China fear in a time of Covid

Three clusters of China fear converged in early 2020. First was the prevailing geopolitical fear of China’s rise, stoked in the West since the last decade. Second was the Covid19 pandemic that began in China and overwhelmed health systems around the world. Third was the subsequent economic slump, following drastic shutdowns everywhere to contain the virus, and the related fear that China would benefit from any post-Covid19 reshaping of globalisation. At a time of global uncertainty, it seemed likely the world to emerge after Covid19 would be a changed world forever. To be sure, there is a decade of risks ahead and many of them hinge upon unanswered questions about what China will do next, and how the West will respond. How governments manage that uncertainty and its inherent risks will depend on the extent to which fear becomes the driving force or whether it is possible to proportionately assess risks and develop strategies to maximise mutually beneficial outcomes. It is, at this stage, entirely uncertain which path leaders will choose.

Frank Furedi, in his 2018 book How Fear Works, describes the modern world’s culture of fear as an existential anxiety that catastrophises risks and diminishes our confidence to manage risks and live with uncertainty. He argues this has lowered the threshold for identifying risks. Instead of focusing our attention on mitigating risks that are probable, we have become paralysed and panicked by risks that are only possible. In the case of China, this dynamic could be observed in the international discourse as early as 2017, when the US abandoned its decades-long policy of constructive engagement with China and switched to a new doctrine of strategic competition. From around that time, the global narrative shifted from an economically-focused optimism about globalisation and US-China co-dependence that was “too big to fail”, to a new securitised and pessimistic perspective that China was an inevitable threat to the West, engaged in a zero-sum contest for supremacy.

The previous liberal internationalist confidence that the world could live with rising China had steadily lost ground in the previous decade, as observers in the US in particular realized they had been mistaken believing China would democratize as it marketized. Now it had become “realist” to presume every Chinese action constituted a threat. To be sure, there were risks in the evolving new world order. Any shift in the balance of power generates uncertainty and risks. If the West had maintained confidence in its power to problem-solve, such risks would have warranted evidence-based analysis and strategies to maximise international cooperation.

But something more than realism and something less than confidence was in play. Like in the 1930s, there was a return to geopolitics, a school of thought that relies less on evidence than vast imaginings of new geographies in contest, such as the constructed notion of “Eurasia” and the invention of the “Indo-Pacific”, both swathes of the map that share few of the characteristics that would warrant calling them regions, but which appeal to grand theories of world domination. Coupled with the contemporary cultural tendency to catastrophise and to fear the unknown, rising China, with its global economic reach, was imagined as aspiring to conquer the world. The disinterest of its government and people in this narrative were dismissed and disregarded. The West, with its universalist philosophy, could not appreciate diverging perspectives, alternative scenarios or multipolarity.

Indeed, the Atlantic normative bias in favour of the current world order allowed no room for a China that was anything but a passive participant, like Japan had remained. Yet the world order settled by World War Two was beginning to show its age before the crises of 2020. The West had become consumed with anxiety about its declining dominance and was turning inwards from its previous globalist orientation. Dynamism and growth had shifted to Asia and, after four decades of reform and opening up, China, was now the world’s second largest economy. Its government, flushed with success, was jostling for a bigger role in global governance. It became a champion of the world trade system at the very time the US was turning against it; China committed to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, as the US walked away. At the same time, however, the Chinese government was provoking fear in its neighbourhood with its growing maritime power including militarization of disputed islands in the South China Sea. Nations with strong economic ties to China suspected its government’s intentions. Could China rise within the rules and norms of the so-called liberal international order? In the new culture of fear, Ronald Reagan’s dictum “trust, but verify” was dismissed as naïve. Distrust had become the new normal.

In the new fear narrative each new action by China was considered a risk. The US urged its allies to boycott the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, yet it proceeded to become a respected player in international finance. China’s Belt and Road Initiative, funding infrastructure projects across the developing world, was condemned as a strategy to trap nations in debt and seize strategic assets, yet a Rhodium Group study found no evidence of deliberate “debt traps”. The US and its ally Australia urged allies to ban Huawei, a Chinese firm leading the world in 5G technology, with accusations it might engage in espionage and cyber attacks on critical infrastructure. Fears circulated, sourced anonymously to intelligence agencies, that China planned to build new military bases in the Pacific.

The new risks can be identified. New institutions, new infrastructure financing, new technologies, asymmetric economic power, all generate risks. All warrant careful analysis and strategies to minimise harmful outcomes. In a culture of fear and distrust, however, there is no attempt to proportionately assess risks; the worst-case is assumed to be likely. The possible is assumed to be probable. The West has subsequently become paralysed with fear, grasping for the certainty of the status quo. There is a generally unspoken Western normative view that China is an illegitimate major power and that its heavy-handed state is an unreliable partner. There is little understanding in the US, a culture that believes in constrained government, that the Confucian societies of East Asia believe in a strong state to maintain social order. Indeed, the region understands a China in upheaval may prove a greater risk.

China, based on the evidence to date, exhibits no signs that it will be another Soviet Union, or even a United States. How it will wield power is yet to be seen. We are in a new, uncertain transition to multipolarity that is no longer Atlantic in orientation or philosophy. We might expect this would motivate the international community to develop strategies to live with rising China, as it is, rather become seized by fear of what it might become. To be sure, living with China would require other powers in the region to hedge against conflict by maintaining a new strategic balance. In such a situation, if states could focus on probable risks rather than those that are unlikely, it is not inconceivable that new rules and norms for matters such as infrastructure financing and telecommunications could be developed - to trust, but verify.

For now, the West remains gripped by China fear, including the latest risk that a post-Covid19 China will emerge newly empowered to swoop on discounted assets and enlarge its economic power. China, of course, has its own internal contradictions and risks to face. Washington seems intent on decoupling key sectors of the US economy from China. Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming Presidential election it is likely the US security contest with China will continue and perhaps escalate. Will China respond to this geopolitical contest with the US by engaging in short term aggression or will it confound the realists by seeking long-term stability? However events evolve, the world must either dig in for a long and painful new Cold War, or find a way to live with China. Both scenarios involve risks to be managed, informed by facts rather than fear.

Opinion piece published in May 2020, along with opinions from three other China researchers, in KKI 4:1, a publication of the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Budapest, on the question: What impact will the Covid-19 pandemic have on the global role of China?