Huh. All the best people assured me that only conspiracy theorists could entertain the possibility that the coronavirus might have escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan. Wuhan, the city where the outbreak started. From a laboratory where the staff was known to be working on coronaviruses. A laboratory where precautions against such a release were reportedly spotty. Occam’s Razor rules out such a farfetched confluence of circumstances.
But humor me. Let’s think about the unthinkable. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Chinese researchers did release the coronavirus into the populace, spawning effects we have all come to know personally and intimately. And let’s assume it was an inadvertent release. That is a safe assumption. If the pandemic is a biological-warfare attack, it’s the clumsiest one imaginable using the clumsiest delivery system imaginable—China’s populace. It’s utterly indiscriminate—an assault on the entire world. And the attack could circle around back to China via cross-border travel or trade. It could prove self-defeating.
That Beijing would commit such an act in such a way verges on unthinkable.
That it might blunder is plausible, though. How might U.S. policy change if Western intelligence services determine the pandemic is the result of human error, slipshod biosecurity procedures, or some other form of malfeasance rather than a virus jumping from animals to humans in an outdoor marketplace? Henry Kissinger reputedly joked that Cold War bureaucrats could game national-security decision-making by presenting their superiors three options during any geopolitical standoff: (1) do nothing, (2) nuke ‘em, or (3) do what I think we ought to do. Seldom was inaction or firing doomsday weapons agreeable in Washington, where appearing resolute—but not Dr. Strangelove resolute—was at a premium. Such a bureaucrat really proposed just one course of action, hoping to narrow thinking among senior officials.
Press Kissinger’s wisecrack into service toward Communist China today. A bureaucrat of Kissingerian leanings might recommend three options: (1) reinstate the pre-pandemic status quo, (2) isolate China completely from contact with the United States to prevent future pandemics, or (3) do something in between those two extremes. After the past few months, it’s hard to envision the world’s reverting to the status quo. The situation has clarified certain things about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that we knew intellectually but never felt in our guts because they had little impact on daily life outside China. They were remote and abstract.
Things such as Beijing’s nonstop use of propaganda to mold world opinion in its favor. Ships of war fire “chaff” to confuse the seekers installed in radar-guided anti-ship missiles. Strips of foil cut to the proper length generate a cloud of false radar returns, masking the ship’s whereabouts and, with luck, deceiving a hostile missile into missing its target. Since the pandemic broke the CCP has fired plume after plume of diplomatic chaff to obscure its misdeeds. At the same time it is trying to rebrand itself as afflicted countries’ benefactor. If successful it will substitute a false image for the truth.
That it would resort to subterfuge should come as no shock. That’s the Chinese Communist playbook. During the Chinese Civil War founding CCP chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed not just that “war is politics with bloodshed,” a sentiment with which Carl von Clausewitz would concur, but that “politics is war without bloodshed.” Mao preached a bloody-minded, all-consuming brand of peacetime politics. In the early years of the People’s Republic of China, Mao’s foreign minister, Zhou Enlai, likewise confided that “diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means.” Today Beijing wages “three warfares” to shape China’s strategic surroundings on a 24/7/365 basis, deploying media stories and commentary, inventive interpretations of law, and psychological operations as its armory.
Or there’s the fact that Beijing regards even solemn international commitments as perishable. It abides by them while it suits CCP purposes, then discards them once they outlive their usefulness. This too should come as no surprise. Industry leaders who do business in China profess dismay at how Chinese interlocutors change an agreement under which a company operates, or throw bureaucratic roadblocks into business endeavors. But politics permeates everything for China’s rulers, including relations with foreign industry. If CCP magnates blithely wave aside the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea—the constitution for the world’s oceans and seas—why assume they would balk at unilaterally amending or canceling a contract with a U.S. firm?
And China’s antics remind us there’s a dark side to globalization, or economic interdependence. It entails vulnerability. The United States is accustomed to being the power that imposes economic sanctions. That need not be the case. Scholars of sanctions teach that economic coercion is most effective when its target depends on some commodity, and when the party levying sanctions can cut off the supply of that commodity. Sanctions impose pain and, in theory, modify behavior. Sanctions could prove devastating if the target relies on many commodities and the party essaying economic coercion controls them. Hence the United States’ current plight. Manufacturers moved to China over the past four decades in search of low costs. That made perfect sense by economic logic. But it also exposed the United States to coercion—as captured in Beijing’s threat to withhold medical supplies and cast America “into the mighty sea of coronavirus.”
Efficiency is a good thing in normal times. It holds down costs and helps consumers afford goods they need or want. Redundancy may be inefficient; it is life in abnormal times. It provides fallbacks. Engineers build redundant subsystems into machinery. If one component fails, another takes its place to keep the hardware running without interruption. So it is with engineering, so it is with the supply chain for vital goods. It’s best to cultivate multiple suppliers, ameliorating your susceptibility to coercion. Bottom line, economic interdependence—mutual dependence—might be a good thing if kept in balance. One-way dependence on a hostile autocracy and geopolitical rival to satisfy daily needs or wants is not a good thing. Dependence grants that antagonist leverage in times of turmoil. Times like now.
So option (1), returning to the status quo, appears doubtful at best. Nor is option (2) especially realistic, at least in the short run. It might be desirable to disengage from China economically and cordon it off, bringing manufacturing home or diversifying the supply chain to favor establishing firms in friendly countries. But building new factories would be a project of colossal scope and expense. It would also take years and demand bipartisan support across multiple presidencies. Containing the Soviet Union was U.S. policy and strategy for forty years. Whether some latter-day form of containment vis-à-vis China commands that degree of consensus remains to be seen.
That leaves option (3), the middle way. What are some potential courses of action within that middle way? Apart from the obvious public-health measures—testing for infection at points of entry and exit, for instance—a post-pandemic strategy might unfold along three broad diplomatic, commercial, and military lines:
First, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Let’s pay China a compliment. Washington must stay on the diplomatic offensive, waging three warfares of its own. U.S. officials must constantly remind everyone of the sequence of events that transpired last winter. If the coronavirus was released from a laboratory, U.S. public diplomacy should center on biosafety and biosecurity rather than “wet markets” or some other potential culprit. From that origin story U.S. officials should remind everyone how Beijing strongarmed those trying to sound the alarm, squelched the news until a pandemic was raging, and thus crippled public-health efforts overseas.
Beijing was and is at fault. The CCP is attempting to transform itself from goat to hero through propaganda. Washington must refuse to let Beijing perform such a feat of diplomatic alchemy. Keep the blame where it belongs.
Second, diversify the supply chain. Relying on a sole supplier for anything important is tantamount to voluntarily submitting to new pandemics or economic coercion, and submitting to disease or coercion constitutes sketchy strategy. Encouraging businesses to relocate to the United States or friendly countries would keep Beijing from holding supplies of vital goods hostage, from medicine needed to succor coronavirus victims to rare earths used in high-tech products. But decoupling from China economically might not mean duplicating plants wholesale. U.S. firms should hunt for leap-ahead industrial technology and methods, in hopes of amassing competitive advantages for themselves even as they navigate a turbulent operating environment.
And, from a geopolitical standpoint, relying on trustworthy partners represents sound alliance building and maintenance. In his best book, philosopher-economist Adam Smith urged business folk to do good if they hoped to do well. They should embrace upright business practices rather than cheat customers or partners. If they elected not to do good—if they made shady business practices standard procedure—they could not expect to do well. Communist China falls far short of Smith’s standard, and deserves not to do well. Better to reward allies and partners with American largesse, and firm up relations with them, than to reward a rival that feels free to wield economic interconnectedness as a cudgel.