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The COVID Spark Between America and China

It will take careful leadership to navigate dangerous geopolitical waters. Unfortunately that's been in short supply of late.

Have you heard? The reds are going to the red planet! China has announced its very own mission to Mars, called Tianwen 1, which means “quest for heavenly truth” (if anyone is dedicated to the truth, it’s Beijing). The Chinese expect the landing will take place before July of next year, after which a six-wheeled rover will venture out and conduct research for about three months.

We can only hope that China will invest in its space mission the same levels of scientific rigor and competence that it’s applied to its crackerjack COVID response. And maybe it’s a good thing that Beijing is turning its gaze to the stars. Back here on earth, it’s faced nothing but outrage since the coronavirus began its spread.

The sheer scope of the fury has been something to behold. This week, the state of Missouri announced it’s suing Beijing for damages incurred by the coronavirus. A class-action lawsuit against China has been filed in Florida. And lest you think it’s just us litigious Americans, the influential German newspaper Bild is demanding that China pay up to the tune of $165 billion. The International Council of Jurists in London has filed with the UN to seek damages from Beijing. And some Australian lawmakers have suggested that Aussie lands used by Chinese corporations could be reclaimed.

That’s quite the gust of blowback. And we haven’t even touched Donald Trump’s reminding everyone within shouting distance that this is the Chinese coronavirus. News reports still hang adverbs like “allegedly” on claims that China initially concealed the outbreak, yet America’s intelligence agencies have already concluded that Chinese officials very much lied. Commendable reporting by the AP, meanwhile, found that Beijing stalled for at least six days after grasping the extent of the viral threat, enforcing a culture of opacity, allowing Wuhan to hold a festive celebration, punishing doctors who tried to tell the truth.

This is all unsettling not just medically but geopolitically. The indictments against China call to mind the Thucydides Trap, a theory popularized by Graham Allison in a Foreign Policy essay back in 2017. Allison cited the ancient Greek historian Thucydides’ observations about the Peloponnesian War, in which the gathering power of Athens came to unnerve Sparta. He noted that this history went on to repeat itself—over the past 500 years, of the 16 instances when a rising power has sought to displace an existing one, 12 have resulted in war, with China and the United States possibly next in line. Allison notes that the Thucydides Trap can and has been avoided—the U.S. versus the USSR is the best example—through factors such as mutually assured destruction, brinksmanship, and sound strategy. But this is by no means guaranteed.

It’s easy to read too much into the Thucydides Trap. Neither America nor China is anywhere near as warlike as were the mad dogs of the Athenian Assembly. And modern times have afforded us global institutions that can act as cooling saucers for aggrieved nations. That China is being sued in court rather than threatened with invasion is itself a reason for hope.

Still, there’s another disquieting element to all this. Earlier this month, PBS released a timely Frontline documentary that went undercover in China to report on the infamous oppression faced by Uighur Muslims. The horribles were all there: disappearances, mosques shut down, reeducation camps, suffocating (and deeply sophisticated) surveillance, Han Chinese “relatives” made to live in Uighur households. The impression one gets is of full-scale cultural genocide. And at least so far as surveillance goes, the Uighur community is merely a petrie dish for measures Beijing hopes to implement nationwide.

The Peloponnesian War wasn’t just about the balance of power in Greece; it was also about competing ideological systems, with Sparta generally supported by aristocrats and Athens backed by democrats. America and China have similar deep philosophical differences, one ostensibly liberal and the other deeply authoritarian. These inflame each other’s sensibilities and make their respective cultures seem incomprehensible. Now, with the COVID, we have a potential spark. The odds of a military conflict are infinitesimally small—even hawkish crackpots like Tom Cotton aren’t suggesting as much. But we are about to face a very perilous geopolitical situation, one that will require careful statesmanship if we’re to navigate through. That will mean Beijing owning up to its missteps and providing greater accountability to the world once the pandemic has passed.

Unfortunately such American prudence and such Chinese honesty are in short supply of late. Maybe getting off-planet isn’t such a bad idea.

about the author

Matt Purple is a senior editor at The American Conservative.

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