The lacklustre response of the Trump administration to the coronavirus pandemic and its failure to live up to the traditional US role during a global crisis has led some to wonder whether China can fill this void.
While the US may not be pleasing its allies by halting exports of protective equipment, China is not going to find it easy to step into the US’ global leadership role. The breach of trust that China exhibited in concealing the onset of the pandemic will have far-reaching implications on its aspirations for global leadership.
China’s closest allies and partners demonstrated their lack of faith in Beijing’s ability to handle the virus early on by closing their borders and repatriating citizens – the measures that China criticised the United States for taking. North Korea – China’s only ally in the formal sense of the term – sealed its borders in late January.
While Sino-Russia relations have been growing increasingly intimate under President Xi Jinping and his counterpart Vladimir Putin, Russia closed its direct borders with China in late January and suspended visa-free travel from China on February 2. Iran, a key strategic partner of China, stopped all flights between the two countries on January 31.
Pakistan, also a key partner of China’s, did not repatriate its citizens, but this choice was motivated more by Pakistan’s own public health deficiencies than faith in China’s ability to handle the pandemic.
As the pandemic wore on, the narrative over the virus became focused on the decision of President Donald Trump and some of his officials to label the virus the “ Chinese virus ” or “Wuhan virus”. While Washington and Beijing pointed fingers , China’s partners became critical of the regime’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Britain, who only months earlier had angered the US by allowing Huawei to bid for the rights to build its 5G infrastructure, is now reportedly eyeing a “reckoning” with China. Boris Johnson, who as prime minister was ultimately responsible for the 5G decision, now lays in hospital with the coronavirus.
Even Iran has criticised China for hiding the true extent of the outbreak, with health ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur lamenting that its inaccurate data “made a bitter joke with the rest of the world”.
Trust was a key component in China’s rise. Some of this trust was perhaps overly optimistic and naive, but the foundation of it was painstakingly built and earned. This trust was compromised before the coronavirus pandemic, but these cracks have splintered into chasms.
How can Britain, or any country, trust China to provide critical components for its 5G infrastructure when it could not trust Beijing to provide accurate information about a public health crisis?
How can the US continue to allow the nation’s pharmaceutical and medical equipment to be produced in China when its media mouthpiece publicly threatens to “sink [the United States] into a hell of a novel coronavirus epidemic” by withholding these essential products when they are most direly needed?
How can Beijing expect to step into a global leadership role when it compromised its own people’s health and safety by silencing whistle-blowers and detaining dissidents?
The generation now leading China does not remember the country before 1949. They did not experience how the US and China worked together during World War II in their united fight against Japan.
The younger generation in China does not remember the country before normalisation with the US and before Deng’s reforms. They may take for granted the trust that these changes were predicated on and that has been fundamentally compromised by the coronavirus pandemic.
This is an issue entirely separate from blame over the virus’ origin. Regardless of how the virus started, Xi’s and his government’s penchant for secrecy has compromised the health, safety and economic stability of his own people and of the world.
Xi may try to control his people’s response to his ineptitude through propaganda and censorship, but the rest of the world will not as easily forget. He will need a new approach – and better advisers – to help rebuild the trust that has been lost.
15 April 20/Wednesday Source: scmp