• Toby Irwin

Pandemic Leadership: Never Miss a Trick

In times of crisis, all states seek to mitigate impacts on both economy and loss of life. It is no different for today's hot crisis of the day: the coronavirus. However, in reality few states maintain the capacity to adequately respond to such overwhelming circumstances. The consequence is that many states, even well developed ones, rely on the aid and generosity of larger players on the international stage. For creditors of this aid, this becomes a jostling battle for leadership.

China and the US are currently locked in an ongoing battle for global leadership. Indeed, this battle exists a;most entirely outside the material, military realm signalling an all-new form of power politics. Leadership comes in a number of forms, for instance economic aid, engagement in international institutions, diffusion of technology and so forth, though it is crises like the current pandemic that offers the contenders a chance to wrestle top position from the other.

China has made clear since the Deng era in the 1970s that China's rise is destined to be peaceful, and developmental in nature. Hu Jintao's famous concept of 'harmonious world' is an example of this, and Xi Jinping's One Belt, One Road policy is its manifestation. The idea of mutual development is also of interest, since it promotes a zero sum economic picture and a win-win mentality. While it may be a truism that mutual development ultimately serves longer term Chinese goals - awarding dividends of influence and new markets - it at least at face value is perceived as Beijing adopting a more pronounced leadership position. By contrast the United States is sliding into protectionism, favouring tariffs and insulation of its domestic market. This has allowed China to actually become the champion of global free trade.

This dichotomy of interests, seemingly where China is open and the US is closed, can be seen in the response to the virus outbreak. China is aggressively pushing a manufactured image of itself as a global leader in pandemic control. Italy is a good case study, where Chinese aid has been warmly welcomed by authorities. Medical experts, equipment and extensive funding are examples of Beijing stepping up to offset the United States. Traditionally, Italy has firmly fallen under Washington's sphere of influence, however with a largely insignificant blanket aid package of only $274 million encompassing the US' entire international aid package, then one is left wanting.

The United States currently fails to appreciate largely the game of soft power as a component of power politics. Allowing China to nudge itself from top-dog position will soon be regarded as an act of its own self-doing. If China can encroach this far into the West through apt crisis exploitation, then the US appears in poor stead to counter China more broadly in its own peripheral sphere of influence in East Asia. Washington must reconsider its international response, though with such an impending domestic crisis unfolding on the horizon, this seems near-impossible.


At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a third year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK foreign policy and the defence/aerospace industry.