Politically convenient though dangerous to the global geopolitics, President Trump and the Republican Party have scapegoated their failure to address the COVID-19 pandemic to China. The Trump Administration has accused China of causing the pandemic by “manufacturing the virus in the lab,” then “carelessly leaking it” then “covering it up.” President Trump and the Republican Party hope that their scapegoating tactic of casting China as ‘evil’ behind the pandemic will rally their republican base.

Trump’s supporters have sponsored similar political propaganda campaign nationwide: “China is killing our jobs and is now killing our people.” By scapegoating China, the US allows domestic political competition to trump global geopolitics. This is a dangerous move on the part of the US in an era of global interconnectedness that requires peaceful co-existence among nations and a rising China that plays a constructive and responsible role. The next section illustrates how China has fulfilled that role.

China: A Constructive and Responsible Global Player

The American political establishment labels China as a “rogue state” based largely on the latter’s different political and social values. The American political establishment criticises China’s human rights practices. This establishment should realise that, given cultural relativity, there is varying understanding of the notion of human rights. To China and much of the developing world, human rights mean the right to livelihoods and respect for social order and stability. Furthermore, unlike communist states of the past, China is not erecting a wall to keep foreigners from entering China and to prevent Chinese from leaving China.

It should also be noted that China has played a constructive role in promoting world peace and development. Since the end of the Cold War, the US has presented its neo-liberal model as being effective in promoting not just human rights and democracy, but also economic growth. The US has earnestly imposed its model on developing countries. The one size-fit-all policy ignores the differences in culture, history and level of economic development of countries in the developing world. Consequently, for example, after decades of exposure to the Washington Consensus and over one trillion dollars of aid pouring into African countries, many countries in the developing world have made limited dents in poverty reduction and little headway in developing efficient and stable governments. In reference to the Western development aid model, the economist Dambisa Moyo asserts, “Aid has helped make the poor poorer, and growth slower […] it’s part of the problem – in fact aid is the problem.” Instead, Western aid money has created a culture of dependence and corruption.

Given its rapid and sustainable economic growth and based on its own economic development experiences, China has entered into the international aid industry. The political establishment in the US has been quick to criticise the Chinese development aid model. The editor of Foreign Policy, Moises Naim opines:

Because their goal is not to help other countries develop. Rather, they are motivated by a desire to further their own national interests, advance an ideological agenda, or sometimes line their own pockets. Rogue aid providers couldn’t care less about the long-term well-being of the population of the countries they “aid.”

The economist Moyo’s work challenges assumption by pessimists such as Naim who claims, “Africans (as a whole) are getting a raw deal” from China. These pessimists question China’s stance on human rights and democracy, but Moyo reminds them, “[I]t is after all, under the auspices of Western aid, good will and transparency that Africa’s most notorious plunderers and despots have risen and thrived…” It is also under the neo-liberal order that Africa has not just fallen apart but also falling behind the rest of the world.

It is undeniable that China’s involvement in Africa is to gain access to natural resources. But to suggest, as Moyo argues, that “the average African is not benefiting at all is a falsehood, and the critics know it.” China’s involvement in developing countries indicates that there exists a way of “Doing Development Differently.” The Chinese aid model is based on its development experiences, particularly its relationship with Japan during the era of opening up. The Japanese model is to exchange infrastructure development for China’s natural resources. It was a win-win deal. China has applied that model to its involvement with developing countries. China’s bartering infrastructure for resources has not only helped reduce corruption that was once widespread among Western aid projects, but has also helped promote investment and alleviated poverty. Furthermore, contrary to Western aid that focuses on the development of human rights and democracy, China’s aid aligns with recipient countries’ development goals and strategies of developing key infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and power-plants. These are crucial ingredients for economic take-off.

Moreover, a rising China has contributed to world peace. China has played by the international norms acting as a responsible global player. It has not gone to war with any country since 1979 and has not engaged in any proxy war as other major powers have done. Furthermore, China has become an instrumental member of the United Nations. China has supported the United Nations, becoming by 2020 its second largest funder. It has also contributed troops to the United Nations Peacekeeping Operations. With 2,500 soldiers deployed to various UN peacekeeping operations, China has by far contributed more peacekeepers than other Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council. It should be noted that China has supported 182 out of 190 United Nations Security Council Resolutions “imposing sanctions on countries deemed to have violated international rules and norms.”

Furthermore, China is also a responsible global economic actor. In recent years, the US has accused China of pursuing mercantilist policies that hurt the US economy. Contrary to the US allegation, evidence shows the China’s alleged mercantilist policies did not have significant effects on the US economy. Citing former US Treasury Secretary, Lawrence Summer, Zakaria writes, “It cannot be argued that unfair Chinese trade practices have affected US growth by even 0.1 per cent a year.”  Contrary to their rhetoric of promoting free trade, the US and the European Union have engaged in protectionist policies. During the 1997 Asian financial crisis, while refusing to provide bilateral loans to Thailand, the US insisted that Thailand adopted IMF’s adjustment policies. To the contrary, China offered a billion-dollar loan to Thailand. It also agreed to not devalue its currency to prevent further deterioration of the financial situation in Southeast Asia. In the same year, China also cooperated with ASEAN’s initiative to create a common pool fund with contributions from ASEAN+3 which included ASEAN, China, South Korea, and Japan. This fund was designed to help the region deal with future financial crises. More recently, during the global financial crisis in 2008, China had helped to stabilise the US economy and thus global economy by agreeing to purchase additional US treasuries.

China’s role as a responsible global player has been evident with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While the US has adopted an isolationist foreign policy, China has pursued a multilateral approach to address the pandemic. In order to shift the responsibility for the pandemic to the third party, President Trump has accused the World Health Organization (WHO) of colluding with China to conceal the severity of COVID-19 pandemic. As a retaliation against WHO, the US announced that it would postpone its contributions to the WHO. China has increased its funding to the organisation signalling its attempt to support the existing multilateral institutions. Furthermore, China has also been active in sharing information on its experiences in testing and treatment of COVID-19 across the globe.

To the surprise of many observers, the Trump administration—as a way to address the shortage of medical equipment at home due to his government’s lack of preparedness—was reported to have diverted shipments of face masks and other medical kits from even its allies like Canada and France. Such an “America First” attitude has cast doubt on the reliability of the US as an ally, not to mention as a leader, in times of crisis. In contrast, the Chinese government and private companies have provided material assistance including general medical masks, protective suits, test kits, and ventilators to more than 100 countries and international organisations. The dividends of China’s “face mask” diplomacy can already be seen. The positive impression of China’s good intentions in many parts of the world is natural in a critical situation in which the public are scared, and governments lack the capacity to battle the pandemic. In sum, China’s “mask diplomacy” shows leaders and the public in many parts of the globe that a rising China could be a benign power.

Toward Peaceful Coexistence: Compromise, Accommodation and Cooperation

As section II of this paper suggests, the relative decline of America’s power and China’s rise has generated great anxiety for its leaders. The presidential election cycle and conspiracy theories, compounded by the devastating effects of COVID-19 on American society and economy, have conveniently permitted President Trump and the Republican Party to scapegoat China. These developments will likely lead to wider misperception of China in global politics which will make it even harder for the American political establishment to accept differences. Still worse, the politics of scapegoating China will likely make the American political establishment even more willing to manufacture differences for domestic political consumption. Graham Allison advises that leaders of great powers should act like “adults” taking into consideration the reality of the world before taking any foreign policy decision. Instead of making efforts to contain China, the US should accept the fact the “unipolarity is over, and with it the illusion that other nations would simply take their assigned place in the US-led international order.” Similarly, the political scientist Samuel Huntington argues, “Security of the world requires acceptance of global multiculturalism.”

The US should realise that as a world power China yearns for recognition of its interests, thinking/model, and goals both at home and abroad. Recent actions and rhetoric of the US, as this paper has demonstrated, run-counter to the world’s need for multi-polarity and multi- culturalism. As the world has become increasingly interconnected, global issues—such as diseases, climate change, terrorism, economic crisis—have become more complex and thus more complicated to solve. Effective resolutions to these issues require collaboration among state and non-state actors at the international, national and local levels. Historically, pandemics have fostered international cooperation. The US and the former Soviet Union collaborated to fight polio worldwide. It should also be noted that the US and China coordinated closely during the SARS outbreak in 2003. Non-traditional security threats, like the COVID-19, require broad collaboration that includes not only governments but also multilateral and non-governmental organisations. It should be crystal clear that the cost of abandoning multilateral mechanisms in coping with COVID-19 by the US is high. Rather than painting China as “evil,” the Trump Administration needs to acknowledge that the Chinese one-party system can promote efficiency and efficacy in promoting economic growth and in battling crises such as the COVID-19. The US should recognise, as political scientist Andrew Nathan argues, that China “contributes more to the general welfare of the world than it detracts.”

To maintain a collaborative multi-polar world requires that the existing hegemon—the US— recognises and accommodates the rising power’s—China—interests. The US should recognise China’s sensitivity to and need for national unity. To China, national unity has been part of its long history, and the country will take whatever measures it deems necessary to preserve its territorial sovereignty. It sounds hypocritical and provocative to China when the Trump Administration postponed its financial contributions to WHO alleging the organisation’s poor performance, while lobbying other countries to support Taiwan’s attempt to become a member of WHO.


Nowhere is the rising level of development as astonishing as it is in China. Harnessing the force of economic globalisation while maintaining its own unique culture and political system, China has experienced a great leap forward in economic progress, transforming it from an economically backward country into the world’s second largest economy. It also presents the world with an alternative model of development to Western dominated neoliberalism. China’s rise and its alternative model has generated anxiety and uncertainty for the existing global power—the US. Such anxiety, as this paper demonstrates, could potentially lead to conflict between China and the US. Although conflict between these two rival global powers is not inevitable, two possibilities could transform the existing tensions into spiral conflicts. The first is the US’ misperception of China. Rather than seeing China as a responsible and constructive player on the global stage, the US could continue to dangerously treat China as a rogue state. The second is the missteps taken by the US due to its politicians’ impulse for winning the next elections. These missteps could draw harsh responses from China, a development that could spark global power confrontation of consequential magnitude to global economy and security. To mitigate this conflict, this paper suggests that the US should first avoid letting domestic politics trump its foreign policy consideration. Second, the US should accommodate to the fact that there should be competitive cooperation between itself and China.

Sino-US competitive cooperation will not only help the world to escape global power rivalry, but it will also afford the world the ability to address pressing issues. Global interconnectedness has generated complex issues—environmental degradation, terrorism, diseases, drug trafficking, and human smuggling. Effective solutions to these complex issues require global stability and cooperation that involve multiple actors—state and non-state—at multiple levels—local, national and international. The ravage of COVID-19 with its disregard for national borders and races and its destructive impact to the global economy is a testimony to the need for cooperation between China and the US.

The opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Vision Institute.