The world’s China delusion is over. For three decades, the global elite has assured us that China’s rise to great-power status was “peaceful.” But great powers rarely rise peacefully, and Communist China has hardly been the exception. What China did was mete out its aggression carefully enough to give our elite plausible deniability, then bought their silence.
That game has now run its course. The coronavirus that spread from Wuhan has exposed it for the lie it is – and imposed upon the global elites the sorts of costs they were never willing to incur.
The game began the moment the West decided to put the Tiananmen Square massacre behind it. US president Bill Clinton campaigned hard to normalize China as a trading partner and to push for its membership in the World Trade Organization, allegedly on the theory that if Chinese interests were anchored in global commerce, it would be irrational for China to disrupt the liberal world order.
From that point onward, preserving the theory became the global goal; facts were deemed relevant only to the extent that they proved helpful.
Yes, the world concedes that China has imprisoned millions of Christians, Muslims, Falun Gong, and other religious minorities – but writes it off as a distasteful internal matter.
Yes, the world understands that China manipulates currency and steals intellectual property – but prefers to focus on the many contracts it does honor, along with the cheap labor and lucrative markets it provides.
Yes, everyone knows that China censors news, monitors speech, and arrests political prisoners – but recognizes that such problems are amenable to diplomatic condemnation, not economic sanctions or military force.
Yes, it’s clear that China’s artificial islands violate numerous maritime treaties – but who has the appetite to wage a naval war on behalf of Southeast Asia?
For the most part, the deal has been simple. The primary costs of the Communist Party of China’s activity have been borne by China’s own disfavored citizens and immediate neighbors. The primary benefits have been enjoyed by multinational corporations and their shareholders.
Over the past few months, however, the CPC has reneged on its end of the deal. Its disinformation and propaganda campaign surrounding the virus that causes Covid-19 is directly responsible for the global pandemic. The costs it has imposed on the global elite are astronomical – and rising. Far from propping up the global order in which it is now deeply embedded, China’s actions threaten to undermine it.
Whether China crossed that line through calculation or miscalculation is no longer relevant. The deal has been irretrievably broken. China knows it. Its relentless propaganda attempting to blame the pandemic on the US military hardly suggests a contrite player seeking to walk back an error; it’s the act of a belligerent preparing for worse.
Meanwhile, the world that welcomed China’s integration will have to decide how to react. Those decisions will come within a barely recognizable global terrain. When people are allowed to leave their houses and return to work, much of the world will look very different. They will discover that the social, economic, and governmental structures they altered overnight – largely without thought or debate – to manage a crisis will never return to what they had been. Every country on the planet will have to look inward to determine its new identity.
The shock at the leadership level will be just as great. While no country will make it through the ordeal better off, many will find themselves in altered positions vis-à-vis their neighbors. At a bare minimum, every government will have to reassess how it feels about its closest neighbors, its closest allies – and China. Some will undoubtedly seek China’s assistance in improving their own regional positions. Others will distance themselves from China out of sheer repulsion and distrust.
Trends that had already been under way will accelerate. European Union member states will rethink the balance they’ve struck between national and continental interests; some will seek deeper integration while others prefer to follow the UK’s lead and exit. Tensions and alliances throughout the Middle East will shift further, setting the stage for that region’s next round of crises. America’s election this November will determine whether the US remains the leader of a free capitalist bloc or falls prey to an increasingly authoritarian Deep State bureaucracy.
China’s rise will thus prove as disruptive as did the rises of most of history’s great powers. While a global war may be avoidable, global tensions are guaranteed – and regional wars are sure to follow. The global order that existed at the dawn of 2020 has already ended. It’s far too early to know what will replace it. But with history as a guide, one thing is certain: A brutal transition will precede any newly stable order.
The stage is set for a bloody decade. Get ready for the Warring Twenties.