By Martin Wolf
History accelerates in crises. This pandemic may not itself transform the world, but it can accelerate changes already under way. One ongoing change has been in the relationship between China, the rising superpower, and the US, the incumbent. Being a superpower is not just about brute strength, it is also about being seen as a competent and decent leader. After victories in the second world war and the cold war, the US was such a leader. Despite rising economic strength, China is not. But times can change. The coronavirus may accelerate the process.
Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singaporean diplomat, has written a characteristically provocative book on the struggle for primacy between the two superpowers under the provocative title Has China Won? The answer, he suggests, is not yet. But it might. This is not just because of its scale, but also because of American mistakes, including false perceptions of Chinese reality. Perhaps the most important conclusion to draw from his analysis is that global influence derives mainly from one’s own choices. China and the US have each made big mistakes. But the US failure to create widely shared prosperity at home, and its bellicosity abroad, are proving crippling. The dismal presidency of a malevolent incompetent is one result.
Now has come the virus, an event not considered in this book. It casts a harsh light on the competence and decency of the superpowers. It has done the same on EU solidarity (or its absence), the effectiveness of states, the vulnerability of finance and the capacity for global co-operation. In all this, the performance of the US and China is of pre-eminent importance. So what have we learnt?
Picture: US Embassy Canberra / Public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Turnbull_selfie_with_Xi_Trump_Quang.jpg