China is utilizing the novel coronavirus as strategic leverage to vie for global leadership in a post-pandemic era. Meanwhile, due to a lack of visionary leadership, the United States continues to falter and maim its international reputation, which could lead to a significant shift in the world order.
Even with its series of initial mistakes in handling the epidemic, China has effectively used a scientific and health-driven approach to combat the coronavirus. President Donald Trump’s economic-fueled approach has undermined scientists and health professionals and rejected his own intelligence and military briefers.
China’s sweeping geopolitical strategy provides opportunities from Europe to Africa; whereas, Trump White House’s provincial approach uses Taiwan and Sri Lanka as pawns. With his lack of diplomatic acumen and strategic vision for the United States, President Trump’s range of deflections, failures, misgivings, and utter incompetence in the face of the coronavirus presents a victory for China by default.
Evolving Coronavirus Response
To deflect blame, Trump recently announced a halt in World Health Organization (WHO) funding while a review is conducted to evaluate its role in “mismanaging” pandemic response. Continuing the pattern of diversion, his own White House trade adviser Peter Navarro was recently humiliated for misrepresenting historical facts to conceal mistakes. Yet, to remind Americans he is a “cheerleader” for the United States, Trump also ensured that his name is printed on stimulus checks, an unprecedented form of retail politics with an inferiority complex.
Meanwhile, Beijing continues to pursue geopolitical ambitions and has emerged as the perceptive leader in humanitarian response. Its “donation diplomacy” has provided thousands of masks, ventilators, and even doctors as well as millions in relief aid from Europe to Africa. President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to initially halt the export of 3M facemasks to neighboring Canada and beyond. Ironically, the United States has accepted more Chinese aid than it provided to its own people as the “White House airlifts medical supplies from China in coronavirus fight.”
Indeed, Chinese aid to the United States and beyond comes after its initial coronavirus cover-up that endangered the world. Some even suggest that China’s generous aid is an attempt to blur this memory. However, the aid indeed represents a strategic opportunity to transform the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) into a new Health Silk Road, bolstering its global reputation.
Sino-American Tensions in Taiwan
Beijing and Washington spent weeks casting accusations at one another, involving Taiwan and the WHO; however, surprisingly, they seem to be moving towards cooperation. On March 26, Trump tweeted that he finished a “very good” conversation with President Xi Jinping, stating “we are working closely together. Much respect!”
Ironically, Trump slighted China by signing the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative or TAIPEI Act into law on the very same March 26. The legislation, which China has called “evil,” all but recognizes Taiwan’s independence. It encourages other countries to establish relations with Taiwan, promising to increase the U.S. “economic, security, and diplomatic engagement” with nations that do so. It even threatens to punitively “alter” its engagements with nations that undermine Taiwan. Given China’s “one country, two systems” policy and its reunification desires, the TAIPEI Act is considered sabotage against China.
Ultimately, the Trump administration hopes that this act will bolster democracy abroad and pressure other countries into choosing a partnership with the United States instead of China. The Trump administration believes that the economic and diplomatic benefits in this legislation and the Taiwan Travel Act will serve as a more attractive alternative to China’s BRI.
While this act may enhance U.S.-Taiwan relations, it is nothing more than a lame attempt to curb China’s growing influence. China’s BRI— estimated to incorporate up to $8 trillion in infrastructure development projects and connecting more than one hundred countries—is far more attractive than the futile TAIPEI Act’s subtle threats and vague promises. At this point, there is virtually no benefit for most countries to join U.S. ranks, which suggests that China is successfully shifting the global order.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Sri Lanka, for example, is a country becoming increasingly more important to U.S. and Chinese foreign policy goals. U.S. Ambassador Alice Wells called Sri Lanka an important piece of “real estate” given its strategic location in the Indian Ocean, which would allow the United States to sustain maritime supremacy and contain Chinese expansion. However, the United States is losing its grip over Sri Lanka made evident by its failure to renew its Status of Forces Agreement, even after pledging $480 million in development aid via the Millennium Challenge Compact (MCC). The United States and Sri Lanka spent months debating the strings-attached MCC compact, which the Colombo administration ultimately declined to sign.
Meanwhile mere days after an urgent request from the Colombo administration, China extended a ten-year $500 million concessionary loan to help Sri Lanka manage the coronavirus. China has the power of the purse and Sri Lanka is shifting alliances accordingly like many other countries. The TAIPEI Act will be unlikely to sway Sri Lanka from a Chinese partnership. Similarly, Taiwan is losing diplomatic relationships to China, now only possessing fifteen.
Even before the coronavirus crisis, the United States’ reputation was losing to China. For instance, the United States failed to persuade its closest intelligence-sharing alliance of “Five Eyes”—Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the UK—to choose 5G development partnership with Washington over Beijing’s Huawei.
China has taken advantage of the coronavirus to pursue economic partnerships that advance its foreign policy goals. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s shortsighted policies that use Taiwan as a pawn are leading the United States into a natural defeat in geopolitics. If Trump continues to pursue failed policies, distrust allies, and shirk global responsibilities, then China will be well-poised to replace the United States as the global leader in a post-pandemic era—not by design but by default.
Dr. Patrick Mendis, a former American diplomat and a military professor, is a Taiwan fellow of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of China and a distinguished visiting professor of global affairs at the National Chengchi University (NCCU) in Taipei. Dominique Reichenbach, an American David Boren scholar, served as a research intern and teaching assistant at NCCU. Their views expressed in this analysis do not represent the official positions of the current or past affiliation of their institutions nor the respective governments.