China takes its turn

Turning Points

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, the Chinese public looked upon America with a mix of awe and admiration. 

Then came the 2008 global financial crisis. That meltdown shattered the popular image of the U.S. as an invincible superpower. Covid-19 has now raised questions in China about America's basic administrative competence. When President Donald Trump appeared in the Rose Garden in March declaring that a national death toll of between 100,000 and 200,000 would represent "a very good job," a commentator on Weibo, China's Twitter-like chat service, called his performance "preparation for a funeral." The current death toll is 208,000. 

Now Trump is infected, triggering a predictable response in Chinese cyberspace—mockery, amusement and in some cases schadenfreude

This week in the New Economy

Trump's performance in the face of the pandemic arguably stands in stark contrast to that of his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, who first botched the challenge then recovered and acted decisively in avoiding a death toll that could have created a domestic political crisis for his government. Hu Xijin, the editor of the Global Times, tweeted that Trump has "paid the price for his gamble to play down Covid-19." 

What happens next should be a wake-up call for anybody who still harbors hopes of America reclaiming its position of global leadership. The downward spiral in public views of America within China has been matched by a rising wave of nationalism, accompanied by an acceleration of Beijing's territorial ambitions.

If 2008 ushered in a new era of Chinese assertiveness—building fortresses atop reefs in the South China Sea, harassing Vietnamese oil-drilling vessels, intruding into disputed waters with Japan—this pandemic year marks the moment when China became so confident of its own relative strength and capabilities that it appears to be less concerned with blowback from America or anybody else. 

Chinese J-10 jet fighters during an aerobatics display at the China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition in 2014.

This was a year when China pushed "wolf warrior" diplomacy and harnessed medical aid for stricken European countries—ventilators, protective gear, testing kits and so on—to try to score global political points. The message was clear: China is in control; the U.S. and other Western nations are floundering. 

As Trump spurned facemasks, feuded with his own medical experts and promoted Covid-19 remedies that were either dubious or downright dangerous, Xi was making bold strategic moves. Most dramatically, he took direct control over Hong Kong by ramming through a so-called national security law and challenging Indian forces in the Himalayas. 

And the year isn't over yet. Now that Trump is in quarantine and the U.S. presidential campaign in disarray, there's plenty of time for Beijing—its economy well on the road to recovery—to become more assertive on the world stage.

Having subdued Hong Kong, Beijing has turned to Taiwan, raising the prospect of a new confrontation in the Taiwan Strait. Last month, China sent fighter jets and bombers into Taiwan airspace as a warning to the island about closer military cooperation with the U.S. "The deluge is closer than many think," warns the noted China scholar David M. Lampton in an article in The National Interest this week under the headline: "China vs. Taiwan: Is a War in the Taiwan Strait Possible?"

Conflict is not unthinkable, but it's highly unlikely. A war over Taiwan, particularly if America got involved, could wreck the Chinese economy and with it the legitimacy of Communist rule. 

In reality, the biggest risk is not that the U.S. and China will go to war, but that they will fail to cooperate. If the coronavirus has demonstrated anything, it's that the fate of the planet is now critically dependent on cooperation between the world's two largest economies on issues from pandemic control to climate change and migration. 

An inability to collaborate in those areas would be far more deadly than exchanges of bombs and rockets. 

Join speakers from Virgin Hyperloop, Hyundai and Bjarke Ingels Group on Tuesday, Oct. 6, at 10 a.m. for Bloomberg New Economy Conversations: Building Back Greener. Our discussion will address how cities can use smart infrastructure, mobility and other techniques to make urban centers more green and resilient in the face of pandemics and climate change. Register now.

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