Chinese weakness is a cause for global concern

Which of the world’s superpowers has emerged well from the past three years of shocks – first the coronavirus pandemic and now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

The first answer is: None of them. The second answer, however, is that while the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of all the superpowers are significant, the most geopolitically significant future problem appears to be China’s weakness.

The United States certainly fared poorly in the first year of the pandemic, as its system of government proved clearly inadequate to the task. Moreover, Donald Trump’s influence on the strength and global reputation of American democratic institutions has clearly been profoundly negative.

On the other hand, the response of American and European pharmaceutical companies to the pandemic has shown the continued superiority of Western technology, with much better vaccines and treatments produced and distributed, in record time and volumes. These have allowed America and Europe to return to something closer to economic and social normalcy more quickly than is the case for authoritarian societies.

The resilience of the West has been demonstrated by the powerful fiscal response of European and American governments to the pandemic crisis – and, this year, by their powerful economic sanctions, joined by Japan, against Russia. These countries, led by the United States, have also shown their strength and advanced technology through their military supplies to Ukraine, which could now turn the tide of the war.

However, the limits of the West have also been exposed: neither during the pandemic nor this year during the crises caused by war has the West proven its willingness or ability to provide enough vaccines or resources to sustain low- and middle-income countries. In the view of these countries, Western leadership and support cannot be relied upon.

India, as a self-proclaimed vaccine manufacturing superpower, is set to thrive during the coronavirus pandemic. But then his own Covid health crisis in 2021 forced him to ban exports of vaccines produced in India for many months. This caused him to lose many friends in the developing world.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, for last week’s meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Photo; Loginblog

Russia had a bad pandemic, with an official death rate similar to Western European countries but with an actual death rate most likely higher than official figures.

The Russian-made Sputnik vaccine proved difficult to produce and unpopular among Russian citizens. The economy has been badly hit by falling energy and commodity prices in 2020-21, losses the country is only now making up for amid the energy price shock caused by the Russian invasion.

In fact, it is quite reasonable to say that the negative impact of the pandemic years on the Russian economy, with the resulting social tensions, will probably have played a role in encouraging President Vladimir Putin to use the invasion of a neighbor and former imperial possession as a way to stir up and exploit Russian nationalist emotions.

Finally, there is China. For much of the pandemic, China has sat with its borders closed and a rather smug look in the faces of its political leaders. The struggles that the United States, in particular, but also the United Kingdom and European Union countries had with the coronavirus were seen as further evidence of the superiority of the Chinese system and the inexorable decline of the West. .

China has done well in vaccine development and production, with two Chinese companies manufacturing nearly half of the world’s coronavirus vaccines in 2021. China has engaged in “vaccine diplomacy” by sending vaccines to poor countries. For several years, it has also been the largest lender in these countries.

Finally, on February 4 this year in Beijing, China signed a joint statement on “strategic partnership” with Russia that declared a common goal of ending Western domination of global rules and institutions.

All of this could give the impression that China is looking good, even perhaps triumphant. But that’s not really how things turn out. China’s anti-coronavirus policies have gone awry, mainly because Chinese vaccines aren’t very effective. So while in the West and Japan the risk of serious illness or death from infection with the coronavirus has decreased significantly, this is much less true in China.

Moreover, the Chinese economy is paying a high price for the series of drastic lockdowns necessary to try to enforce the zero covid policy. Its vaccine diplomacy has failed and it is now struggling to deal with a number of sovereign debt crises from countries to which it has lent money.

In addition, the Chinese economy has taken two other serious hits. One is very important and debilitating: the real estate and construction industries have in recent years accounted for a large share of Chinese GDP (some estimates put the contribution at 30%), but real estate activity is now collapsing. in many large cities.

Broader financial instability could be avoided through China’s state control of the banking sector, but this important contribution of real estate to economic growth has now been lost, likely for many years to come.

Second blow, this summer, China suffered very strong heat waves and drought, which caused human suffering while drastically reducing the supply of hydroelectric energy.

It’s no surprise that China’s state media has stopped mentioning the country’s 2022 annual economic growth target of 5.5%, as the actual outcome appears to be half that number, maybe even inferior. And, meanwhile, China’s strategic partner, Russia, is failing to defeat Ukraine in its war, even by dramatically increasing China’s energy and food import costs.

Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin agree in various strategic areas, but the relationship is costing China dearly. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

We know that recent years have seen an intensification of superpower rivalry. But what these years have also brought is proof of the inadequacy of the superpowers. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, none of the four superpowers (current or, in India’s case, candidate) seem strong, and none can be trusted or depended on anything.

In all four cases, this weakness counts. But the country where this could matter the most in the next few years is China.

We have seen in Russia how economic and social weakness can cause political leaders to resort to nationalism to maintain control and support. In China, the current weakness may be temporary in the sense that a recovery is possible. Yet we also know that thanks to the aging of Chinese society, its era of rapid growth is well and truly over.

And technologically, despite all its progress in artificial intelligence and state surveillance, China remains far behind the West, especially in semiconductors.

This should put us all on our guard.

A notion that has long reassured outsiders that Chinese military intervention in Taiwan is not imminent has been the belief that time is on China’s side, so it will not be in a hurry to invade. Current weakness, technological backwardness and an aging society could mean the opposite: waiting could make the job harder, not easier. Let’s hope not.

But the weakness of the Chinese superpower should nevertheless concern us all.

Bill Emmott, former editor of The Economist, is a freelance writer, speaker and international business consultant. This article, originally published on The Mainichi news site and in the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun on September 11, 2022, is republished with kind permission.

Teresa H. Sadler