Friday, April 17, 2020

The Geopolitics of the Coronavirus Pandemic

In the interest of promoting rational thinking about the geopolitical implications of the current pandemic, I offer some thoughts by David Wallace-Wells. Obviously, DWW leans left politically, but, to his credit he gives great pride of place to one Bruno Macaes, whose analysis appeared in National Review.

Happily, DWW joins Macaes in not playing the blame game and in not uttering threats. He recognizes that China, the origin of the coronavirus, did not at first respond well. Then again, nearly no one did:

Because while the early Chinese response was negligent and narrowly self-interested, there have been so few admirable responses to the disease it is hard to fault the first government to encounter COVID-19 for being imperfect, especially because the quite effective second-wave response has formed the basis of nearly all global public-health action: aggressive testing, quarantining of the sick and those interacting with them, and “shelter-in-place” lockdowns for everybody else, at least for a limited period of time.

After the initial failures, China’s experience has determined the best practices for other countries. And this is true even though, as we know, the information coming out of Wuhan has been largely unreliable:

Before that, for months, our basic understanding of the coronavirus and nearly all of our sense of “best practices” in treating and containing it, came out of the experience of China, and particularly Wuhan, where the data seems to have been at the very least massaged, and perhaps much more systematically laundered, past the point of reliability.

DWW shows that everyone understands perfectly well where the virus came from, and that the Chinese government deceived the world over it. Though, it is also possible that the local authorities deceived themselves and did not grasp the scope of the problem:

And while there are too many confounding factors and still-unknown aspects of the disease to attribute all of those differences to efforts of propaganda, it is nevertheless fair to say, as Anthony Fauci has, that the Chinese “deceived” the world by providing “misinformation” on matters of critical public-health importance. Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the FDA and today among the more credible and serious Republican voices on the disease, has gone further. “China was not truthful with the world at the outset of this,” he told CBS this past weekend. “Had they been more truthful with the world, which would have enabled them to be more truthful with themselves, they might have actually been able to contain this entirely.” On Monday, Chris Hayes tweeted, “This is a very obvious point and has been obvious from the beginning but as the global picture fills in over time, there is *absolutely* no fricking way China only had 3300 fatalities from this virus.” It’s enough to make some serious people wonder whether the account we have of the origin of the disease is credible, or whether it emerged from a lab facility (though at the moment, the somewhat plausible version of that hypothesis remains the facility was doing proper biomedical research, not bioweapons work, as the fringier hypothesis has it).

As always, if we want to think clearly, we need to draw a distinction between biomedical research and bioweapons programs. And we need to distinguish between a horrendous accident and biological warfare.

But then, China has been sending faulty testing equipment around the world. It might be good at producing iPhones, but it apparently fails at coronavirus test kits:

The self-reported false-negative rate of the tests used in China is 30 percent, and many of the test kits being used now elsewhere in the world were manufactured there, including those which Spanish, Slovakian, Czech, Turkish, and British doctors and scientists have found to be unworkably flawed. The same goes for masks and other PPE, like the 600,000 masks the Dutch returned to China after buying them — the Netherlands was deep in the muck of its own pandemic but unwilling to use such shoddy protection. 

But, on the other side, the telecommunications technology needed to track the virus is now coming to us from… China. I quoted David Goldman on our supply chain vulnerabilty a few days ago. Here DWW offers the same argument:

And many of the more plausible plans for emerging from hemisphere-wide lockdown depend on aggressive testing regimens linked to “contact tracing,” which would likely be aided by cell-phone location data — data collected on phones manufactured largely in China. In Europe, the second-most-popular phone company is the Chinese manufacturer Huawei, suspected by many in U.S. intelligence to contain backdoors designed for access by Chinese intelligence, and now contracted to build out Britain’s 5G network. What once sounded like xenophobic paranoia is now, at the very least, an acknowledgment of supply-chain dependence and vulnerability (as the NBA learned when it found itself in the middle of the Hong Kong protests, with no executives or players willing to speak out, for fear of jeopardizing business interests in the country).

But, DWW continues, the problem now is not how we are going to punish China and how many times we are going to sue them, but who is going to take the lead in helping the international economic recovery.

I would note that America, what with our armies of lawyers and social justice warriors-- and our paucity of engineers-- believes that we can solve problems through the criminal and civil justice systems. It’s our strength, so we want to use it. Or, at least, our politicians want us to do so.

On the other side, the United States Military and numerous American pharmaceutical firms are working to find a vaccine and a treatment for the virus. Such work serves us far better than does threats over lawsuits.

The threats make us feel better, but it’s probably off the point:

But these “COVID hawks” aren’t just fretting over the way China handled the arrival of COVID-19, they are beginning to warn about how the country will handle the next stages of the global crisis, too — positioning itself, as the U.S. did with the Marshall Plan after World War II, as the major, indeed essential, global creditor and investor helping a cratered world economy begin to recover. In this view, though China bungled COVID-19 at first and probably handicapped the rest of the world’s response as well, neither of those failures will prove costly, in the long term, if China can plausibly offer itself as a stronger and more willing partner to the struggling nations of the world than the U.S. or Europe, which it will inevitably try to — less focused on short-term costs and much more on long-term plays than either of those rivals.

China is fighting a geopolitical war to stand out as a better partner to lead the recovery. Clearly, the European is too weak and ineffectual to do so. DWW also notes, as many others have, the the world leaders on pandemic response have been nations like Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea. They are city states, not great nations. To the list, Niall Ferguson has added Israel.

As for the United States, it remains to be seen how quickly we can get the country up and running. DWW then begins providing access to Bruno Macaes’s analysis:

At the most basic level, this is because no one, at this point, is looking to the United States, indeed to any nation in the West, as a model for how to respond to COVID-19, or any pandemic. Which means they may look less reliably to those countries as models in any crisis. China isn’t the world leader on COVID response, of course; South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan have managed much better, and without the black mark of initial failure. But among the world’s real great powers, even accounting for inaccurate data, China has managed its way through the crisis much faster and more confidently than the U.S. or any nation of Europe. “The numbers of cases and fatalities provided by Chinese authorities almost certainly misrepresent the real figures by more than an order of magnitude,” Maçães acknowledges in his piece. “But the fact remains that a semblance of normalcy was achieved in a small period of time. If the United States fails to do the same, its prestige will suffer a severe blow. People all over the world will quickly change their perceptions about relative power and capacity.”

The issue will not be body count or the number of respirators, but the speed at which the nation can return to normal. This is all the more problematic in America when one political party has every interest in seeing the economy tank.

So, DWW spoke to Macaes last week. And he emphasizes an important point, one that few others have been reporting. Namely, that the city states of Asia did not trust the data coming out of China or the WHO. They read between the lines and concluded that the problem was far more significant than the authorities had said. So, we misread Chinese statements because we are naive and trusting:

Indeed, Maçães told me when we spoke last week by phone, the U.S. has already suffered profoundly from living in a bubble of delusion about China. One relative advantage the South Koreas and Singapores of the world may have had over the U.S., he said, is considerably more sophistication about China, which helped in interpreting the news out of Wuhan. In the U.S., out of a mix of ignorance and prejudice, snobbery and disinterest, Americans were likely to see both a devastating epidemic outbreak like COVID-19 and the remarkable, rapid lockdowns that followed as “normal” for China, and therefore to assume nothing extraordinary had to be done within their own nation to defend against the disease. Those nations who knew China better, he said, were much quicker to read the news out of Wuhan — both reports of the disease itself and the unprecedented shutdown — as signs of genuine, near-existential alarm. As a result, they prepared accordingly.

But, Macaes told DWW, China is now in recovery stage:

But if most of the world is presently skidding into a depression in order to avoid public-health catastrophe, in China, Maçães points out, the country is already recovering — almost certainly more haltingly than it says, and yet in ways you can more or less track, and more or less verify. “The most recent data show renewed activity in the flow of goods across the country, as well as at ports worldwide that do business with China,” he writes. “If the freeze in Europe and America continues for much longer, Chinese companies will be able to dramatically expand market share and replace Western-led value chains.”

And then we have a more extreme scenario, a political and cultural reordering, one that will provide a leadership opportunity for the nation that can help others to recover:

A more dramatic reordering is possible, too, if “important countries could experience the kind of economic shock that leads to widespread social and political collapse,” he writes, in what he calls an “extreme scenario” that is nevertheless, given the scale of the coronavirus threat and its economic fallout, conceivable. “At that point, China would have a unique opportunity to step in, provide aid, and refashion these countries in its image. It would look like a repeat of the Marshall Plan and the beginning of the American world order after the ravages of World War II. Indonesia, South Asia, and even Russia might be of special interest in such a scenario.”

Other nations, Maçães says, may find themselves refashioned in less profound ways — but nevertheless emerge from the pandemic much more dependent on China than they entered. But while that world may seem alien from the vantage of today — or, more to the point, six months ago — it is, indeed, a quite familiar model, as all those invocations of the Marshall Plan suggest. As much as Americans like to believe otherwise, Maçães told me, “American power was not based on a pristine reputation, but on hard power.”

So, the question going forward is how much of a price China pays and how much American can step forward to exert international leadership.

And opportunism. “There was always an argument that the existing world order cannot change because only a momentous war has done that in the past and world wars have become impossible,” Maçães wrote in his National Review essay. “But in pandemics — and soon in climate change — we may have found two functional equivalents of war.” China, he says, sees the opportunity clearly. “They are following the American model: we don’t have to be loved, we just have to be respected and feared,” he told me. And in a crisis of this scale and scope, a nation doesn’t have to thrive by any absolute standard to improve its global standing, only endure the human suffering and political turbulence relatively better than others. “China will pay a price, but if it pays a lower price than the E.U. and the U.S., it will come out on top.” Wang is even more declarative in Foreign Affairs: “Few can deny that China is fast becoming the safest place on Earth,” he writes. “History will be written by the victors of the COVID-19 crisis. And Xi looks like a winner, at least for now.”

Some sobering thoughts in the time of coronavirus.


trigger warning said...

The notion that the WuHu virus is some kind of "bioweapon" is, frankly, risible. If it is, it's a ridiculously inept attempt. This "bioweapon" couldn't even kill all the geezers trapped on a cruise ship. A roll-aboard packed with Semtex would have been more effective and cheaper.

I think the strongest argument is that the virus escaped from a P3 or P4 lab facility in the Wuhan virology lab near the wet market. Frankly, it's a typical example of Chinese quality controls, on par with the imbecilic melamine-laced pet food scandal.

But I give the Squealer the Pig Award to Wang: "China is fast becoming the safest place on Earth". If safety is social benefit one desires above all, the DPRK, even without the ubiquitous surveillance technology and spying, is also probably pretty safe... for obedient citizens with lofty Social Credit scores.

Sam L. said...

As I read tw, I see him distrusting China. I certainly do.

Gospace said...

Singapore is a city-state. South Korea, with over 50 million people, is a nation. Taiwan, Formosa, the Republic of China, whatever you prefer, with 23 million is a small nation, an island one. Substantially larger population than New Zealand, and on a par with the much larger land area Australia.

Vietnam, India, South Korea, Japan, well, any nation that actually borders on China, do not consider China to be a friend nor ally.

UbuMaccabee said...

Good articles and sobering analysis. We exported much of engineering prowess and our manufacturing with it--and then switched culture to lead the world in software and entertainment. But China did the dirty work and all the jobs we considered boring. I'd say they have the better cards right now. Morality, like talk, is cheap, and people will forget anything. Chinas responsibility will be just barbershop humbug, and we'll keep right on buying what they are selling because we can't make it ourselves if we wanted to.

I would say China will come out of this far better than the US will. If the Left wins the elections in November you can count the US out. The historical model to look at is the victory of the Front d'Esquerres in 1936. It's all mechanics from there.