NANJING, China — The COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to recalibrate the geopolitical order. Which countries will take advantage and push themselves forward?
As the United States struggles to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, its hegemonic status continues to erode. China hopes to use this crisis as an opportunity to bolster its global leadership credentials, but many countries outside the Great Wall are hesitant to look to China for leadership. While the U.S. and China engage in tit-for-tat blaming and shaming, unforeseen actors across Asia are showing their merit in public health. Successful strategies employed in Asia cannot be easily replicated throughout the world. Nevertheless, the pandemic and its aftermath will hasten Asia’s return to the forefront of global affairs.
The notion that the U.S. botched its initial response to COVID-19 is hardly controversial. American data has been called into question and the CDC’s initial diagnostic tests didn’t yield reliable results. In addition to the advantage of time, which China did not have, the U.S. has more resources than most countries, but did not use them on a large scale until the epidemic became a domestic crisis. Frequently at odds with epidemiologists, President Trump simultaneously deferred responsibility and prematurely declared victory over the virus. Instead of earning respect, the White House is being accused of irresponsibility and racism.
China aims to capitalize on the United States’ mistakes. However, even if the world is witnessing the U.S.’s “Suez moment,” China is unlikely to harness the opportunities provided by these events to fully take up the mantle. China has been criticized for posting questionable data, prematurely declaring victory over the virus and promulgating conspiracy theories. The death of whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang and the disappearance of citizen-journalist Chen Qiushi and property tycoon Ren Zhiqian are highly troubling and derided both inside and outside China. According to an American professor who works in China and therefore chose to remain anonymous, “If China ends up actually improving their international image after this [epidemic], it will be the greatest public relations feat of the 21st century because they will have succeeded in turning truth on its head.”
China has slowed the spread of the virus and placated an initially-apoplectic domestic audience. It has also donated medical resources to countries in need, which will somewhat improve its image. Though it may win the “people’s war” at home, international audiences will continue to be wary of Beijing’s leadership, due to its suppression of critical voices and tacit approval of blame-shifting conspiracy theories.
The COVID-19 outbreak has laid bare the world’s reluctance to fully embrace either the U.S. or China. As Europe grieves, its prospects also seem dim. Amidst unconvincing response measures and uneasy collaboration, several high-profile European politicians have contracted COVID-19 and EU solidarity seems like a distant dream.
Meanwhile, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan — none of which have traditionally been perceived as global leaders — have been hailed as success stories in the fight against COVID-19. These places are much different from the U.S. and mainland China: they are islands and peninsulas with relatively small populations and more centralized control. That doesn’t mean their battles against COVID-19 have been easy. They are densely populated with high degrees of international traffic, both of which are risk factors for the spread of COVID-19. Without making critics disappear, they instituted strict measures suited to their respective needs. Some of these measures, such as tracking citizens’ movements and publicly posting the locations where coronavirus patients spend time, may be untenable in countries where more value is attached to privacy and individual rights than to public health. These experiences demonstrate that preparation, organization, efficiency, political will and widespread commitment to public health are keys to dealing with a pandemic.
Though they are managing the COVID-19 crisis relatively well, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan are not currently prepared to wrestle political or military power away from the U.S. or mainland Chinese. However, their economies will likely manage the crisis better than others. These places’ deft management displays institutional resilience and will help to maintain long-term confidence in the region.
Asia is even less of a monolith than Europe, yet taken collectively, it has enjoyed more success in the battle against COVID-19. Moreover, the global locus of power has arguably been shifting toward Asia for several years. In this context, the COVID-19 pandemic is expediting a trend that was already underway. The longer the West is embroiled in this crisis, the faster the locus of economic power will shift to the East.
Western eyes may perceive China as the most salient beneficiary of Asia’s surging prominence, but the rise of Asia is not confined to China. The region houses over half the world’s population and its economy has already surpassed North America and Europe in terms of purchasing power parity. The region’s response to COVID-19 suggests that problems within and between Asian nations will not prevent further economic and cultural development in Asia. In the future, Asia’s economic strength will be the basis for broader power for several regional players.
While the Eagle and the Dragon are mired in conspiracy theories, ethnic profiling and a trade war, others across Asia are striving ahead in the global fight against COVID-19. Their achievements will hasten Asia’s economic recovery and sustain the return of the East.