The Pandemic Won’t Make China the World’s Leader
April 15, 2020
Early this year, as the novel coronavirus began to spread in China, the predictions were immediate and stark: the outbreak was China’s “Chernobyl moment,” perhaps even “the beginning of the end” for the Chinese Communist Party, with geopolitical consequences that, at a time of growing U.S.-Chinese tension, would play to Washington’s considerable advantage. But then, almost as quickly, the predictions went into reverse. As China appeared to contain the spread of the coronavirus while the United States and Western Europe suffered large outbreaks of their own, the pandemic and the resulting global recession were said to mark a geopolitical reordering that would leave China as the victor. Beijing certainly saw such an opportunity, launching an international campaign stressing the failures of democratic governance and casting itself as the leader of the global pandemic response.
But it is doubtful that Beijing’s gambit will succeed in turning a pandemic that likely started in a Chinese city into a major step in China’s rise. There are real limits to China’s capacity to take advantage of the current crisis—whether through disingenuous propaganda or ineffective global action. And just as the potential for China to benefit from the coronavirus is too easily overstated, the ability of the United States to show global leadership even after its initial missteps is too easily discounted. As deeply flawed as Washington’s response to the pandemic has been so far, the United States’ power—distinct from any particular president—rests on an enduring combination of material capabilities and political legitimacy, and there are few signs that the pandemic is causing power to shift rapidly and permanently to China’s side of the ledger.