Why the US and Europe need to draw closer to China and drop the hubris

  • By Zhou Bo

    Zhou Bo is an honorary fellow at the PLA Academy of Military Science in China, Adjunct Senior Fellow, CISS, Tsinghua University

    The West is not in decay. It is falling apart. The novel coronavirus is a further blow to a West already at the nadir of its self-confidence since the 18th century. There is no leadership. The self-claimed “wartime president” of the United States has neither the interest nor the ability to lead. “American first” means Europe alone.

    In Europe, each country is fighting for its own survival. Beggar-thy-neighbour policies are common. When Italy tried to invoke a European Union mechanism to share medical supplies, no member state helped. Only China sent equipment. It remains to be seen how European solidarity could return after the pandemic, even superficially. Last year, The Guardian reported that more than half of Europeans surveyed expect an end to the EU within 20 years.

    In the East, Beijing’s way of taming Covid-19 looked like the largest performance art in history: locking down a city of 10 million people, building two hospitals that could accommodate 2,000 people in 10 days, and pressing pause on the second-largest economy in the world. It worked, but at an astronomical cost. Now, it is being emulated to varying degrees around the world.

    Beijing’s success does not bode well for Washington, which has declared a major power competition and taken China and Russia as its main competitors. Two rounds are already being fought, the first a trading tug of war for nearly two years, where Washington does not appear to have gained the upper hand.

    In the ongoing second round against the pathogen, although neither side prevailed in the war of words at the outset, the outcome is already determined, like a one-horse race. The US has become a recipient of desperately needed medical supplies from China, either through Chinese donations or its own procurement.

    Besides, the US depends heavily on China for vital drugs. According to The New York Times, Chinese pharmaceutical companies have supplied more than 90 per cent of US antibiotics, vitamin C, ibuprofen and hydrocortisone, as well as 70 per cent of the pain reliever paracetamol and 40-45 per cent of the blood thinner heparin in recent years.

    China and Europe will inevitably get closer. A divided Europe, further dismayed by the worsening transatlantic relationship, will naturally look east, while China, in competition with the US, has to enhance ties with Europe, too.

    What pulls the two together is primarily their consensus on multilateralism, be it on global trade, climate change or the role of international institutions. The pandemic can only further highlight the importance of international cooperation.

    This does not mean there is no competition between China and Europe. In its strategic review of relations last year, the EU described China simultaneously as a cooperation partner, negotiating partner, economic competitor and a systemic rival. But this partner-first, rival-last sequence also highlights the priority the EU places on its relationship with China.

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    The creation of the EU is meant, in part, to avoid great power competition. This is also why it is difficult for the US to hijack Nato into viewing China as the enemy – most members of the transatlantic security alliance are also EU members.

    Should China and the US decouple in trade and technology, Europe stands to reap benefits in a greater flow of goods, capital, personnel and technology from China.

    The pandemic raises two questions, one for China and one for the West. The question for China is whether the coronavirus outbreak can become a turning point for the country to provide more public goods to the world. Beijing’s antivirus help to more than 120 countries is the largest since the founding of the People’s Republic.

    It speaks volumes of its capacity as the world’s largest industrial nation and exporter. Yes, China will remain a developing country for a long time but it is already the second-largest economy. Even if Beijing has no appetite to become a world policeman, it can still be a Good Samaritan and provide more international humanitarian aid.

    China is the world’s largest producer of surgical masks, ventilators, protective suits and test kits. It produces the vast majority of active pharmaceutical ingredients necessary to make antibiotics. According to The Wall Street Journal, China has already asserted its claim to global leadership “mask by mask”.

    For the West, it remains to be seen if it will discard its hubris and see the world as it is. This year’s Munich Security Report is titled impressively “Westlessness”. Still, one hears the lament of a narcissist. If the West looks beyond its reflection, it will see that the world, composed of 195 sovereign states with the vast majority being developing countries, has long been essentially non-Western.

    The dichotomy of democracy vs autocracy is simplistic, if not misleading. As Francis Fukuyama wrote: “The major dividing line in effective crisis response will not place autocracies on one side and democracies on the other … The crucial determinant in performance will not be the type of regime, but the state’s capacity and, above all, trust in government”.

    For believers in limited government and open markets, China’s whole-of-government and whole-of society efforts against Covid-19 pose a problem. But similar approaches by the Japanese, South Korean and Singaporean governments also show that only the state can deal with such crises and that the state has to be strong and decisive.

    During the 1985 Geneva summit, then US president Ronald Reagan suddenly asked Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev if they could set aside their differences in case the world was invaded by aliens. Gorbachev said: “No doubt about it”, and Reagan said: “We too.”

    Given the devastating pandemic, we do not to need to wait for an alien invasion for the world to unite.


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