America – Keep Your Eye on the Ball

March 31, 2020
America – Keep Your Eye on the Ball
(Li Gang/Xinhua via AP)
America – Keep Your Eye on the Ball
(Li Gang/Xinhua via AP)
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China’s growing self-confidence should worry America.  The country just celebrated another day without community spread of the Wuhan flu.  Its government also announced plans to lift the two-and-a-half-month quarantine restrictions on the city at the crisis epicenter on April 8th.  Draconian measures implemented by the authoritarian Communist government not only halted the spread of coronavirus in China but have reinforced the domestic legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party.  While the battles aren't yet over, Beijing is already claiming victory in its virus war.

Meanwhile, the United States is performing a delicate dance.  Washington is attempting to balance economic impacts and individual liberties with the medical necessity to distance socially to prevent the virus’s spread.  The infection curve in America, however, isn’t trending in the right direction. This reinforces Beijing’s conviction that its intrusive form of governance is best suited to respond to a major crisis and emboldens its leadership to be more assertive on the global stage.

We have seen this movie before.  Like the Wuhan Flu, the 2008 financial crisis slammed both the United States and China.  While America experienced low growth rates, investment, and productivity in the decade following the collapse of Lehman Brothers, China fared much better.  Its economy nearly tripled, overtaking Japan's in 2011.  Per capita income in China grew between 10 and 15 percent each year, and China created 8 to 10 million jobs annually.  China not only recovered but thrived in the decade following the crisis. Beijing could rightfully be proud of its accomplishments.  As a diplomat posted in Beijing in the years immediately following the economic shock, I observed Chinese leaders behave with swagger and exude confidence over the way China had navigated its economic crisis.

Moreover, Chinese self-assuredness extended well beyond the economic domain. During the decade following the economic collapse, Beijing became more assertive in the East and South China Seas.  It seized a disputed reef from the Philippines in 2012, declared an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea in 2013, escalated a dispute with Japan over Senkaku Islands sovereignty, created artificial islands in the disputed Spratly chain, violated Vietnamese sovereignty with an oil rig, and deployed maritime assets to bully fishermen operating anywhere within China's illegal claim to ninety percent of the South China Sea.  The chronicle of bad Chinese behavior could go on for pages.

Chinese Communist Party confidence is growing once again with its claimed victory over the Wuhan Flu.  Just like the years following the 2008 economic collapse, manifestations of Chinese vibrato are emerging in the military domain.  On March 16th, Chinese Air Force aircraft conducted a night-time crossing of the median line between Taiwan and China, forcing Taiwan Air Force aircraft to scramble to disperse the Communist warplanes.  This was the fourth time in two months that Taiwan’s Air Force had to scramble to intercept PLA aircraft.

Last month, a Chinese warship fired a laser at a U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft operating in international waters in the Philippine Sea.  This led a Chinese military commentator to suggest recently that advanced Chinese electromagnetic weapons could be used to temporarily paralyze U.S. Navy warships' weapons control systems without repercussions because such weapons don't cause visible damage to sensitive electronic equipment.  Then, just this week, China established research stations on two of its artificial Spratly islands – ostensibly to promote scientific and technological research.  In reality, however, China uses these stations to further cement its claimed sovereignty over disputed South China Sea waters.

Meanwhile, Chinese propaganda and misinformation are on overdrive, obfuscating reality to shift blame from Chinese leadership for its botched response to the coronavirus.  China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman is promoting the theory that the United States Army brought the epidemic to Wuhan.   China’s Ambassador to South Africa erroneously suggested in a tweet the virus had not originated in China.  Beijing is even expelling mainstream western reporters in response to their factual reporting on the virus outbreak in the country.

At the same time, Beijing is using soft-power diplomacy to advance its national interests around the world.  Beijing garnered effusive praise from Italian leaders after delivering ventilators and a team of 300 intensive-care doctors and nurses to the hard-hit country.  China sent 2,000 rapid diagnostic tests to the Philippines.   The President of the European Commission thanked Beijing for its commitment to provide two million surgical masks, 200,000 advanced masks, and 50,000 testing kits to Europe. 

Great power competition with China requires America to keep its eye on the ball.  While the United States is inwardly focused, grappling with dire challenges associated with the Wuhan virus, Beijing is emerging from the crisis postured for greater global influence.  An outcome of its success in addressing global economic challenges is an increase of confidence within the Chinese Communist Party.  History suggests this will make China more aggressive militarily over the next several years. 

No doubt, the Wuhan Flu demands America's near-term attention.  Yet, an emboldened Beijing – along with its extraterritorial ambitions, coercive military tactics, and efforts to restructure the international order – is lurking on the other side of this health crisis.  While resources must be allocated to addressing the virus, Washington must remain bore-sighted throughout this health emergency on preparing to confront a revisionist China that is increasingly self-assured of its global influence and of its own military capabilities.

CAPT Christopher Sharman, U.S. Navy, is a National Security Affairs Fellow at the Stanford University Hoover Institution. He previously served as a Navy Attaché in both Vietnam and in China.  The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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