US-China Rivalry Plays Out as Pandemic Unfolds

March 25, 2020 Updated: March 25, 2020


The Chinese government appears to be using the unlikely trigger of the coronavirus pandemic as a basis of escalating its rivalry with the United States as the world’s most important and influential country. This is such an unpromising sequel to the debacle they made of that crisis it incites the suspicion that the regime is motivated more by fear than by confidence.

The Chinese masses are inscrutable and undemonstrative, and they habitually only bestir themselves to outright revolt in large numbers at intervals of two or three centuries. Certainly, no one can dispute that the People’s Republic, after a very rocky time under Mao Tse-tung (1949–1976), has accomplished probably the greatest triumph of development economics in the history of the world. Under Deng Xiao-ping (principal leader 1978–1992), and his successors, China has advanced from a profoundly primitive condition where most people lived largely as they had two thousand years ago, to an economic power house.

The United States has been the most important country in the world since the continental semi-suicide of Europe in World War I. Since then, four consecutive countries have risen to challenge America’s status. The Nazi regime was so evil and belligerent, it overran its neighbors, but was unable to subdue Great Britain and then made the catastrophic errors of attacking the Soviet Union and then declaring war on the United States after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, though Germany was not bound to support Japan.

At the end of the Second World War, the United States had half of the entire economic product of the war-ravaged world, and an atomic monopoly. In a gigantic strategic blunder, the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, forfeited the generous aid package that Roosevelt had offered, conditional on Soviet adherence to its commitment to evacuate what became the satellite states of eastern Europe, and began the Cold War.

The Soviet Union, though it was almost as nasty a dictatorship as the Third Reich, was not as bellicose and strained for decades to exploit the attractions of Marxism to distressed peoples, as in Cuba, Nicaragua, and various other under-developed countries such as Ethiopia, Congo, and Guinea. But the United States was always the more productive and efficient system, the stronger ally for struggling countries, and the mystique of freedom and human rights was much too powerful for Marxist cant, especially in artificially stifled and retarded countries like those in Eastern Europe.

Eventually, after Richard Nixon had triangulated Great Power relations by opening productive relations with China, the USSR struggled with ever greater difficulty to maintain something close to military parity with the United States. But when President Reagan announced his plan for a comprehensive missile defense system, the USSR, seeing that it’s deterrent and first-strike nuclear capacity could be compromised, and recognizing that it could no longer compete technologically with the United States, simply disintegrated.

Japan’s Economic Threat

As this astounding geopolitical triumph, almost a bloodless collapse of a global rival occurred, Japan, an American ally and protégé, thoroughly reformed politically under the supervision of the post-war U.S. military governor, General Douglas MacArthur, launched a new kind of threat, entirely economic and based partly on the lack of any Japanese requirement to make a major defense investment, as it sheltered under the American defense umbrella.

For almost a decade, Japanese manufactured products, especially automobiles, appeared to be sweeping the Western world and competitively routing American industry. But Japan became over-extended financially, suffered as oil prices skyrocketed because of political uncertainties in the Middle East and the greed of the oil cartel, and was countered by more brisk American competition and the insidious advances beneath and around it of South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. From the mid-1990’s on, the United States enjoyed, but did not abuse, its status as the world’s unchallenged super-power.

Somewhat as Commodore Perry’s opening of the Japanese ports on the mission of Presidents Fillmore and Pierce in 1853 motivated Japan to surge into the modern world, President Nixon’s visit to Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai in 1972 helped bring forward the Dengist era, in which China transformed itself into an industrial giant with worldwide military, economic, and political influence.

The United States, throughout its history, has had as its constant foreign policy goal not to be threatened. For this reason it enunciated the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, warning all foreign (in practice European) powers that they were not welcome in the Americas, beyond what they already possessed (principally Canada. In fact, the British, and not the Americans, enforced it for the first 40 years.)

After the Civil War, there was no question of anyone challenging the position of the United States in the Americas, and the democratic powers of Europe asked American assistance in both World Wars to prevent Western Europe, and in World War II the Far East and Australasia also, coming under the domination of anti-democratic and aggressive rivals. The United States only engaged in the Cold War when the threat of communist domination of Europe and the Far East arose.

Confronting China

It was not threatened, but merely economically challenged, by Japan. With China, it is both economic and military and the United States is effectively assembling and coordinating a group of front-line states, a little like the NATO alliance containment of the USSR, but much less explicit in a much less abrasive confrontation.

India, Indonesia, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, and other nearby countries have generally encouraged the United States in the Trump administration’s trade initiatives to end Chinese practices of uneven agreements and systematic industrial theft and espionage, dumping of manufactures, and self-serving currency manipulation. The Chinese tech-giant Huawei was largely built on the outright theft of technology from the Canadian company Northern Telecom.

India and Japan, in particular, are building up their navies to defend their interests against Chinese claims to international Far Eastern and South Asian waters. The United States possesses the scepter of the seas and is encouraging them.

President Trump has responded very effectively to the Chinese economic challenge; China has been forced to retreat, and it has ceased to gain ground on the United States in absolute terms as American economic growth has sharply increased with Trump’s tax, trade, and deregulation policies. The formerly commonplace talk of China surpassing the United States economically has effectively ceased.

The coronavirus was exported to the world by Chinese negligence, compounded by its outrageous propaganda that the pandemic in fact was initiated by Americans. China is masquerading as a benefactor nation by sending medical supplies to Italy, which China infected originally. The United States is dealing with the coronavirus much more successfully than China did, and it is clear that the Trump administration intends to recover economically much more quickly than China.

If Beijing’s provocations continue, the Trump administration may be expected to encourage the independentist sentiments of Taiwan, curtail Chinese student visas in the United States, and draw closer to China’s uneasy neighbors, especially immense India, now under a three-week lock-down of its entire population of 1.3 billion people, thanks to Chinese ineptitude and dissembling.

If China persists with the aggressive rivalry with the United States, as indicated by its imperialistic “Belt and Road” expression of world-wide ambitions, it will be no more successful than those who have preceded it in the last century as rivals to the United States. It is immense and confident, but it has no worthwhile institutions, a corrupt and semi-totalitarian government, and has very few resources.

It could only become a rival to the United States if it had unlimited access to the wealth of Siberia that the Russians have never seriously exploited. This is what makes the relationship with the Kremlin delicate, and the Trump approach, cordiality with both Russia’s Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, while strengthening America competitively in all spheres and aligning with similarly motivated countries, has been the correct one. The Chinese proceed farther on this aggressive path at their peril, and to their ultimate regret.

Conrad Black has been one of Canada’s most prominent financiers for 40 years, and was one of the leading newspaper publishers in the world. He is the author of authoritative biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, and, most recently “Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.