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  • Mike Lyons

COVID-19 CLASH OF THE TITANS



The Greatest Failing


The United States will go down as the country which was supposedly best prepared to fight a pandemic but ended up catastrophically overmatched by the novel coronavirus, sustaining heavier casualties than any other nation[1].


In a recorded speech in 2005, then President George Bush said “It is vital that our nation discuss and address the threat of pandemic flu now. If we wait for a pandemic to appear it will be too late to prepare. At some point we are likely to face another pandemic.”

The Trump administration received formal notice of the outbreak in China on 3 January 2020. It took another 70 days for Trump to treat the coronavirus, not as a harmless flu strain, but as a lethal force, poised to kill tens of thousands of US citizens. Vast stretches of the country’s health care system were left without protective gear. “The outcome has altered the international standing of the United States, damaging, and diminishing its reputation as a global leader in times of extraordinary adversity[2].”


Respected journalist, George Packer writes in a hard-hitting opinion piece[3], that the crisis demanded a response that was swift, rational and collective but instead, the US reacted like a country with a dysfunctional government and a president who acted with wilful blindness, scapegoating, boasts and lies - “Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state.”


How did Covid-19 Happen


The international community has been consumed by an increasingly hostile debate about the cause, origin and circumstances surrounding Covid-19. A harsh political contest is playing out between USA and China. It is dangerous and counter-productive at a time when cooperation and mutual understanding is needed. The pandemic is a war against humanity, not a contest between different political ideologies. Instead, accusations and blame have dominated, giving rise to growing hostility between USA and China.


Although the generally accepted view is that the virus emanates from a wet market in Wuhan in China, that has not prevented speculation as to whether the virus was due to an accident in a laboratory, and whether it was accidental or deliberately caused. US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo irresponsibly announced that there was “enormous evidence” that Covid-19 came from a laboratory in Wuhan. Pompeo’s announcement is unsupported by any scientific organisation or even by US intelligence[4].


Washington has been increasingly vocal, suggesting China lied and hid the dangers of the virus, even contending that the World Health Organisation withheld critical information, although there is no evidence of this. As reports have emerged of the USA’s complacent and dysfunctional response, the Trump administration has searched for scapegoats, turning not only on China but also announcing that the US would cut its funding to WHO. Other G-7 leaders emphasise the need to build up the WHO rather than tear it down. However, it seems that blaming China is politically rewarding and generates votes in a USA presidential election year.


Recently, Australia’s Nobel prize winning immunologist, Peter Doherty, a global expert on viruses and vaccines, remarked that the Chinese provided the virus gene sequence extremely early and that “the politics around China is a colossal exercise in stupidity”.[5]

Currently, there is talk of the “decoupling” of the USA and China. However, as America contemplates decoupling, it seems that Asia as a whole (not just China) is decoupling from the USA. Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia purchased about 50% more Chinese products in April 2020 than they did in the same month of 2019. Japan and Korea showed 20% gains. At the same time, China’s imports from Asia rose sharply. A combination of massive testing and digital surveillance has kept death rates from Covid-19 in most of Asia, at much lower rates than USA and Europe[6].


Implications for Australia


In late April 2020, Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne (supported by Australian Prime Minister Morrison) called for an independent investigation into the genesis of the Coronavirus, provoking an angry response from China’s Ambassador Cheng, including threats of economic boycotts. Cheng did say that there would be time for every country to look back and see how they could be better equipped to fight a future pandemic but he considered the Australian campaign for an investigation to be politically motivated, amounting to Australia pandering to Washington[7].


Australia already faces difficult choices on how universities can replace the Chinese student income which has been relied upon to sustain large budgets and research rankings. A range of companies are likely to pay a high cost for Australia’s version of “common sense diplomacy”.[8] It did not take long before China blocked Australian beef and barley imports, potentially putting up to $1 billion of weekly trade at risk. Australia-China Business Council chief executive, Helen Sawczak accused the government of going out like “a shag on a rock, little Australia, demanding an enquiry, insinuating blame, probably not a great foreign policy move.”[9]


Other Australian executives want the Morrison government to roll back its rhetoric. Australia has been one of the least impacted by Covid-19 (with less than 100 deaths) whilst at the same time, China is by an order of magnitude, Australia’s most important trading partner. Was it really necessary for Australia to be America’s mouthpiece? Prime Minister Morrison’s message is that Australia will stand our ground and stick by our values. It is ironic that he should take this position at a time when he has just announced the loss of 600,000 Australian jobs due to the Covid-19 crisis. How many more jobs will be lost as a consequence of China’s reaction to this Australian intervention?


In a hard-hitting opinion piece by Shaun Carney (columnist for the Age and Sydney Morning Herald), he contends that Australia has less in common with the US than we thought. He refers to Australia’s “special relationship” with America, but suggests that the “fog started to clear” with the election of Donald Trump and adds “Whatever mist of delusion still existed has been well and truly blown away by the Covid-19 pandemic.” Carney argues that Trump and his Secretary of State, Pompeo are engaged in a disinformation campaign to make Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic someone else’s fault. Finally, Carney says: “The US in 2020 resembles a failed state” and he asks whether Australia can afford to continue to place so much trust and reliance on America - - - given that the disparity between the two countries’ values is becoming greater.”[10]


Australia’s Difficult Choice


In August 2019, two recognised geopolitical and strategic heavyweights, John Mearsheimer[11] and Hugh White[12], engaged in a debate about Australia’s foreign policy in the light of China’s rise. This discussion took place well before the Coronavirus had landed. Mearsheimer argued that the US would not allow China to dominate Asia. He reminded the audience that in the 20th century, the US had contained four peer competitors and had put them on the “scrapheap of history”. He was referring to Imperial Germany, Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. He went further, suggesting that if Australia goes with China then Australia would be an enemy of USA adding, “You’re either with us, or against us.” Mearsheimer’s argument fails to recognise that the defeats to which he refers occurred many decades ago, that the collapse of the USSR was hardly a “defeat” by the USA, that USA has since descended into a shambolic state and, most significantly, China has risen during the last forty years to an extent and at a speed never historically experienced anywhere in the world before.


It is difficult to reconcile Mearsheimer’s confidence in America’s superior might with its many failures. Although not discussed in this debate, Mearsheimer’s 2018 book, The Great Delusion (referring to the delusion of USA) deals extensively with USA becoming addicted to war while suffering so many failures. USA approaches the task of spreading democracy with missionary zeal. Mearsheimer uses the Bush Doctrine as the best example of liberal interventionism. Following the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration concluded that to win the “global war on terror”, it needed to defeat not only Al Qaeda but also Iran, Iraq and Syria. Bush proposed to turn those countries and others across the Middle East into Liberal democracies. The US took aim at Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and Syria but failed every time, bringing killing and destruction to the greater Middle East and committing the US to endless wars.


On the question of whether Australia was compelled to choose between USA and China or whether it could continue to have USA as its security ally and to trade indefinitely with China, both debaters seemed to agree that neither China nor USA would allow Australia to have that luxury. However, Hugh White argued that USA and Australia have consistently underestimated China’s capacity and that China is far bigger, relative to the United States than any country has ever been. White further argued that the balance favoured China because any contest with USA would take place in East Asia, in China’s backyard where America could not win. In White’s opinion, it was more likely that the US would withdraw rather than continue its effort to contain China. He made the important observation that there is a major difference between siding with China, and not siding with America. As far as he was concerned Australia could not depend on the USA to play a significant strategic role in Asia.


As to Australia’s continuing dependence on protection from USA, it is worth recalling the words of former Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser who argued that our relationship with the United States had become a paradox, saying: “Our leaders argue that we need to keep our alliance with US strong in order to ensure our defence in the event of an aggressive foe. Yet the most likely reason that Australia would need to confront an aggressive foe is our strong alliance with the United States. We need America for defence from an attacker who is likely to attack us because we use America for defence.”[13]


What Fraser said six years ago is even more pertinent now.


In chapter 15 of Hugh White’s book, How to Defend Australia[14], he confronts the nuclear issue head on. Both USA and China are nuclear powers even though China has only 300 nuclear warheads against many thousands held by USA. White argues that against an adversary like China, the credibility of America’s promises to defend its allies is not so clear. USA would have to ask whether defending its allies was really vital enough to justify risking a Chinese retaliatory nuclear attack on American territory – an attack that could devastate a number of US cities and kill hundreds of thousands, or millions, of Americans. China could, in a few hours inflict more damage and kill more Americans than were killed in all of America’s previous wars combined, which must make any president think twice. In a 2017 essay by White, Without America, he makes the point that even though America could leave China a smoking ruin, America’s losses would be unimaginably large. White contends that America appears to have no credible idea of how to use its vast military power to defend its leadership in Asia from China’s challenge.


The Next Debate


A much more recent debate, this time involving Mearsheimer and Kishore Mahbubani[15], took place on 7 May 2020. By then, Covid-19 was in full swing. The question under discussion was “Has China Won?”.


Mearsheimer argued that China would try to dominate Asia in the way that the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere but that the United States does not tolerate peer competitors and would go to great lengths to prevent China from dominating Asia - “The United States is bent on containing China.”


Mahbubani, on the other hand, argued that it is possible for China to rise peacefully and it is important to try to work with China rather than trying to provoke China. Whilst he agrees that China will seek to become the dominant power in the region, he points to Henry Kissinger’s book, On China where Kissinger describes how the Chinese believe that the best way to win a war is without fighting it! Mahbubani added that although China is a rising great power, it has not fought a major war in 40 years and has not fired a bullet across its border in 30 years. He refers to Mearsheimer’s book The Great Delusion which talks about the multiple wars that the US has fought[16]. In the last 30 years USA has been at war for two out of every three years. Mahbubani believes that there can be a live and let live policy, but he recognises that if one provokes the Chinese beyond a certain point, then they may react militarily.


Mahbubani argues that the era of Western domination is over, and we will see the return of Asia. Speaking as a “friend” of Australia, he points out that Australia is not in Canada. It is in Asia and yet Australia insists on not adapting to its new geopolitical environment thus creating problems for itself. He suggests that it is in Australia’s interests to reboot its strategy and to adapt to this new world.


How will World Order Change


How will the pandemic reshape World Order? America’s flailing response to the coronavirus has reinforced the image of the USA as a hapless former hegemon. Trump has undermined American global influence, abdicating US global leadership, withdrawing from international commitments and institutions. Only days ago, on 8th May, the US refused to endorse a resolution of the United Nations Security Council (which all 14 other members were ready to approve) to limit the suffering stemming from the pandemic, calling for a 90-day humanitarian pause in armed conflicts.[17] When the US abdicates, others fill the void and Trump’s decision to marginalise many multilateral bodies has provided an opening for Beijing[18].


In a damning report, Scott Foster suggests that the pandemic is likely to accelerate the relative decline of the US. He notes that Asian economies are becoming more integrated and less dependent on America. Foster continues - “Asia’s population is much larger, more disciplined, better educated and better organised than the American population. And Asia’s economy is not only bigger than America’s but has nearly caught up or has moved ahead in most technologies. It would take the USA a generation to reverse this trend, if it could be done at all.”[19]


Meanwhile, Chinese plans are being turbo-charged. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, China’s trade with Belt and Road nations grew 3.2% in the first quarter of 2020 (an annualised rate of 12.8%) compared with 10.8% for 2019. Beijing has signed new deals for Belt and Road projects in Myanmar, Turkey, and Nigeria. It’s 414 km China-Laos high-speed rail connecting Yunnan province (in China’s south) to Southeast Asia, through Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore is expected to be complete by 2022, creating an infrastructure for the importation of energy, food, and other vital resources, enabling Beijing to avoid dependency on coastal areas which could become vulnerable to Western blockades[20].


The key takeaway is that China will remain the top engine of the global economy, with or without decoupling from USA.

[1] The Washington Post 4 April 2020 [2] Ibid [3] The Atlantic June 2020 issue (published online May 2020) “We are Living in a Failed State” [4] The Economist 9 May 2020 [5] Australian Financial Review (AFR) 9-10 May 2020 [6] Asia Times 11 May 2020 [7] Australian Financial Review 26 April 2020 [8] Jennifer Hewett opinion in AFR 12 May 2020 [9] Sydney Morning Herald 13 May 2020 [10] Sydney Morning Herald 15 May 2020 [11] Professor of Political Science at University of Chicago [12] Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at Australian National University [13] Dangerous Allies by Malcolm Fraser, 2014 [14] Published 2019 [15] Professor Public Policy at National University of Singapore and a former President of UN Security Council [16] The Great Delusion, published 2018, refers to a New York University report that between World War II and 2004, the United States intervened militarily more than 35 times in developing countries around the world. [17] World Political Review (WPR) 14 May 2020 [18] WPR 11 May 2020 [19] Asia Times 14 May 2020 [20] Asia Times reports on 7 and 11 May 2020

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