Pandemic Politics: America Must Reimagine Grand Strategy Toward China In An Age Of Volatility

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The Covid-19 pandemic has lifted the veil on the last vestiges of normalcy in our modern era. The normalcy of public complacency in bad governance and corporate greed ­has come to an unfettered stop due to the pandemic response resulting in massive layoffs and unprecedented unemployment, with about 44.2 million people having filed for government aid. As Americans struggle with the perils of their personal economic uncertainty, many theories abound as to the origin of Covid-19. Was it leaked on purpose? By whom? By a state or rouge group? Has it been bioengineered to act as a catalyst to further complicate the low-level conflict taking place between America and China?

The Trump Administration’s inept response and initial mishandling of reports by watchdog agencies has led to the death of around 132,000 Americans. Unfortunately, the spiraling spread of Covid-19 is due to a lack of a broad strategy and organization of information that should have been disseminated to the president. Ousted Department of Health official Dr. Rick Bright filed a whistleblower complaint citing Trump personnel’s indifference and hostility to formulating an urgent response to evidence of a SARS-like virus originating in China.

Instead of a strong pandemic strategy what we got was media wars, lockdown wars, and a more vengeful cycle of our favorite pastime, the culture wars. How can America set priorities for the world when we are unable to agree on lockdown procedures? How did the political divide become so grave that one’s decision to wear a medical mask in public casts them with Left-leaning inclinations?

Sadly, as dangerous as Covid-19 is, the United States is not acting like it is in a health crisis, but a political crisis so grave it mimics a balkanization of the country into warring political spheres. Although Covid-19 has proven to be a dangerous airborne disease, Republican controlled states have chosen to take a more lenient response with social distancing measures as Democratic controlled states have imposed stricter controls on social movement. When political ideology becomes the primary factor in assessing the danger of a new and unknown virus, one side is actually right and one side wrong, and life and death take on a horribly literal meaning in proving the measure of one’s purist faith and loyalty to their political party.

But the imposition of our time is not the Trump Administration’s mismanagement of a pandemic response for American citizens, but in its response to the aftermath of the Covid-19 outbreak. If the Trump Administration gets another four years, it will bear the responsibility to direct America in an age of ill-defined norms, popular mistrust in institutions, and where China is contesting America’s power to build its own sphere of regional influence.

From Pandemic To Power Politics

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What has emerged in the background of a global pandemic is a full-scale cold conflict between the United States and China. As the preeminence of American leadership wanes, China seeks to carve out a zone of regional hegemony in order build competing institutions of finance and trade. Where China’s advances in artificial intelligence, space exploration, and robotics help to fuel its edge toward becoming a world leader in the technology of the future, its development of The Belt and Road Initiative  seeks to carve up a land based route to connect China directly to intra-regional trade as a means to lead newly modeled economic zones. If China is able to succeed in the westward expansion of new economic zones, it will be able to shape new international rules and norms that will help give China a leadership role in cultivating new investment and export markets. China’s grand geoeconomic strategy is focused on developing long-term economic stability by building the foundation for China to secure access to energy supplies/routes and by modeling a shift for the production of higher-value services.

America will have to contend with a China that has modeled its long-term strategy on Chinese nationalism, though it is unlikely that Beijing wants to pick an ideological war with Washington by promoting Communism in the Asia Pacific region. In the Cold War of the past, the Soviet Union was outside of the international framework that the United States resided over, making the clash between Capitalist and Communist ideologies as a distinguishable fight over competing models of influence. But Beijing has been fully integrated into the world economic system, where trade with Washington has played an integral role in the rise of China’s economic power.

This means that Washington will have to decide on what a decoupling from Beijing will look like. There must be a renewed national security architecture in place that can define how Washington can protect its economic status. Will the fight over technological superiority seep into the military realm? Or will it covertly play out by China using asymmetrical tactics in the cyber realm to slowly put weight on America’s weak spots? If the goal is to contain China from exerting dominance in Asia Pacific, America must be able to define what kind of conflict it is willing to have with China. Is it a political fight to maintain Washington’s military hegemony or is it a battle to stop Beijing from creating and overseeing financial institutions? It is possible the coming conflict will be a combination of both.

The Trump Administration may have picked a fight with China to reorient the excesses of globalization with the ongoing trade war, but what is needed is a grand strategy toward the Asia region on a broader scale that is not solely directed at China, but at the countries that have developing markets and potential trade routes that can coalesce into Beijing’s attempt to build up its economic power.

The New Great Game?

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America needs a roadmap for grand strategy. In the politics of the coming decade, hegemony will no longer mean the ascendency of one superpower in charge of the international order, but will cede to multiple spheres of power. As China seeks to usurp the formerly predictable global order, America will need to develop a direct but flexible approach to China’s regional ambitions. Washington will have to formulate a national security policy that focuses on Beijing’s competing claims to economic governance. Washington will have to keep military alliances ready for protracted deterrence in the South China Sea and beyond, while keeping the U.S Navy carrier battle groups in offensive command. But Washington will need to ensure that strategic competition is not focused solely on military tactics, and that the use of naval force is a line of the physical defense of freedom of navigation and not of political confrontation.

A new national security policy should be focused on how China’s implementation of economic protectionism will shape the norms of a new order of global governance. Will Washington be excluded from important trade deals and lose legitimacy in a China-controlled Asia Pacific trade zone? Washington will need economic analysts to help build a well-rounded approach to the Asia region that reaches as far westward to India. Recent border skirmishes between India and China shed light on the increasingly aggressive actions of Beijing’s military, which is testing the use of low-grade force to claim land rights in the Himalayan region of Aksai Chin. This area connects China’s Xinjiang Province to Western Tibet and to part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and thus if China is able to claim land rights to this area it would be a strategic gain to Beijing’s long-term economic policy goals.

If America does not stay competitive in international trade or future technology, Washington will not be able to stop Beijing’s economic expansion into neighboring states. If Beijing is able to control global supply chains, engage in trade theft and direct investment of important American industries, then Washington will be in a weakened position to shape the direction of the global economy and will likely see China having more power to dilute Western institutions of financial power.

The competition between the United States and China will be centered on the struggle to control these emerging power centers and thus for the unilateral control over the distribution of power in the global system.

There must be a balance between hardliner sanctions that expel Chinese telecommunications from the U.S market and soft-style diplomacy that exclusively targets political relations to rebalance the economic relationship. In isolation, neither of these approaches aptly define the type of power struggle that is encapsulating U.S-China relations nor do they impart a structural approach that defines what a long-term peer-to-peer conflict should look like.

Will the United States go on an ideological crusade against Chinese Communist Party rule to compete for global hegemony of the international system or will Washington seek to use a combination of military tactics and its system of alliances to temper Beijing’s goal of regional political influence?

Good leadership and a balanced national security policy is key.

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