Coronavirus: The Great Disruption

Covid-19 will accelerate America's eclipse by China

The damage done by the pandemic to the US economy and its soft power is part of a longer-term shift in power between the two rivals

We humans are not very good at thinking about the longer-term future. No doubt that is because for most of our species' 21/2 million-year history, our ancestors lived hand to mouth in small groups. For them, the short term was all that mattered, so human brains and minds didn't evolve any in-built capacity to think clearly beyond a current crisis.

We can see this shortcoming reflected in our deeply entrenched tendency to overestimate the significance of sudden shocks while underestimating the importance of long, slow processes of change. Consider, for example, the way we responded to two earlier shocks - the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the 2008 global financial crisis. How easily we convinced ourselves that these short, sharp, single shocks changed everything and we responded swiftly, if not always wisely.

Compare that with our responses to two long, slow processes that have been quietly but relentlessly proceeding throughout the past few decades. One is the increase of carbon in the atmosphere with its consequences for the climate and the whole of human civilisation. The other is the rise of China, with its consequences for the global distribution of power and the geostrategic future of Asia.

How readily many of us have convinced ourselves that despite these well-attested trends, nothing is really changing and that nothing therefore needs to be done to manage those changes and prevent them leading to disasters - disasters far worse than terrorist attacks or sharp recessions.


So as we try to understand the bewildering press of events around us in this new crisis, we should also look at it in the context of the long-term trends. Individual crises can have their biggest effect not in themselves but in the way they accelerate or retard deeper long-term trends.

For example, it is becoming clear that the most important long-term geopolitical effect of the Sept 11 attacks was the way they distracted America from China's rise in the critical first decade of the century. That was when China's wealth and power surged so swiftly to the point that it could seriously challenge America's position in Asia, while America, distracted by the Global War on Terror, did not notice and could not respond. That hastened the long-term shift in power and influence from Washington to Beijing.

This suggests how we should assess the deeper, more enduring consequences of the current pandemic. It might take months, or a year or even two for it to pass, but even two years is not long in the sweep of history. By contrast, China's rise is a fact we must expect to live with for the rest of this century. The principal strategic consequences of today's pandemic will flow from the effect it has on this process, and above all on how it affects the current contest between America and China for strategic primacy in East Asia.


And that effect is clear. From what we know so far, the pandemic will sharply accelerate America's eclipse by China as the primary power in East Asia, and America's strategic withdrawal from Asia. That is not because China's power and standing are undamaged by the virus and by its handling of the pandemic. It is because America is being damaged more - reputationally, fiscally, militarily, politically and psychologically.

At this stage, America is apparently being hit harder by Covid-19 than China, with four times as many cases and three times as many deaths, as of Monday, as have been reported in China, in a population one-quarter the size. If this disparity is confirmed and continues, it seems inevitable that the United States will emerge from the pandemic more seriously weakened than China.

But the disproportionate damage to the US is greater even than these numbers suggest. The pandemic has delivered a crushing blow to its reputation as an efficient, effective society with a clear capacity to care for its own people, and to take the lead globally in responding to major challenges. The reason America has been so hard hit is that it handled the early stages of the pandemic so badly.

There has been a lot of justified criticism of Beijing's handling of the early stages of the outbreak, but so far the US has done far worse, compared not just to China but to other countries as well. Some of the blame for this lies with President Donald Trump and his dysfunctional administration. But many of the problems, for example in the slow roll-out of testing for the virus, show deeper failings in the US system of government and in its healthcare system. So, far from leading an effective global response, America has become an example of what not to do in the most traumatic global crisis in living memory.


This matters geopolitically because in recent decades, as its economic and technological preponderance waned, US claims to global leadership have depended more and more on its "soft power" reputation as an admirable nation. This soft power has already been badly eroded by its failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, its abandonment of global norms and institutions, and the tragicomic antics of its political leadership. But the pandemic is shaping up to do a lot more damage still.

Nursing staff at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Centre in New Orleans preparing to take in coronavirus patients on Sunday. America has four times as many coronavirus cases and three times as many deaths, as of Monday, as have been reported in China,
Nursing staff at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Centre in New Orleans preparing to take in coronavirus patients on Sunday. America has four times as many coronavirus cases and three times as many deaths, as of Monday, as have been reported in China, in a population one-quarter the size, says the writer. PHOTO: REUTERS
  • 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.

Less obvious, but perhaps equally important, is the fiscal effect of the pandemic on America's capacity to compete strategically with China in Asia. The huge fiscal drain on the US budget will disproportionately hit Washington's capacity to fund major increases in the defence spending required to regain the military edge that has been lost to China over the past decade.

And more immediately, the pandemic poses a much greater threat to America's contemporary military capabilities in East Asia than it does to China's. That's because, as we can see from the problems on aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, naval ships are potentially just as vulnerable to the virus as the cruise ships stricken by the contagion.

Naval operations around the world are bound to be seriously affected as long as the pandemic lasts. And as a distant power, the US depends on ship-borne forces as the backbone of its military presence in Asia. China does not.


But perhaps the biggest damage to America's capacity to compete with China in Asia will be inflicted back home in the US.

The pandemic has already severely disrupted America's election year, but so far Mr Trump's approval ratings have stayed buoyant despite his absurd performance. Nor should one underestimate Mr Trump's ability to spin this terrible national tragedy to his own advantage in the months to come. The chances of a second Trump administration should not be dismissed.

Moreover, the pandemic seems to have done nothing to suppress the bitter and dysfunctional partisanship that afflicts and disfigures American politics and public life, and makes prudent policymaking all but impossible. This all means that for another four years, Washington will be incapable of developing and implementing the kind of focused and coherent policies that will be needed both to manage and recover from the pandemic at home, and to contain China's formidable challenge in Asia.

Finally, there is the psychological impact on the American people, and on their willingness to bear the burdens and pay the costs of global leadership.

After the Cold War, ordinary Americans embraced US global leadership because they were convinced that it would be cheap and easy. They believed implicitly that their country was incomparably the most powerful, the most effective and the most revered country on earth, and that other countries would be only too pleased to submit to its leadership.

Now they know different. They see powerful rivals for leadership in key regions, and they recognise that America is not strong enough to defeat them without immense costs, and they ask why it is necessary for America to do that, when so much remains to be done to make life better for Americans themselves at home.

That question has become harder and harder to answer over the past decade. After the pandemic, it will be much harder still.

And that is why the pandemic should make us at last take seriously what the long-term trends have been telling us for a long time now. Asia faces a future without America, and we need to start thinking hard about what to do about it.

Hugh White is emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 07, 2020, with the headline Covid-19 will accelerate America's eclipse by China. Subscribe