9 April, 2020
Two centuries ago, Napoleon Bonaparte called China a sleeping lion and advised to “let her sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.” Bonaparte’s prophecies are relevant again today. The lion is now awake and she is becoming increasingly assertive.
Early in the Covid-19 crisis, there was a view that China would be weakened by it. Some even pondered the downfall of President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party. With the Hong Kong revolts, the death of Wuhan’s whistle-blower Dr Lee Wenliang, the looming global recession and economic confidence deteriorating within China, those predictions were not surprising.
But the coronavirus may just be a hiccup and Mr Xi’s government appears to have regained its domestic legitimacy. Instead of falling victim to the virus, the party could be deemed the victor in the international system. The losers seem to be the United States and the wider liberal international order. The balance of power has shifted in favour of China.
China covered up the origins of the virus to the World Health Organisation. As a result, Western countries such as the US, Spain, Italy and Germany have far more cases and deaths than China.
China is using the crisis to extend its geopolitical reach. In the last few weeks, it has sent additional masks and medical supplies to help the Italians and French. As President Xi pledges more support to Europe, he is using it to further legitimise his ambitious $1.4 trillion Belt and Road Initiative.
The virus has become useful for Beijing to add an element of soft power, which is necessary to become the so-called benevolent global force. By repairing the serious reputational damage caused to it by the pandemic, China is framing itself as a responsible power.
The United States led the international system since the end of the Second World War, but under President Donald Trump, its diplomatic efforts have changed tack and are now more nationally focused. China, by contrast, appears increasingly determined to fill that global leadership void.
Great power politics is still a ruthless business in the international system, and Covid-19 has resulted in a new phase of security competition between the US and China. Covid-19 unsettled the balance of power in a way few would have predicted just a few months ago.