Commentary: While US plays blame game in coronavirus crisis, China shows leadership

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“Never let a serious crisis go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel advised in the midst of the 2008 financial meltdown. It’s advice that China appears to have taken to heart. For as the world grapples with how to control a pandemic that has now spread to 175 nations, infected hundreds of thousands and killed more than 20,000 people, China is asserting itself as the global savior that will lead the world out of this crisis.

It takes a good deal of chutzpah for Beijing to claim the mantle of global leadership in dealing with this once-in-a-lifetime calamity. Not only did the pandemic originate in the heart of China itself, but for weeks after signs of the disease first emerged, the country’s leaders obfuscated and then delayed needed action that might have controlled the outbreak before it spread far and wide.

Yet, once Chinese leaders acknowledged the extent of the crisis, the nation sprang into action. It locked down Hubei province and its capital Wuhan, the epicenter of the disease, and curtailed the movements of more than half its 1.4 billion people. Extensive testing, forced isolation of those who were positive and tracing everyone who had been in contact with those infected seems to have brought the epidemic under control.

Even as countries around the world are moving to lock down their own populations, China is easing travel restrictions and restarting its economy. The disease may flare up again as the nation returns to normal after having been shut down for two months, but for now it appears contained.

Ignoring its responsibility for starting the pandemic, Beijing has trumpeted its response as a model for others to follow. “China’s signature strength, efficiency and speed in this fight has been widely acclaimed,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi boasted in early March. “And the institutional advantage of China’s governance is for all to see.”

With the disease contained at home, China is now reaching out across the world to help those most in need. Last week, it sent millions of face masks, thousands of ventilators and hundreds of doctors to Italy — a country where already twice as many people have succumbed to the diseases as in all of China. And it has spread its largesse throughout the European continent, which is now the epicenter of the pandemic.

But Beijing isn’t just interested in being a good Samaritan. President Xi Jinping has declared the opening of a new “Health Silk Road,” where China would supply countries across the world with the medical equipment and assistance needed to combat the disease. It’s an extension of Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has helped built much-needed infrastructure throughout much of the world and extended Beijing’s global influence and control.

Given the desperate situation in which so many countries find themselves, leaders around the world have reacted with gratitude and appreciation for China’s aid and assistance. “We’re grateful for China’s support,” EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted last week to thank Beijing for the 2 million surgical masks, 200,000 N95 masks and 50,000 testing kits it was sending to Europe.

“If somebody is worried China is doing too much,” an Italian official told the New York Times when asked whether he was concerned about the geopolitical implications of Chinese aid, then they should step in. “The gap is open to other countries. This is what other countries should do.”

And there’s the rub. For in years past there would have been another country that would have taken the lead in addressing this global, humanitarian crisis. When a tsunami hit Southeast Asia in 2004, killing over 200,000, the United States led the effort to alleviate the suffering. When the financial crisis erupted across the globe in 2008, the United States led the effort to bring the 20 largest economies together to develop a cooperative response. And when the deadly Ebola epidemic exploded in West Africa in 2014, the United States led a global coalition to eradicate the disease.

Today, that U.S. leadership is notable only for its absence. There has been little attempt by Washington to coordinate a global response. As is his wont, President Donald Trump has preferred unilateral steps — like instituting travel bans without consultations — and largely ignored the international institutions that exist to coordinate global action.

Indeed, rather than trying to work through the United Nations Security Council and the G-7 and G-20 groupings of major countries to drive a coordinated response, the administration has stymied actions in these forums by insisting that countries refer to the “Wuhan virus” as the cause of the pandemic. The blame game is apparently to Washington more important than leading the world toward collective action.

China is eagerly stepping into the void created by America’s abdication of global leadership. It has long looked for an opportunity to do so. And what may be the ultimate irony, China may now succeed in becoming a global leader because of the very crisis its earlier failures helped produce.



Ivo Daalder is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO.


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