After Coronavirus: Foreign Policy Takeaways
Updated: Apr 2, 2020
For most Western nations, there are no actors besides themselves to blame for the extent to which coronavirus has gotten out of hand within their borders. The horrific growth in both the coronavirus death toll and the accompanying projections of how many will die before this crisis passes stems directly from the failure of policymakers to act early on, when containment efforts would have been feasible - despite the wealth of information that was already available indicating how potentially disastrous Covid-19 might prove. Especially in the United States, where for the President safeguarding his political image among his voting base and avoiding criticism or blame seem to take equal priority with saving American lives, this has been a tragic and, bitterly, an avoidable disaster which will devastate national economies and cause untold human suffering.
The first priority at this moment is obviously to stay the course on the drastic measures that have been put in place, and to continue to prop up the economy as lockdowns take their toll. But though everyone would wish that we could focus all our attention on fighting coronavirus, on everything from ramping up production of critical ventilators to finding ways to support the mental health of the billions in isolation, there is another issue that decision-makers in D.C. have had to contend with: namely, the fact that China is now trying to turn this catastrophe into a major geopolitical win, at America’s expense.
It’s yet another tragedy that is exemplified by how, instead of concentrating on working with allies and partners to counter this disease, we see US State Department and Chinese MFA spokespersons duking it out on Twitter. It is understandably necessary for the US to have to expend energy countering the narrative China’s building: China is right now attempting to sow doubt and confusion around the emergence of the virus, and thereby divert attention from how responsible the Communist Party is for letting the virus get out of control in the first place. This is happening through a playbook of denial and conspiracy theories, from raising the idea that coronavirus might have started in Italy to in recent days even claiming that the US might have been behind this all along. At the same time, having blocked exports of crucial medical equipment early on, it’s playing at looking like a real leader in world affairs by selling and gifting parts of its stockpiles abroad. As America continues to deal unnecessary damage to its world image through Trump’s folly, letting China continue to gain ground in the propaganda war compounds a US foreign policy nightmare.
But this short-term priority shouldn’t suck up too much strategic oxygen. What we need to do is think about how in the long term we can learn from what’s happening right now, and what concrete measures we can take beyond just trying to win this messaging battle - not least because it looks like America has already lost that battle. Barring a second wave of Covid-19 cases across China - something which would of course be overwhelmingly undesirable on balance - or a miracle in American efforts to fight the disease, the US will come out of this significantly less secure in its geopolitical position vis a vis China.
There are two main strategic takeaways here: firstly, and relatively uncontentiously, China is a single point of failure to too many of the supply chains of Western multinationals. By Kloepfel Consulting's reckoning, 81% of companies rely on suppliers from the mainland - and we can see that borne out in the endless reports on factory after factory being unable to continue production as it runs out of key parts. This level of dependence would be dangerous for even the closest of allies: with a strategic opponent like China, paired with its history of using its economic heft to bully others, this is downright ludicrous. Strategic industries in technology and pharmaceuticals - the extent of dependence in the latter being a critical weakness exposed over recent weeks - should be materially encouraged to increase localization of their supply chains, and in general more policies (better thought through and more targeted than Trump’s trade war) should be enacted to nudge corporations into at the very least diversifying supply chains by sourcing more from South Asia and other alternatives. Policy implementation would benefit from having the wind at its back, as companies are already inclined after the repeated shocks of the last few years to consider other options besides China.
The second takeaway is that the hawkish view of US-China relations is now made more credible, building on the fact that yet again the structural issues that plague the Chinese political system have been highlighted. It was the perverse incentives endemic to this system that led, again, to coronavirus breaking out and becoming a pandemic in the first place. An apparatus of oppression cracked down on whistleblowers and doctors early on, and the three weeks of covering up and denial which preceded China’s first serious actions proved extremely costly: it is estimated that if China had acted three weeks earlier, 95% of cases would have been prevented, and geographical spread significantly limited. Moreover, drawing on what we noted above, that the Communist Party, instead of choosing to work in concert with America and the rest of the world to overcome this unprecedented crisis, chose to start and prosecute a propaganda war in pursuit of a geopolitical victory should leave doves questioning how workable a relationship built on shared goals will be in the future.
This is an extremely dangerous and scary moment for the world. Our first focus and the bulk of our planning will be devoted to helping our health services survive and keeping the spread of coronavirus as low as possible through the months ahead. But we’re going to get through this, and once that happens we’ll need to make sure that we learn from our errors - not only in the level of preparedness for pandemics, but also in American and Western thinking more broadly when it comes to economic and political relations with China.
At the time of writing, Rocco is a first-year undergraduate at the University of Oxford reading PPE. His main areas of interest are US-China relations, foreign policy, and cybersecurity.