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US-China Tussle amid COVID-19: Future of US Hegemony

Image Credit: Council on Foreign Relations
US-China Tussle amid COVID-19: Future of US Hegemony

Global dynamics appear to be changing amid the Covid-19 pandemic. China is trying to emerge as the “global saviour”. The world’s most populous country has swiftly responded and contained the contagion through an effective strategy of lockdowns and contact tracing. It has been successful in eventually rising from being the sick man of Asia to the saviour of the world. Such measures by the Xi Jinping’s government are already raising eyebrows in Washington, who sees the former as a threat to its global dominance.

China has expanded its political, economic, and military might by means of an intelligent long term strategy. The future scope of China’s pre-eminence in the global spectrum has been widened by the pandemic. All of this has been further bolstered by the rejection of Trump to engage in Europe and elsewhere. Covid-19 not only emerged as an impetus to shift the global dynamic but has also helped China to strengthen its position. Chinese medicine through the “Health Silk Road” has let the country work in close cooperation with different states across the globe.

Furthermore, Xi Jinping’s government is using the declining role of the United States (US), in maintaining China’s global stature. Beijing is firming its grip over Hong Kong and has captured many important strategic positions in the Indian occupied territory of Ladakh. In such a situation, the world wants a swift response from the Trump administration rather than just a tweet war. For Beijing, the situation is ideal to call it a ‘Chinese Decade’. It may keep on persuading maximal aggression, as odds are in China’s favour to advance as a superpower.

Chinese support towards the members of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) involves a greater strategic interest. Similarly, China is increasing its support in combating Covid-19 around the world by following its “Mask Diplomacy”. It evolved around Beijing’s objectives of increasing its influence over the world affairs. In response to the confident play by China, the US has not come up with any convincing tactics to prevent the former from achieving its interest. The Trump administration kept on calling Covid-19 as a ‘Chinese virus’ instead of acting as the world saviour.

The role of the US in the world is descending. An assessment of such is a tweet from the Swedish Prime Minister, where he criticized the US’ role in the G20 meeting. He tweeted, “The UN Security Council is nowhere to be seen, G20 is in the hands of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and the White House has trumpeted America First and Everyone Alone for years. Only the virus is globalized.” How will the world leaders view the US when they will inspect that, in the past the US has spent trillions of dollars on ‘War on Terror’. But when it comes to the pandemic the US has been found ill-prepared to figure out its role against the coronavirus.

Taking a backseat amid a global pandemic, withdrawing from global treaties, and withholding of funds shows a pattern on the part of the US. It will further create a vacuum for China to take advantage of the prevailing situation.

Recently, a move by the Trump administration has gained popularity in the international realm; withholding of the US funds from the World Health Organization (WHO). Trump wanted the virus to be affiliated with China but WHO did not take any stance over this. Resulting in Washington criticizing the organization for pandering China while calling it ‘China-centric’. Withholding of the US funds of around $400 million will surely leave a gap. At the same time, it will help China to bolster its position in WHO. Taking a backseat amid a global pandemic, withdrawing from global treaties, and withholding of funds shows a pattern on the part of the US. It will further create a vacuum for China to take advantage of the prevailing situation.

The US attained its role as the global leader after the Cold War by the promotion of ‘morality’ behind US hegemony. It let the US emerge as the global player and the international community saw it as such. But the pandemic is proving this claim to be wrong as the US has not shown a convincing leadership role during Covid-19. The US hegemonic status asks for a leadership role in global governance but contemporary politics shows China being better-off in holding the flag of global governance.

The US’ exceptionalism is a concept which was supposed to see its fall but no one expected it to be this early. The pandemic is pinching the US to prove its exceptionalism. But its failure in the Afghan war has fuelled the debate of ‘declining US hegemony’. Further hype will be created once the pandemic ends. These emerging debates could turn the eyes of the US’ allies towards emerging powers like China, India, Russia and France whenever a new international crisis will erupt. A deeper analysis of the current scenario questions the conflicting interest of China and the US. It also shows that countries like China, Russia, UAE and Cuba have used the scenario by making headlines from their ‘Covid-19 diplomacy’. However the US to a larger extent has remained aloof from helping the world fight coronavirus.

More recently, Katrin Bennhold, correspondent for The New York Times while analysing US performance during the pandemic has put forward an important statement. He claims, “This is perhaps the first global crisis in more than a century where no one is even looking to the United States for leadership.” The consequences of such thinking might allow US allies to explore deeper relations with rising powers such as China and Russia. It will counterbalance US power as measures are being taken by Washington’s rivals to exploit its position in the global arena.

Whether it will be Trump or Joseph Biden, the question remains the same. Will it be one person to be blamed for the declining US role in answering the world’s needs in fighting Covid-19? Perception will be shaped no matter what counter-measures will be put forward by US policymakers. Elections 2020 in November will help to answer these questions as who will hold the office in the White House. A closer look into the domestic foreign policy approach of Trump can be revealing. Trump’s policy of ‘America first’ was long showing the signs that the US might not take the lead role of world saviour. Trump’s criticism of alliances and institutions, as well as his support of Brexit, depicts his interest in deserting the promotion of liberal international order.

The outbreak has provided an opportunity to China to emerge as a superpower. The country has made its position by supporting the world in fighting Covid-19. Alongside, it is showing its ability to counter India in Ladakh. Also, it has shown its strong position in the South China Sea at a time when the world was thinking about the Covid-19. Indeed a power vacuum has been created by the situation. This could tilt the balance in Beijing’s interest. The current international order that was set by the US will be subject to further test as the shifts in the geopolitics will be seen once the pandemic ends.

Ali Zafar

Mohammad Ali Zafar is currently pursuing a degree in International Relations from the National Defence University, Islamabad.

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