The new war for soft power hegemony

The new war for soft power hegemony
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The U.S. and China are engaged in a war to claim the coveted spot of soft-power hegemon. Thankfully, no bullets — or even tariffs — are involved. Yet, in no uncertain terms, there is a war afoot. While more than a million people worldwide have been infected with COVID-19 and nearly 50,000 have perished, China and America are locked in a public relations battle over who is to blame.

In the U.S., Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoIran releases photo of damaged nuclear fuel production site: report To support Hong Kong's freedom, remember America's revolution Senate passes sanctions bill targeting China over Hong Kong law MORE reportedly insisted that a United Nations Security Council resolution should contain language stating that the virus originated in China and on what date. Republican senators are competing with one another to demonstrate who is more emphatic in blaming China with their calls to “make China pay.” Only recently did President TrumpDonald John Trump Trump responds to calls to tear down monuments with creation of 'National Garden' of statues Trump: Children are taught in school to 'hate their own country' Trump accuses those tearing down statues of wanting to 'overthrow the American Revolution' MORE — wisely — drop the term “Chinese virus” from his public lexicon.

In the meantime, Beijing has been pushing conspiracy theories on the international stage to cast doubt on the origins of COVID-19 while, domestically, state media reports that cases in China have been reduced to near zero. This is despite the fact that China does not factor asymptomatic cases into its official tally, which brings into doubt the veracity of China’s claims about no new domestic cases. Additionally, for benevolent reasons or otherwise, China has become the world’s medicine cabinet, airlifting vitally needed equipment to struggling nations such as Italy and France in wartime fashion.

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Beijing threw a wrench into the works on March 28 by temporarily banning foreign nationals from entering the country, a remarkable step for a country that claims to have beaten back the virus. Ostensibly, Beijing moved in order to cut off a source of new transmissions. Yet, closing the border also has signaling effects that suggest foreigners are the cause of the new cases, despite the Chinese foreign ministry stating on March 24 that 90 percent of imported cases had been brought in by Chinese passport holders.

The drastic step of closing the border makes it clear that Chinese officials are extremely concerned about a second wave of cases. Until the last week of March, Beijing classified asymptomatic carriers as unconfirmed cases so as to not overwhelm its medical institutions with people who do not require immediate attention. But with nearly 75 million people — who have accepted the government’s propaganda that everything is fine — returning to work in cities such as Shanghai and Shenzhen, it is all but certain that domestic transmissions have occurred.

In the immediate term, the Communist Party is aiming to achieve several milestones, chief of which is hosting the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress. Dubbed the “Two Sessions,” it is the marquee political event of the year. Communist Party officials are making preparations to host the meeting — possibly in early May — after postponing it for several months. The gathering will take place under extraordinary circumstances, but Beijing is intent on signaling to its constituents that the government is fully functioning. Similarly, Chinese officials had hoped to throw the country’s struggling exporters a lifeline by hosting the Canton Fair in Guangzhou. But with international travel ground to a halt and the new ban on international arrivals, Chinese factories will need to find other sources of business.

With its economy in the drink, Beijing now finds itself in a position where it must double-down on its propaganda salvo to rally nationalist sentiment at home, while touting the successes of its quarantine program abroad.

A second wave would deliver a tremendous blow to Beijing’s message that China is open for business, even as the nation still calculates the economic and social costs of a two-months-long nationwide shutdown. Perhaps more importantly, it could call into question the effectiveness of the Chinese Communist Party’s top-down approach to crisis management, not to mention test the patience of the Chinese people.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has brought front and center the destructive path toward which the U.S.-China bilateral relationship is heading. One month into the outbreak in the U.S., Washington still has not formally requested assistance from China, despite Beijing’s overtures to supply critical medical supplies. Once the dust settles, the Trump administration will use executive orders to lean on U.S. medical companies to divest from China, while Beijing will double down on its Belt and Road Initiative.

The real question is how the rest of the world will respond to the soft-power struggle between Washington and Beijing.

With the U.S. engulfed in a worsening outbreak, China has gained strategic advantage. And, unlike most conventional wars, there may not be a clear victor in this fight, at least not immediately.

Kyle Sullivan is China Practice Lead at Crumpton Group, a global risk intelligence advisory firm based in Arlington, Va. He previously spent 12 years in China, including at the U.S.-China Business Council and APCO Worldwide, advising multinational corporations there on market entry, reputational due diligence and government affairs.