The coronavirus crisis is a poor excuse for a new cold war
The coronavirus’s rampage across the United States has supercharged China bashing in U.S. political circles. In the same week that President Trump continued blaming China for the coronavirus outbreak, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden attacked Trump for not taking a harsh enough stance against Beijing. And despite the fact that U.S. intelligence agencies have come to no conclusion as to the outbreak’s origins, just this weekend, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo placed blame — without offering evidence — on a research lab in Wuhan.
Increasingly, pundits argue that the pandemic reveals China’s perfidy and the need to reduce U.S. economic dependence on it. Others, fearing that China is exploiting the inept U.S. response in order to unseat it as global leader, demand recommitment to U.S. alliances in Europe and Asia and other sinews of global hegemony.
Neither makes sense. The Chinese origins of the outbreak naturally fuel the protectionist and anti-China sentiments that existed before COVID-19. But, this public health disaster and the economic dive it produced also show how thoroughly U.S. health and prosperity are entwined with other states — including China. Meanwhile, the cost of recovery requires focusing on restoring internal health, and avoiding a militarized foreign policy aimed at shoring up U.S. preeminence.
Fear surrounding China’s rise existed well before coronavirus. The pandemic, however, has supercharged the excess. Two camps are emerging. On the right, hawks such as Senators Tom Cotton and Joshua Hawley rumble about making China “pay” for its role in the pandemic and decoupling the two economies. Donald Trump’s reelection campaign is already heavily into China bashing. Those on the left worry that China is winning the war on coronavirus by recovering faster, aiding hard-hit countries, and propagandizing their success in a new battle between democracies and autocracies; China, in short, is helping the bad guys win the war for international leadership.
Enthusiasm for new arenas of conflict with China was misguided before the coronavirus hit, and makes less sense now. Yes, China is to blame for mishandling the coronavirus’s initial outbreak, just as criticizing its government’s authoritarianism is appropriate. But proposals to punish it with economic pain will come at considerable cost to Americans.
Attempts to decouple the U.S. and China will increase the economic costs that Americans — now suffering from generationally high unemployment and indebtedness — will pay to clothe, house, and feed themselves. The U.S. and Chinese economies also benefit from each other’s recovery. U.S. stock prices are down partly because of the slowing Chinese economy and its drag on oil prices. Nor will decoupling do anything to manage public health problems like coronavirus. A spike in demand, not foreign production, caused shortages in ventilators and other products that combat the coronavirus. Punishing China will not fix that, but it’ll make China more defensive and less disposed to share information on future health crises.
Decoupling also encourages Chinese economic independence — an outcome hawks should be eager to avoid. China’s dependence on the U.S. market gives U.S. leaders leverage to punish or reward China’s behavior. By contrast, decoupling would drive China further toward a self-sustaining domestic market immune to U.S. pressure.
Concerns about “international leadership” and an autocratic revival are similarly off-base. China’s reliance on export markets that coronavirus shrunk means it will likely struggle to recover. That poor countries readily take China’s loans does not mean they find authoritarianism compelling; and its inept handling of the outbreak undermines its propaganda about superior management.
The cost of recovering from the coronavirus crisis also argues against competition with China. The full damage remains to be seen, but informed estimates range from awful to historically terrible — potentially a loss of a quarter of GDP this year and a two to three year recovery period. With a drop in tax revenues likely, and significant spending on national recovery, the national debt is set to grow quickly — as will annual interest payments, which already stand at $575 billion.
This pile of new debt needs to be paid for and will eventually squeeze the defense budget. With Republicans blocking tax hikes and Democrats protecting entitlements, the first victim of any debt reduction will be discretionary spending, of which defense is more than half. For now, Asia is a good place to look for savings: U.S. extended deterrence remains robust, and Beijing remains boxed in by nuclear Russia, India, and a Pacific Ocean dotted with states like Japan that could do more for their security. And in the longer-term, growing debt raises the question of whether the United States can afford to sustain great power competition. Far from being a reason to heighten military competition with China, the coronavirus’s costs are a reason to limit it.
Doubling down on rivalry with China would be a perverse response to the coronavirus. This crisis highlights the need to cooperate with China, unpleasant as it may be, to protect public health, and to recover economically. The cost of recovery improves the already strong case for restraining foreign ambitions, focusing on domestic health, and thus investing in the nation’s long-term power. That’s the only kind of great power game worth playing.