“Victory is reserved for those who are willing to pay its price”.
Sun Tzu, The Art of War
April 17, 2020
China and Rome
COVID-19 sounds like some ghastly Roman poetry competition, but who will ‘win’ it? In a piece for Foreign Affairs John Allen, President of Brookings, suggests that history will be written by the victors of the COVID-19 crisis. It is certainly true that all such shocks to the existing order accelerate change. Between 1914 and 1945, some thirty-one years, World War One, Spanish flu, the Great Depression and World War Two completely transformed geopolitics. However, and critically, such change was already underway. Many of the commentaries also speak of COVID-19 as though it is a war. To pass the time, and as an antidote to some of the more extreme conspiracy theories, I am re-reading Caesar’s Gallic Commentaries. It seems appropriate. After all, the West has fuelled China’s rise by allowing Europe to become like Rome at the height of its powers, dependent on Egypt. Whilst Rome appeared dominant its reliance on the Egyptians for much of the Eternal City’s wheat meant the threat of famine was never far away.
The prevailing mood in much of the European Kommetariat is that China will emerge ‘victorious’ and that the Middle Kingdom will become even more ‘Middle’. China is certainly doing all it can to foster such a belief. President Xi has even set the goal of China being the dominant global power by 2049. Some even go as far as to suggest COVID-19 is a form of bio attack designed to accelerate Chinese strategic supremacy. Whilst the British Government still adheres to the line (as I do) that COVID-19 was born in an appalling ‘wet’ Wuhan market, it is also considering the possibility that the pathogen may have escaped from one of two laboratories in the Chinese city, the Institute of Virology or the Wuhan Center for Disease Control. It would be tragically ironic if China were to emerge as the ‘winner’ of a COVID-19 pandemic that it accidentally engineered.
The Economic Impact
COVID-19 is first and foremost a human tragedy, but it is also having a profound economic impact. In her opening remarks to the International Monetary Fund Spring Meetings Press Conference, IMF Director Kristalina Georgieva, stated, “We anticipate the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. While there is tremendous uncertainty around the forecast, we project global growth to fall to [minus] 3 percent this year. And we project a partial recovery in 2021, with growth expected at 5.8 per cent”.
According to the IMF growth in the so-called Advanced Economy Group is projected to contract by 6.1 percent in 2020 with the US contracting by 5.9 percent, Japan 5.2 percent, UK 6.5 percent, Germany 7.0 percent, France 7.2 percent, Italy 9.1 percent, and Spain 8.0 percent. Asia is projected by the IMF to be the only region with a positive growth rate of 1 percent in 2020, albeit more than 5 percentage points below its average in the previous decade. The IMF continues, “In China, indicators such as industrial production, retail sales, and fixed asset investment suggest that the contraction in economic activity in the first quarter could have been about 8 percent year over year. Even with a sharp rebound in the remainder of the year and sizable fiscal support, the economy is projected to grow at a subdued 1.2 per cent in 2020”.
Jekyll and Hyde China
In spite of that China is ruthlessly and successfully exploiting the crisis. To the outside world, China is Dr Jekyll using ‘mask diplomacy’, much of which is sub-standard, to present itself as the global saviour, even if it omits to mention several European states, Britain and the Netherlands to the fore, actually sent so-called personal protective equipment (PPE) TO China early in the crisis in a vain attempt to assist Beijing manage the spread of the disease. At home China is ever more Mr Hyde, as the Xi regime becomes even more repressive, and the shift towards autocracy and away from oligarchy evident since President Xi came to power accelerates.
‘Autocracy is better’, is the essential domestic message of the regime to its people with ‘proof’ a China returning to some form of ‘normalcy’ far earlier than Western democracies. What the regime fails to admit is that not only was its lockdown draconian to the point of totalitarianism, it has been so tight that the real death toll in China will probably never be known and Beijing may never learn the lessons it needs to about pandemic control and management. Beijing has also used the crisis to control information even more tightly, as tightly as the Chinese nationalist flag in which the regime has wrapped itself. How long before China’s domestic Mr Hyde begins to travel?
The sun will never set...
Only a few years ago it seemed the sun would never set on American power? How like London in the 1890s contemporary Washington now seems with the Americans certainly appearing to be the big losers of the COVID-19 crisis, a view both Beijing and Moscow are only too keen to encourage. The Trump administration has shifted daily from bluster to incompetence back to bluster, whilst profound tensions between Washington, states and the cities has left some wondering if the United States of America is any more integrated than the United States of Europe? The carefully calculated image of Chinese and Russian ‘aid’ being sent to the US only reinforced the growing sense of an America in decline, as it was clearly designed to do.
Washington’s leadership of the free world seems to have been further weakened by China offering loans and debt relief to a raft of countries, not least in Europe, to ‘help’ them emerge from the COVID-19 economic crisis. Washington has also walked willingly into carefully laid PR traps. President Trump is right about the failings of the World Health Organisation. The refusal of the WHO leadership to heed Taiwan’s early warnings about the crisis suggests China was exerting undue political pressure upon it. Still, the image of an America flouncing out of the WHO by withdrawing funding at the height of a pandemic has simply enabled China to appear statesmanlike.
Europe? COVID-19 is but the latest crisis to reveal the gap between political aspiration and hard reality. ‘Europe’ is not at all a political union of nation-states tightly bound by a shared mission fused together by solidarity and values. It is, instead, a Potemkin Europe, a façade behind which for too long European leaders have believed their own rhetoric and failed to deal with any of the strategic fundamentals that change is imposing on them. Consequently, faced with the pressure of COVID-19 the fragile edifice that is the EU simply collapsed, its member-states retreated behind their own respective and often different emergency measures, hoarded resources that might have been better used elsewhere in Europe, and refused to take collective, let alone common action. It is for those reasons why last week Mauro Ferrari, the EU’s Chief Scientist, resigned.
Britain and Russia? COVID-19 has revealed Britain to be a hollowed-out, ‘just-in-time’ state in which redundancy and resiliency have been abandoned by successive governments in favour of a hand-to-mouth state that effectively survives from day-to-day. A lack of forward planning and capacity caught the British state off-guard (as it has before in history). Thankfully, a kind of latter day Blitz mentality, allied to an ability to adapt and innovate by those on the front-line of healthcare seems to be having an effect. Russia? It will pretend it has ‘won’ this crisis, when in fact it has again lost.
If China has, indeed, ‘won’ COVID-19 and America ‘lost’ it, Europe seems stuck in no man’s land.
Is history really on China’s side?
But will China win? In November 1956, at a reception at the Polish Embassy in Moscow, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in an address to Western envoys was blunt: “About the capitalist states it does not depend on you whether or not we exist. If you don't like us, don't accept our invitations, and don't invite us to come to see you. Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you!" There are clearly those in the Xi regime who would like to create a similar sense of historic fatalism in the minds of today’s Western ‘bloc’. And yet Khrushchev was wrong and, the rest, as they say, is history. Over time the profound contradictions at the heart of the Soviet state caught up with Moscow and in 1991 the USSR collapsed.
Much of China’s meteoric growth since 1989 came under the leadership of a pragmatic oligarchy. In 2012 China, or rather the Chinese Communist Party, abandoned the oligarchy for something much more akin to Stalin’s cult of the personality, military-backed, one-strong-man rule. Since then the regime has become progressively more rigid, a rigidity the current crisis seems to have reinforced. Party officials who have not Kow-Towed to the Party line have been purged, whilst huge numbers of members of the Uighur, Kazakh and Muslim minorities have been sent to ‘re-education’ camps. The Chinese economy has become progressively more centralised, with ever more state-owned ‘enterprises’ doing the bidding of what is today the ultimate control freak state. China may appear to be strong and unified, but like the Soviet Union before it, much of that is probably an illusion.
Consequently, if properly utilised there is every reason to believe the economic dynamism and freer spirit of the US and its allies will again prevail, but only if the West makes it harder for the likes of China and Russia to exploit its riches of knowledge and technology. The profound mistake of the Trump administration has been to believe America’s leadership of the free world is a burden on the US, driven by an even more historically mistaken belief that international relations are simplistically transactional. Since the late 1940s when President Harry S. Truman first stepped up to provide such post-war American leadership to the free world key advisers, such as Paul Nitze and George Kennan, knew only too well that such leadership was in the American interest. What was true then is true today, albeit with a large caveat; now more than ever America needs Europeans to finally take some strategic responsibility. Anna Wieslander points this out in an excellent new piece on the website of The Alphen Group, which I have the honour to chair (
Who will ‘win’ COVID-19?
Power is rarely ethical and almost always amoral. By contemporary European standards China’s behaviour during this crisis has been unacceptable, and yet it is Europe that has made itself uniquely vulnerable to Chinese influence. There is a certain tragic charm in the way European leaders have embraced a kind of naïve, China-empowering globalism given it was Europe that invented Realpolitik, although Sun Tzu might beg to differ. Therefore, if anything has to change now as a consequence of this crisis it is Europe’s rush towards vulnerability must end. Like pandemics before it COVID-19 will accelerate existing strategic, political, economic, even social change, but it can also act as a wake-up call for Europeans to finally summon up the political courage to face such hard reality.
Europeans will also need to consider a more comprehensive concept of security. Indeed, as the popular and political clamour grows in Europe’s democracies for more to be spent on ‘human security’ it could well be that in the short to medium term state security and national defence suffer. Russia and China would be happy to help encourage such an outcome. Clearly, the next political cycle in Europe will be devoted to dealing and then coping with the consequences of COVID-19. Europe’s all-too-reactive politicians will need to be careful that they strike a working balance between human security and national defence.
Above all, if China is to be denied the strategic fruits of its own folly America must learn to lead the free world again! That begs a further question; lead where? First, a shared understanding that China is the main external strategic challenge to the world’s democracies. Second, a shared Allied recognition that the relationship with China has become dangerously unbalanced with too many Western supply chains now dependent on a country that is as much predator as partner. Third, the future transatlantic relationship and European cohesion need to be seen against the backdrop of such challenges. Fourth, and perhaps most important of all, Europe’s intergovernmental institutions need to become far more robust in the face of shock.
Where to start? During the Cold War there was a list of prescribed strategic metals that Western powers insisted must remain under their control. One lesson from this crisis must surely be the need for the West, Europe in particular, to regain control over certain ‘strategic’ technologies and core medicines vital to a forward looking concept of comprehensive security across the human security-national defence spectrum. Faced with such a determination China may well decide to be less predator and more partner.
If not, and the relationship becomes even more confrontational, then whilst COVID-19 is not a war, it could well come to be seen as the pivotal battle in a much wider and longer strategic ‘war’ for strategic dominance. God only knows where that might end!