Fate gave China a powerful weapon against the US. Will it be used?
The US-Chinese Cold War 2.0, frozen at the turn of the year, has now flared up again because of the global coronavirus pandemic. The propaganda aspect of this war is prominent, with both sides accusing each other of causing the epidemic. But the matter is much more serious than this exchange of unkind remarks.
Less than two weeks ago, we were the first in Poland to write about the veiled Chinese threat of pushing America into the “sea of coronavirus” by cutting it off from imports of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment from the Middle Kingdom, which are needed to combat the pandemics. Christian Whiton, the former Senior Advisor in Trump and Bush administrations, considers these words a serious blackmail. However, the US government probably does not share his view, judging by the continuation of the Washington’s propaganda offensive and, more importantly, its fight against the Chinese giant Huawei, the technological forefront and symbol of Cold War 2.0. For some time, there have been rumours of extending the restrictions on the company into the so-called full ban, including non-US companies, in particular to cut off the PRC from the supply of its production-related Achilles’ heel – semiconductors. The idea returned recently, but the Chinese responded by repeating the threat of sinking America in the “hawkish” “Global Times”, this time straightforwardly and not only as propaganda, but also in the technological and strategic context. And then, the idea of a full ban was cancelled. You are probably also the first to read about this is Poland. However, a minor restriction has come into force: the domestic companies can no longer buy devices from Huawei or ZTE using federal funds. In recent days, we could also see that the rhetoric has been softened on both sides.
We may found out in a while (or pass on the curiosity to our children) whether the idea of full ban was abandoned as a result of the Chinese threat. In any case, the course of events has led to a new strategic situation: the coronavirus has become China’s biological weapon aimed at America. I’m consciously not saying that the Chinese themselves did it, as I do not know it, yet I cannot rule it out.
There are two components of this situation. First, Beijing is satisfying the major portion of US generic drug consumption (over 90 percent), the import of active pharmaceutical ingredients (80 percent) and medical masks. Secondly, China is facing a rival in a pandemic crisis, who has been more and more experiencing painful deficiencies and the effects of fatal mistakes made in the first phase of the virus invasion. It seems that even without additional factors, the US may become the new centre of the global pandemic, multiplying the Italy’s case because of its size and importance. Already on March 14, Andy Slavitt, the former Head of Medicair and Medicaid, warned about a possible mortality rate of more than a million in the US; meantime, even more drastic forecast have appeared. In a word: the open question is whether the United States, the world’s greatest power, will soon become an area of humanitarian catastrophe and internal crisis of unpredictable effects, including dramatic economic consequences.
In this situation, China seems to be able to add fuel to the flames, restricting or cutting off America from imports of medicines and medical equipment – which is now emerging as a leading strategic asset – before the US manages to secure alternative sources of supply, which would probably take several weeks to several months. This may mean a major humanitarian catastrophe, a deeper and longer economic crisis, and more serious internal destabilization. In fact, it resembles the possibility of a one-sided nuclear attack in the absence of a threat of retaliation.
Will China do it? I think not. Not because it is not a ruthless superpower, ready for anything to increase its relative influence. It acts just like every rational power competing for influence in the international system – this fact is still very much neglected in Poland. However, I think that despite having such opportunities, both alarming and very tempting from the perspective of the candidate for the global number 1, they will not use this option. For several reasons.
First of all, it is a disposable weapon with highly uncertain effects. We do not know how the pandemic will develop in the USA and what might be the effects of such fuel added to the flames. However, we can be almost certain of American recovery and retaliation. In other words, these are questionable benefits and, highly probable heavy losses.
Secondly, for a number of important reasons, China cares about the image of a “peaceful and harmonious” country. Such efforts would be ruined by the actual use of supply chains as weapons of mass destruction, at the same time dramatically increasing the international pressure to isolate China, or at least to become independent and distance from it as much as possible.
Thirdly, unlike the variant in which the weapon is used, the option of utilising it without doing so has clear benefits with minimum losses. It enables pressure on the USA in ongoing technological and trade negotiations, including the neutralisation of new attempts of American anti-Chinese restrictions, such as extending the ban on working with Huawei. And then China can present itself as a kind, peaceful and harmonious power. Let us remember that when the West is bogged down in an unprecedented combat against the epidemic, China is returning to its pre-crisis production, which it has survived at a much lower cost so far. And China is surely vitally interested not only to return to Western markets, but also to spread to the points where the current crisis-affected players will not be able to match it.
Fourthly, China has been on a wait-and-see position in the conflict with the US. This was because it managed to fit into the logic of the international order created by the US, so as to put it to better use than its main rival. Not making sudden moves, despite all the efforts by Donald Trump, the PRC is still getting rich two to three times faster than the US, proportionally expanding its army, fleet and other elements of power, each month closing the distance to the current leader. Today there are no indications of a sharp change in this course.
A second, intermediate option is also possible in addition to the instrument of pressure. By distancing itself from the weaponisation of the medical supply chains, China could hinder the export of pharmaceuticals and equipment needed by Americans quietly, through a side door. However, this would be difficult to do without leaving traces, thereby becoming exposed to all of the above consequences. So this version is more probable, but still unlikely.
So it seems that the most rational solution for China is to take advantage of the possibility of an actual biological attack in the mildest possible way: as a tool of pressure that remains most useful when not used.
I hope I’m not wrong.
Translation financed by the National Freedom Institute – Centre for Civil Society Development from the Civil Society Organisations Development Programme for 2018-2030
Tłumaczenie sfinansowano przez Narodowy Instytut Wolności – Centrum Rozwoju Społeczeństwa Obywatelskiego ze środków Programu Rozwoju Organizacji Obywatelskich na lata 2018-2030