With US preoccupied and Europe weak, China begins to advance

Whatever the origins of the virus, China is determined to win the post-pandemic propaganda narrative

A passenger wearing a protective mask arrives at a railway station in Wuhan on the first day inbound train services resumed following the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Wuhan of Hubei province, the epicentre of China's coronavirus outbreak, March 28, 2020.

A passenger wearing a protective mask arrives at a railway station in Wuhan on the first day inbound train services resumed following the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Wuhan of Hubei province, the epicentre of China's coronavirus outbreak, March 28, 2020.

Reuters/Aly Song

History certainly teaches us that power abhors a vacuum. Geopolitics goes on, as it has done since the days of Athens and Sparta, whatever the calamity. In the case of the coronavirus catastrophe, ironically it is China — the initial propagator of the virus, whose two-month cover-up allowed it to spread undetected to much of the world — that stands to benefit most.

Sometimes history favors the culpable. And Beijing has lost no time in taking advantage of the sluggish responses to the virus emanating from both Brussels and Washington. In the case of the EU, the coronavirus crisis is ruthlessly exposing its flaws: It is too slow, too divided, and — when push comes to shove — not enough of a union at all.

For example, while the hard-pressed Italians were first bearing the brunt of the disease in Europe, a selfish German government decided to hoard surgical masks, as the Germans might need them themselves in just a matter of weeks. Either Europe is a union, and behaves as such, or else all that endless pious talk means nothing.

America, as all continental powers tend to be, is so preoccupied with itself and the impending hit it is about to take that it has spared nary a thought for its besieged European allies. In essence, the crisis is ruthlessly making clear weaknesses already present in the international system well before it struck: Europe is both weak and less than a real union, while the US has lost interest in Europe as its gaze turns to Asia — with much of the world’s future growth as well as much of its global risk. In both cases, the coronavirus has merely clarified the strategic vacuum that had already been quietly growing.

It is at this critical moment that an assured China has chosen to pounce. This past week, as I have turned on the Italian evening news, I have been greeted by the strange sight of Russian, Chinese and even Cuban (of all places) aid trucks wheeling off of runways with medical supplies for the plague-stricken Italian people. China may be culpable in spreading the coronavirus, but Beijing is determined to win the post-virus narrative, while the self-involved transatlantic alliance sleeps.

Beijing is fully energized in winning over the world — whatever the facts of the virus’ providence — with two basic facts. First, due to its ruthless but effective authoritarian response and the innate discipline of its people, it has successfully seen off the virus. It is willing to share its know-how with the rest of the world, as the propaganda victory is apparent: In this newly dangerous world, Beijing is making it clear that its success illustrates that dictatorship is a more effective system than chaotic democracies.

Second, the very global time frame of the coronavirus itself economically favors the Chinese. As the first to be hit by and get through the virus, China will be ramping up its economy, even as later-hit Europe and North America are struggling with the plague. This means China will have a huge economic advantage in coming online first in the post-coronavirus world.

So, into this global pandemic and geopolitical vacuum, China has begun to play the strategic game of dividing an already fractured Europe and making it clear to Italians everywhere that their fears about Donald Trump and America’s fecklessness toward the transatlantic alliance are real.

Or, as John Stuart Mill observed, all it takes for evil to win the world is for enough good men to do nothing. It is easy to be for Europe when the sun is shining. It is easy to believe in NATO when there is no real threat requiring sacrifice. But these beliefs are only real, only tangible, only powerful, when they work as the ancient Greek notion of “praxis” — the unity of thought and action — and do so in a crisis, with real things on the line.

In other words, because continental statesmen believe in Europe to the marrow of their bones, they act collectively now to help the hardest-hit plague states, such as Italy and Spain. Likewise, America must (yet again) come to the rescue of its European allies by collectively engaging in economic stimulus across the transatlantic space — and even better at the G20 level — as, saving the old continent strategically helps safeguard the new continent, as has been the case for the past 100 years.

One final positive thought, which ought to stand as the West’s collective propaganda riposte to the Chinese: As the world races to find a vaccine for the coronavirus, do not bet against the Germans, Japanese, British or Americans getting there first, ahead of the Chinese; and getting there better, in terms of a safer, more comprehensive product. Western democratic states have a far better record of innovation than communist dictatorships, precisely because the work emanates in free societies where creativity is not punished.

Or, as Winston Churchill so eloquently put it, democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. The West must not be shy about combating Chinese propaganda with this central, and very real, fact.

  • Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via www.chartwellspeakers.com.
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