Don’t worry (Yet) about China taking over the world

Nisid Hajari

Among the many threats posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, Washington’s nat-ional-security hawks have fixated on one: China, they warn, is exploiting the crisis to further its goal of replacing the U.S. as the globe’s preeminent leader. But what should be even more worrying than a China that’s aspiring to global leadership is a China that isn’t.

And so far, the signs point more to the latter.

Take China’s reaction to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision this week to suspend funding for the World Health Organization for 60 days. The move was ostensibly driven by Beijing’s suborning of WHO officials, who took at face value many of China’s initially misleading statements about the spread of the new coronavirus. China piously joined others in condemning the U.S. decision, warning about the consequences for poorer nations struggling to cope with the pandemic.

Yet China could easily fill in the funding gap if it wished. While even U.S. officials don’t seem clear how much money is going to be withheld from the WHO, Washington has committed $893 million to the agency over its current two-year funding cycle, or roughly $37 million per month. China’s contributions are less than one-tenth that. Making up a two-month U.S. shortfall would be an easy way for China to score points among developing countries—and far cheaper than increasing its regular contributions to levels comparable to those of Europe or Japan.

If China wanted to do more than engage in PR stunts, too, there’s no shortage of areas where it could demonstrate true leadership. It’s sought to win goodwill (and distract from its early mishandling of the crisis) by selling or donating masks, ventilators and other medical supplies to more than 100 countries. A few aid flights, however, aren’t going to solve a growing problem: Developing nations face huge hurdles to procuring critical supplies—from personal protective equipment (PPE), to ventilators to testing swabs and reagents—as richer countries outbid them.

Some public-health experts recommend creating a new vehicle, coordinated through the G-20 or the United Nations Secretary-General if not the WHO, that ropes in rich and poor countries, major manufacturers and donor organizations such as the Gates Foundation, to mobilize production and allocate PPE and testing supplies globally, based on agreed criteria. The same system might later be used to distribute therapeutic drugs and, once they’re approved, vaccines. China, whose factories churn out many of these supplies, would seem well-positioned to lead such an effort.

Similarly, as one of Africa’s top creditors, China should arguably be at the forefront of negotiations to offer debt relief to the neediest countries so they can free up resources to confront the coronavirus. Instead, while joining other major creditors in a $20 billion debt moratorium for poor nations, China has promised only “to study the possibility” of a wider relief package “jointly with the international community,” and to engage in bilateral discussions with debtor nations where appropriate.

Countless other challenges would benefit from better international coordination—from lowering barriers to trade in medical supplies to establishing new travel and trade guidelines as countries begin to lift their lockdowns.

Indeed, if China aspired to true global leadership, it might even agree to a UN expert investigation into how the initial Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan transpired. More than anything else, that step would rebuild China’s credibility in countries in Europe and elsewhere that will otherwise never believe what Beijing has to say about its handling of the virus, no matter how many free masks it offers or how many times it revises its death tolls.

Of course, Chinese leaders wouldn’t dream of allowing such an inquiry, for the same reason they likely won’t seek a greater role on other issues. Their primary concern remains the preservation of Communist Party rule, and President Xi Jinping’s suzerainty in particular. They would never risk an investigation that might raise questions about their management of the crisis or responsibility for the virus’s origins.

Nor, given the shocking slowdown in the Chinese economy and rising xenophobia at home, do they have much incentive to offer financial aid abroad instead of to their own citizens. Whether successful or not, their efforts to recast China as a global benefactor in this crisis have at least come cheap.

In some respects, we should surely be grateful that China isn’t demonstrating greater ambition, given how malign its influence over international institutions has sometimes been. But that failure of statesmanship nevertheless leaves the world even more unmoored at a moment of profound crisis.

Ironically enough, this drift will hurt China as much as anyone. The country is already seeing a spike in new imported virus cases, a trend that will continue if the virus spreads unchecked around the world.

And the longer China’s trading partners remain in lockdown, the harder it’ll be to revive growth and employment.

For the Trump administration, fighting Beijing’s global propaganda campaigns makes sense on several levels, not least as a base-stoker for Trump’s re-election.

But the U.S. would hardly need to worry about China exploiting this crisis if it simply filled the need for global leadership itself, building consensus for action within the G-7 and G-20, and resuming support for key multilateral institutions, including the WHO.

Such an effort would surely be welcomed even now, and even by China, given how difficult any coordinated action is without American buy-in. But sadly, and bizarrely, the U.S. appears to have even less interest than China in playing such a role.