Coronavirus: The Great Disruption

Covid-19 a blow to Beijing's ambitions for global leadership

Despite its propaganda drive, China's international reputation has taken a beating, as has its economy

Will Covid-19 provide China with an opportunity to ensconce itself as a global leader? Just as the 2008 global financial crisis sparked a debate about whether the United States was in decline, the coronavirus crisis has stimulated a discussion about future power relations between China and the United States.

The view that the pandemic has "brought an end to the American Century" appears to be gaining popularity in China. Early blunders by the Trump administration have undeniably exposed the weaknesses of the US healthcare system and the flaws in the US ability to respond effectively to a public policy emergency.

It is premature, however, to forecast that the Covid-19 crisis will hasten the demise of American leadership and propel China to global pre-eminence. In fact, when the coronavirus is in the rear-view mirror, China may have lost ground in its bid to become a global superpower.

Countries around the world are already alert to the coordinated global push by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) not only to deflect blame for the origin and spread of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China, but also to exploit the pandemic to bolster China's global standing and influence.

Journalists and diplomats have scrupulously reported the work of Chinese propaganda organs that have gone into overdrive to pin responsibility for the virus on the US, tout China's system as more effective than the West in containing the epidemic, and cast China as the saviour of the world.

Beijing's suggestion that the US military created the virus and brought it to Wuhan, propagated by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, has been debunked by scientists who maintain that the structure of Sars-CoV-2 is similar to that of viruses known to infect bats and pangolins, and differs from what humans would likely have produced.

Moreover, suspicion persists in the US, Britain and other countries that the coronavirus may have accidentally leaked from the Institute of Virology or the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control, both of which are within 16km of the animal market where the outbreak is widely believed to have started.

Chinese efforts to whitewash the government's actions to suppress information about the virus and silence doctors and whistle-blowers who attempted to warn their fellow citizens of the impending danger have not succeeded at home or abroad.

The CCP's draconian containment measures such as rounding up and quarantining infected people, conducting human surveillance on citizens through colour-coded apps, and even forcing sick citizens to stay indoors by welding the doors of their homes shut have been criticised by some observers as excessive and potentially violating human rights.

China's hoped-for status as the source of global salvation was thwarted by its exports of substandard medical supplies, including protective masks and testing kits, to Spain, Turkey, Georgia, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands. Scepticism abounds about the reliability of Chinese official statistics of the numbers of coronavirus infections and deaths, leading politicians in the US and Europe to blame China for deliberately under-reporting and thus hindering their response plans.

China's alleged cover-up and failure to adequately report information could result in more than just a tarnished reputation. The US and other countries could file lawsuits against China for breaches of the World Health Organisation's International Health Regulations.

  • Coronavirus: The Great Disruption

  • The coronavirus pandemic raging across the world is taking a huge toll on lives and economies.

    Already touted as the biggest global crisis since World War II, it has forced countries to take unprecedented measures - slamming borders shut, quarantining millions, shutting down workplaces and schools, and giving out massive stimulus and job rescue packages.

    As the crisis unfolds, expect orthodoxies and established relationships to be challenged, with some upended and others reshaped.

    How will global institutions, nations, economies and societies respond?

    To make sense of the impact and fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, leading opinion leaders share their views of this global upheaval with The Straits Times in Coronavirus: The Great Disruption, a special series that runs in April in the Opinion section.

A report by the Henry Jackson Society estimates that the Group of Seven countries alone could sue China for damages of US$4 trillion (S$5.7 trillion). Calls are mounting for China to forgive countries' debt as a way of assuming responsibility and providing compensation for the costs associated with the coronavirus.


Many economists are now predicting that the slowdown in economic activity resulting from lockdowns and travel restrictions will lead to a deep global recession this year on a par with the global financial crisis.

At the onset of the global financial crisis, Beijing won accolades and scored reputational gains when it launched a four trillion yuan stimulus to sustain high domestic growth rates and shore up the global economy.

Today, however, the Chinese government has far less to spend due to high levels of debt. If the Chinese government pumps more debt into the economy to avert a recession, it will make it harder for it to sustain growth.

Community volunteers in hazmat suits observing three minutes of silence to mourn those who died in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic in Wuhan, in central China's Hubei province, last week. Scepticism abounds about the reliability of Chinese official statistics of the numbers of coronavirus infections and deaths, says the writer, leading politicians in the US and Europe to blame China for deliberately under-reporting and thus hindering their response plans.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The Covid-19 crisis has focused attention on the ways that the US and other countries are disproportionately dependent on critical manufacturing and global value chains that rely on production based in China. Medical supplies have joined telecommunications equipment as vital areas of national security that at least some governments will resolve to produce at home or in cooperation with trusted partners.

Efforts to reduce vulnerabilities are already under way that will likely drive many supply chains out of China. Such steps will add to other factors that are reversing economic integration between China and the world, accelerating decoupling and deglobalisation. These trends do not bode well for the Chinese economy.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Chinese President Xi Jinping's flagship foreign policy that has expanded infrastructure and strengthened connectivity while projecting Chinese influence around the world, is encountering difficulties as the virus spreads.

Quarantine measures and cutbacks in shipping have led to shortages of labour and other disruptions. Although work on many BRI projects will resume, others will be cancelled. Bankruptcies and project failures will add to a sharp decline in Chinese overseas investment last year. The domestic credit crunch will likely cause some state-owned enterprises to sell or withdraw from risky projects.


The priority of responding to the economic slowdown within China that preceded the virus outbreak but has been exacerbated by it will almost certainly divert resources away from BRI projects. As the BRI consolidates and contracts, so will China's opportunities for exerting political influence in its periphery and beyond.

The failure of the Chinese government to share accurate information in a timely manner, its disinformation campaign and blunt attempts to seek political gains have sowed mistrust in the international community.

Beijing's bungled response to the virus in the early phase of the outbreak revealed the weaknesses of China's domestic governance system and could impair Mr Xi's ambition to lead global governance reforms. The economic fallout from the pandemic is not likely to work in China's favour.

The coronavirus tragedy presents an opportunity for the US to reassess its domestic policies and global strategy. If the US takes steps to bolster American competitiveness, reinvigorate its alliances, and demonstrate global leadership, it can position itself to compete more effectively in the future.

 • Bonnie S. Glaser is senior adviser for Asia and director of the China Power Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 10, 2020, with the headline 'Covid-19 a blow to Beijing's ambitions for global leadership'. Print Edition | Subscribe