US-China Rivalry and the Alignment Pattern during Covid-19: Lessons for the Future


The increasing number of Covid-19 deaths in the western world has exposed the weaknesses in their health systems. Besides healthcare, the pandemic has brought to light the rigidity in their political system as well. Firstly, the western governments were cautious about imposing strict quarantine measures. Secondly, especially in the US, the public distrust in their government has made its response to the Covid-19 pandemic, slothful. Historically, the governments in the West have been reluctant to place widespread curbs on the liberty of their population. In fact, ‘liberty’ is the crown jewel of the western political thought. The West believes that it is the one idea that elevates the position of their political system vis-a-vis autocratic systems of countries like China. The missionary zeal of the West is also embedded in the very idea of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’. Given this value orientation, it is unthinkable for the western liberal democracies to enforce stringent lockdown conditions on their population.

In contrast, China’s ability to quickly bring the epidemic under control projected a positive image of its ‘responsible’ authoritarian political system. Immediately after bringing the outbreak under control, China extended a benevolent hand by sending emergency medical teams and supplies to many countries around the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) praised China for its timely quarantine actions and also recommended its member nations to follow the Chinese example. In response to the pandemic, many democracies even adopted strict lockdown measures emulating some of the stringent quarantine conditions employed by China. In parallel, the Chinese state-run media was running stories flaunting the advantages of the Chinese political system over the western ones. Thus, Chinese Communist Party (CPC) for a moment was seen to be riding on the high tide of vindication of its authoritarian form of government.

However, the Chinese triumphalism did not last long as President Trump reversed his earlier praise of China and started blaming it for the burgeoning Covid-19 related deaths in the US. Concurrently, China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats launched a tirade against the western liberal democracies criticizing their poor handling of the coronavirus outbreak. This officially endorsed propaganda against the West, instead of generating a favorable public opinion about China, evoked a volley of counter-attacks from the western capitals. The current episode can be compared to China’s aggressive behavior in the aftermath of the global recession of 2008-09, which damaged the decade-long good will generated by its benevolent policies in its neighborhood. Likewise, before the pandemic began, China’s standing in the West appeared to be relatively strong. The decision of the UK, France, and Germany to allow Chinese telecom giant Huawei, a major role in their 5G infrastructure, is a case in point. It should be noted that their decision to allow Huawei was made even after heavy US lobbying against such an outcome. However, since the outbreak of the pandemic, China began to see some pushback from the same western countries that were wary of offending it in the earlier instance.

The anti-China rhetoric blaming it for the pandemic was also strongly supported by the western media. This narrative reached the climax when Australia picked up the cudgels from the US criticism of China and pushed for an independent investigation into China’s initial response to the pandemic. In the meantime, China’s aggressive behavior in its neighborhood and the renewed protests in Hong Kong have placed extra ammunition in the western arsenal. It helped the western countries to continue their denunciation of China. Thus, China’s aggressive stance at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic has done more harm to its image than good.

The pandemic has also uncovered the natural allegiances of some liberal democracies in the event of a future global conflict. This is especially the case with Australia which had so far been walking a tightrope between its relations with the US and China. (Even before the pandemic struck, Australia was observed to have moved closer to the US by its March 2019 decision to ban Huawei). Likewise, Canada has communicated to the US, through the Meng Wanzhou episode, on where its loyalty lies. However, the logic of “politico-cultural” alliances cannot be put to test until the Europeans decide which way to go in the event of a future US-China conflict. As it stands now, the European Union as a bloc is internally divided over their allegiance to the two superpowers. On the one hand, Trump’s US has alienated the Europeans through its policy on matters involving trade, Iran, and climate change. On the other hand, the Chinese are observed to have expanded their influence in the new Europe through its 16+1 initiative. Moreover, the emergence of ‘illiberal’ democracies within the EU has ruled out the possibility of default alignment with the US on the basis of their common political systems. Therefore, even though key western European nations have sensed a ‘systemic rival’ and ‘economic competitor’ in China, they are not able to cajole the rest of the European community to take a firm stand against it. As a result, the EU has so far failed to chart out a unified strategy towards China. This has allowed the individual EU member states to forge their own China policies based on their respective national interests.

This short commentary on allegiance of nations during the pandemic has given a rough idea about where each country would stand in the event of a new Cold War. It will also be useful in testing the logic behind any future bloc formation. As it stands now, the belief that alliances will be formed on the basis of common politico-cultural systems seems a little ‘uncertain’. Even though there are signs of western liberal democracies coming together on individual issues, it is highly doubtful whether the alliance would sustain if a full-blown proposal to “decouple” completely from China is put on the table. Thus, unless the US provides an alternate robust economic vision, the likelihood of bloc formation, shy of any economic logic, is very limited.

Ragul Palanisami
Ragul Palanisami
The author is currently pursuing Ph.D. as a Junior Research Fellow (JRF) in the Centre for Canadian, US, & Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


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