China's Changing Role in the Pandemic-Driven World, with Amitai Etzioni & Nikolas Gvosdev

May 26, 2020

Aid packages from China at Villamor Air Base in Pasay City, Philippines, March 2020.
CREDIT: Philippines Presidential Communications Operations Office (CC).

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to Global Ethics Weekly. I'm Alex Woodson from Carnegie Council in New York City.

This week's podcast is with Amitai Etzioni and Nikolas Gvosdev. Amitai is university professor and professor of international affairs at The George Washington University and director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies. Nick is a senior fellow at Carnegie Council, director of the U.S. Global Engagement program, and a professor of national security affairs at U.S. Naval War College.

The three of us spoke about Amitai’s recent article for Carnegie Council, "China's Changing Role in the Pandemic-Driven World: A Dove's Perspective." We discussed great power competition and China’s changing relationship with the U.S. and other nations, all in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For now, calling in from Washington, DC and Rhode Island, here’s my talk with Amitai Etzioni and Nikolas Gvosdev.

Amitai, you wrote for Carnegie Council, "China's Changing Role in the Pandemic-Driven World: A Dove's Perspective." One of the ideas that that article looks at—something that Nick and I have talked about and something that Nick has talked about with Joel and other people—is whether the pandemic intensifies competition among nations like the United States and China, which we can talk about as great-power competition, or whether it helps to incentivize cooperation to meet a common challenge. Two or three months into this lockdown in the United States, what are you seeing?

AMITAI ETZIONI: First of all, before I answer any specific question, it's important for us as public intellectuals to note that nations in general, even when there is no pandemic, have a great temptation to find enemies. That may sound odd, because most of us think of enemies as bad news, but there are a lot of psychological, political, and economic reasons why nations find it surprisingly beneficial to have an enemy, not to fight necessarily but just to oppose.

Many psychological studies show that it is very tempting for us to say, "We have all the good attributes, and all the bad attributes belong to the other, the outsider." China has now taken that on—everything they do is wrong, and everything we do is right.

Politically it has been proven again and again that calling people to rally around the flag and so on is politically beneficial, and not surprisingly Democrats now are also becoming very anti-China.

Finally, Senator Cotton is calling for spending another some $50 billion on building destroyers and submarines to "prepare" for China. Therefore, businesses will lobby for that.

We need to be particularly leery when that happens and remember how we did all those things during the Cold War against the Soviet Union only to discover that we vastly overestimated its threat and its power and that it collapsed under its own weight largely.

As regarding China, before the pandemic closed us down, I recently went to a briefing in Washington by a very high ranking member of the Defense Department that was done under the Chatham House Rules. That means I can quote what he said but not his identity nor where he said it. He basically started his presentation by arguing that China was an existential threat to the United States on its way to becoming a superpower, its economy is growing fast, and so on.

But I and others challenged him and said: "China has enormous domestic problems. It has 500 million people who are seeking the same advantages which the better half already have. They want what Shanghai and Beijing have. There is enormous social demand and tension for domestic spending. They have serious demographic problems because of the one-child policy. They have a very aging population and will have an ever-smaller number of workers for an ever-larger number of old people. They have enormous environmental problems. There are thousands of demonstrations in China's cities." We listed all that.

Finally, the Defense Department official said, "Well, but I worked under five presidents, and they all wanted to be sure that the United States does not diminish its role in the Western Pacific."

Now we are talking about a different story. That's the Graham Allison issue which he often raised. It's not a question of whether China has the capability or the intention of becoming a global power and pushing out the United States, even if the United States is vacating its position.

It has concern about what's happening on its borders. The United States is putting military bases all around China. It was humiliated for centuries and wants respect.

So the question really comes down to, is the United States willing to allow China a bit more influence in its sphere rather than any danger of it replacing us?

No. After this lengthy clearing my throat, if you allow me, I would like to answer your question directly.

The United States under the Trump administration is obviously openly looking to shift the blame of the pandemic to China. There is no question that initially China suppressed information, not to hide it from the United States but because they have a 5,000-year tradition that the central government punishes local officials if they bring them bad news, so the tendency is to suppress bad local news. And they did the same, this time, to the great detriment first of all of the Chinese population. Once they discovered what happened and what became obvious is a serious challenge, they acted very fast and took some very drastic measures which allowed them to contain the pandemic.

As to not informing the United States, initially they didn't inform themselves either. But in January, Peter Navarro, the president's advisor, by his own account warned about the issue. The intelligence services warned the United States, and of course every newspaper by the end of January had stories about what was happening in China. So while it's true that China initially did not share the information with itself or others for months after the United States had the information it still didn't act. So not much good would have happened if China sent an email to the United States in January, given that the U.S. president wouldn't listen to his own advisors and his own intelligence services.

In short, this conflict, which has been very largely manufactured for political purposes, is very harmful, very detrimental, and from my viewpoint completely baseless.

ALEX WOODSON: Nick, do you want to add anything to that.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Amitai, let me throw this question and comment out to you: Now we're in a situation where we have a global crisis which is beyond the capacity of any one state to deal with. This is something that affects all nations, particularly all nations that are part of a globalized trading system and that are dealing with these impacts.

Yet, instead of this impelling the United States, China, and the other major great powers and middle powers to really work together on a common solution which would benefit everyone, it seems that the guiding ethos now is to see whether or not a country will absorb damage but other countries will be damaged even more, or to say, "Well, we will take damage to ourselves if we think that by not cooperating with others in terms of efforts to combat the pandemic it will bring China down, bring Russia down, bring the Europeans down, bring other economic competitors down."

Do you think that we are in a situation not unlike, if I can draw the comparison, to what we saw at the start of the Great Depression after 1929, where instead of countries working together, countries are going to adopt a beggar-thy-neighbor approach to the pandemic? Do you see also the basis that at some point we are going to see leaders and countries realize that they need to work together to get through this crisis?

AMITAI ETZIONI: That is the question, Nick, which we are now facing, and you put it very well indeed.

First of all, there are differences between the scientific and economic levels. On a scientific level, there continues to be a surprisingly high level of collaboration. When China decoded the DNA of the virus—which is very crucial for future research or building cures or vaccines—it immediately posted it worldwide, and several Western scientists were extremely gracious and thanked China for not monopolizing this information and keeping it for itself and its factories and sharing it with the world. Otherwise, there is quite a bit of collaboration among scientists from different nations.

On the economic front, we see very little of that. More and more countries take the position that from now on they will have to produce medications and many other so-called "crucial items" in their own countries rather than relying on trade.

But above all, there is an enormous difference between the rest of the world and the United States. The United States is the outlier here. Other countries seek to collaborate: Europe is seeking to collaborate with China; Israel is suddenly working with China in science and on trade; India and China, despite their tensions, are helping each other. In fact, several other countries are forming an interesting new idea, "travel bubbles," countries like the Czech Republic, New Zealand, and Israel, who are all in good shape. They allow people to travel from one country to another, but they will not open themselves up to countries like the United States, in which the virus is still running wild.

I believe there is a different picture on a scientific level and economic level, and above all between the United States and the rest of the world.

I love this country. As you will hear from my accent, I emigrated to the United States and served in the White House. I have enormous respect for the potential of this country, but currently it's conducting a policy which is disruptive to the international community, but the other countries are not following. They are increasingly collaborating with each other and with China.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That's a very interesting point you finished with, Amitai, which is the idea that the United States may be going in a particular direction but that it doesn't have followers. It turns around and wonders where its allies and partners are and that they might, in fact, be more inclined not to break their ties with the United States but certainly not to follow the United States in terms of not seeking collaboration with China.

I thought your point about China and India was a fascinating one. These are two countries which have geopolitical differences. They have disputed territories. They have fought small conflicts in the past. And yet they have decided that when it comes to a challenge like the coronavirus that it's a challenge that they both need to find ways to cooperate on, that the virus is bigger in some ways than their separate capacities to deal with it. That is interesting for what it points to in the future.

Do you want to expand on that because it certainly has ramifications for certainly your view of countries coming together to collaborate to deal with such challenges? Can the United States afford in essence to be an "outlier," as you put it, and still retain influence and its position in the international system? Is this a point where future historians may look back and say, "This more than the financial crisis or any of the other things since the end of the Cold War is what marks the end of America's leadership of the community of nations, its response to the coronavirus pandemic?"

AMITAI ETZIONI: By and large, I think quite openly the Trump administration sought to retreat from the world by removing itself from the Paris Agreement, by attacking international organizations, by reducing the budgets for international organizations, constantly attacking the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and so on. In a sense, the United States resigned itself for the time being.

Now we have a few more months, and then we're going to have an election, so before we make this as some kind of lasting pattern a lot will happen. A lot depends on what happens in November. If President Trump is reelected, I see every reason that he will continue this notion of basically the United States first and foremost, but what it means really is a kind of neo-isolationism. If Biden is elected, he often stresses his globalistic inclination, by the way, sometimes to his political disadvantage.

Let me in closing quickly make another point. The India-China example you brought up, Nick, is interesting.

Recently there has been some conflict between China and India, about some territory in the north of India which borders on China. I don't want to go into the details of the dispute as we don't have the time for that, but what absolutely fascinates me is that when the two armies clashed they both left their weapons behind and started shoving each other, but they feared that it would escalate, so both of them decided to lift their arms so there would be no fistfights, and they just were thumping each other's chests.

The reason I emphasize that is, as American politicians love to talk about "aggressive" China, in the Pacific region for the last 30 years not a single shot has been fired. There has been one casualty, and that happened to be a Chinese pilot who got too close to an American fighter.

Compared to any other part of the world, compared to Russia's intervention in the Crimea and Russian action in other parts of the Ukraine, to what is happening in Afghanistan and what happens in Africa and Syria, and Burma with ethnic cleansing, you can see that any notion that China is aggressive in the sense that most of us understand that term is simply without foundation, and if anybody is worried about international aggression and casualties and ethnic cleansing, they have to look at other parts of the world.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That's a great point, Amitai. I'm just reminded of Peter Piot, who directs the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and was the discoverer of the Ebola virus. He himself was struck down by COVID-19, although he is recovering from it, but he says that he hopes this crisis will ease political tensions in a number of areas, and he thinks that—just as we have seen in the past—that this can be something that when you have countries that have geopolitical tension the need for working together on a health issue could be a bridge builder. I think that's a great observation that you have made.

Alex, I'll turn it back over to you for a final question, and then we can get a final reflection.

ALEX WOODSON: I wanted to connect this to a talk that we had last week, Nick, with Damjan Krnjević Mišković, "Great Power Populism, COVID-19, and Missing Leadership." One of the things that you and Damjan seemed to both agree on is that we're missing leadership in a big way right now. Amitai, as you mentioned, we have an election coming up in November. Joe Biden's chances look fairly good at this point, but we'll see what happens there.

I'm wondering, if he is elected—I know you wrote a really interesting piece in The National Interest abut Joe Biden and walking the line between being a globalist, nationalist, patriot, and all those different ways to look at the world—can his leadership avert a cold war between the United States and China? Is there anything that he can do or say specifically that can put us in a better position than we are right now?

AMITAI ETZIONI: That's a very important issue.

Sociologists like me pay more attention to social forces than to personalities, even of leaders. There clearly are very strong anti-globalist, nationalist, populist forces all over the world, including in China, and certainly in Europe in Hungary and Poland. You see it very strongly in India.

The tendency is to move away from globalism and rebuild politically on nationalist sentiments. Despite the fact that every bone in Biden's body calls for alliances, working together, and building an international community, he will have to take into account that first of all he will have to deal with Congress, and we need to talk about the composition of Congress. Finally, he has to be responsive to the electorate, and it will take a great effort after these four years to reeducate the American people to make them accept some additional measures of globalism, especially now this notion that we have to produce essential products at home.

Surely he will be an enormous improvement, from my viewpoint, from these great disruptions that we face now, but we need to be honest about it. He will face very strong headwinds which are nationalistic, and he will have to work for globalism very strenuously.

ALEX WOODSON: We're nearing the end of our talk. Amatai, do you want to wrap it up with any final thoughts?

AMITAI ETZIONI: A lot of emphasis has been put recently on China's attempt to improve its image. Again, this is one of those situations where everything they do, people jump on them and turn it into evidence of how awful they are. For instance, they ask people to thank them for their help when they send airplanes full of masks and medical equipment. They ask legislators to pass resolutions thanking them.

China is very poor at dealing with soft power. They don't realize that the problem in passing resolutions thanking them is that it doesn't really do much.

But so what? If you get from China when you are short of ventilators, medical equipment, and such cargo planes full of equipment, why wouldn't you thank them? The United States also puts its name and flag on the packages.

I just wanted to add that because if you look beyond most headlines these days, China is obviously not invading any countries or attacking anybody, so when you hear talks about aggressive Chinese policies, the conditions they attach to the loans they give to countries which critics claim enslave other countries. I just invite anybody who listens to this to carefully examine any one of those claims, and you will see that sadly there are echoes of nationalistic politics in a world in which we need more globalism.

ALEX WOODSON: Amitai and Nick, thank you so much.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you.

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