Opinion - Politics

Op-ed: China has a big but brief chance right now to speed its way to global leadership

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Key Points
  • Covid-19 has revealed more clearly than ever before the nature and relentlessness of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's ambition to place itself at the center of global power and influence.
  • The virus first appeared to be a dramatic setback for China, given its role as the pathogen's source and epicenter in January and February.
  • With China's likely emergence now as the first major world economy to end lockdowns and regain growth, Covid-19 now offers a once-in-a-century chance to accelerate the geopolitical shift in Beijing's favor through 2020 and far beyond.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, talks with experts during his visit to the School of Medicine at Tsinghua University in Beijing, capital of China, March 2, 2020.
Yan Yan | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed more clearly than ever before the nature and relentlessness of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's ambition to place itself at the center of global power and influence.

What once was an opaque policy, articulated by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, of "hide your strength, bide your time," has now morphed into the transparent, if still unstated, approach by President Xi Jinping of "seizing the Covid-19 moment" – before it closes.

The virus first appeared to be a dramatic setback for China, given its role as the pathogen's source and epicenter in January and February. With China's likely emergence now as the first major world economy to end lockdowns and regain growth, Covid-19 now offers a once-in-a-century chance to accelerate the geopolitical shift in Beijing's favor through 2020 and far beyond.

That said, Chinese leaders are moving at a pace that reveals not only their ambitions but also their apprehensions that this historic moment could close as quickly as it opened.

Military medics salute to the Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province, April 15, 2020.
Xinhua News Agency

"The party's leaders believe they have a narrow window of strategic opportunity to strengthen their rule and revise the international order in their favor," writes Lt. Gen. (ret.) H.R. McMaster, President Donald Trump's former national security adviser, in his just-released book "Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World."

He sees the party leadership moving at warp speed to "co-opt, coerce and conceal" at home and abroad "before China's economy sours, before the population grows old, before other countries realize that the party is pursing national rejuvenation at their expense, and before unanticipated events such as the coronavirus pandemic expose" their  vulnerabilities.

At the same time, Beijing is wrestling with the new burdens of global leadership: demands from debtor nations for relief, from developing nations for accountability, from Covid-19 victims for reparations and from the global human rights campaigners for less repression and more transparency.  

Here are just four fronts in this unfolding drama:

1. Calls for debt relief

The Financial Times reported Friday that Beijing "has received a wave of applications for debt relief from crisis-hit countries included in the 'Belt and Road Initiative' (BRI)."

These will grow as the virus' full force bears down on emerging markets. Of the 138 countries signed up to BRI, the vast majority are developing countries, many with dodgy credit ratings that are now growing worse.

What's positive is that China signed on to a G20 agreement last month to freeze bilateral loan repayments for poorer countries until year's end. Yet Chinese leaders remain far from forgiving principle or interest.

As the G20's crucial July meeting in Jeddah approaches, more should be expected of China as the country that both morally and financially should be at the center of global fiscal stimulus and debt relief efforts.

2. U.S. tensions and calls for accountability

This week's market-moving story that U.S. officials are exploring punitive measures against China over Covid-19 is likely just the beginning of demands that Beijing should adhere to the Spiderman admonition that "with great power comes great responsibility."

The notion may seem far-fetched – or even counterproductive to U.S. interests – that the White House and Congress might act to remove China's sovereign immunity so Beijing can be sued in U.S. courts for damages.

Whatever happens on that front, Beijing can expect increasing calls from the U.S. and beyond to investigate more thoroughly the origins and response to Covid-19, if only to avoid a repeat performance.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the U.S. State Department
Win McNamee | Getty Images

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's broadside this week on China for "classic Communist disinformation" on Covid-19 should be read alongside the drumbeat of increased, detailed reporting on what Wired Magazine – in its own rich, investigative report – called China's "coronavirus coverup."

3. China's play for Europe

This week's Europe-Chinese controversy was triggered by a leak to Politico Europe about an apparent decision by the European External Action Service, under pressure from Beijing, to remove references from a report on China's "global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and improve its international image."  

Josep Borrell, the de facto European foreign minister, insisted, "We have not bowed to anyone," but he then added, "It's clear and evident that China expressed their concerns when they knew the document was leaked…I'm not going to reveal how it was done because we don't explain this kind of diplomacy."

No stage is more significant than Europe to track China's diplomatic offensive in providing Covid-19 assistance, to follow its growing investments in Europe, and to measure Europe's growing discomfort with Beijing's bullying and tech inroads.

That said, Europeans are weighing new doubts about Chinese intentions against growing perceptions over the United States' diminished European commitment.     

4. China's new global tech standards

With the world distracted by Covid-19, watch China's expected release later this year of "Chinese Standards 2035."  Beijing's intention is nothing short of setting the global norms for emerging technologies over decades to come.

"China Standards 2035 is to focus on setting standards in emerging industries," write Emily de La Bruyere and Nathan Picarsic in TechCrunch. "High-end manufacturing, unmanned vehicles, additive manufacturing, new materials, the industrial internet, cyber security, new energy, the ecological industry. … Having secured its foothold in targeted physical spheres, Beijing is ready to set their rules."

What this approach underscores is how China's approach to global leadership differs from that of the United States. While Washington typically tries to lead others from atop the international community, China's aspiration is to "move closer to the center of the world stage," in the words of President Xi.

What's been most evident in recent weeks is that China is acting to shape the Covid-19 period and its aftermath with considerable focus and planning.  At the same time, the U.S. response to China has been inconsistent, lacking in long-term strategy and close coordination with allies.

A future column will deal with what democratic countries could do to confront this challenge together. The first step, however, is to understand China's recognition of this historic opportunity and what it is doing to seize the moment.

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States' most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper's European edition. His latest book – "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth" – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week's top stories and trends.

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