Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin receives a first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at a government clinic in Putrajaya. Photo: Malaysia Department of Information / Maszuandi Adnan

The past year and a half has been the ultimate stress test for most of the world. The novel coronavirus from Wuhan, China, that causes Covid-19 became a lightning rod in modern geopolitics.

Even before the pandemic, the world was being divided between Eastern authoritarians and Western democrats. The pandemic merely exacerbated this division. And it brought out the best – and worst – of each regime type for all to see. 

In China, the ultimate authoritarian state, strict countermeasures were imposed. Inside Wuhan itself, a dystopian hellscape formed wherein innocent civilians who might or might not have been infected with the virus were, in many cases, literally nailed inside their homes by authorities and prevented from leaving until they were proved to be free of the disease. 

With the copious assistance of artificial intelligence and Huawei 5G cellular networks, Chinese authorities did invasive contact tracing. Total control was exercised over a pliable and frightened population.

China’s lockdown measures were exceedingly harsh … but they ultimately proved to be effective. While the West, including the United States, had a disastrous early response to the outbreak of the pandemic in their part of the world, China got through the worst of it – and bounced back far earlier than the West did. 

Last year, as the US teetered on the brink of an economic depression, China’s economy grew – albeit much slower than it had in previous years. This year, while Washington would be pleased with a modest 1-2% growth in GDP terms, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects that China’s gross domestic product will grow by almost 6% – far outstripping any other economy in the world.

The authoritarian states, as represented by China in this instance, figured out how to contain the virus and slow its spread. Because they were able to do this earlier than the West (Sweden didn’t even try), Beijing was able to open the economy at precisely the moment that everything in the West was collapsing economically.

Further, Beijing did not engage in the wanton direct stimulus spending most Western nations did. China’s leaders didn’t see a need for stimulus spending: Because they reacted quickly (and covered up the existence of Covid-19 for as long as they did), they were able to open their economy and people could provide for themselves by returning to work. 

How nice.

While the United States and much of the rest of the West completely mishandled the initial response to the pandemic, America pioneered innovative vaccines to counter a disease that only a year before had been relatively unknown. China’s version of the Covid-19 vaccine, meanwhile, was a total disaster. Its only saving grace is that China is mass-producing it and forcing it down the throats of desperate nations. 

The Indian experience

The limits of India, another key democracy that most Western leaders had cultivated these last few years as a necessary partner against China’s irredentism in the Indo-Pacific region, were exposed by Covid-19.

India has always been a mixed bag: On the one hand, it is a fellow democracy with a robust economy and a large population. On the other hand, India’s infrastructure remains stuck in the 19th century – if it exists at all. 

Starvation, disease, and a whole host of other maladies that most other advanced democracies do not have to contend with afflict India. And all these maladies are amplified by India’s terrible infrastructure.

In fact, the pandemic has proved just how unreliable India is as a long-term partner against China’s rise. Its infrastructure woes have made India one of the hardest-hit nations by Covid. It has had dire strategic consequences for India at a most inconvenient time.

The power of innovation

Since the pandemic’s outbreak, the world has experienced stifling supply-chain woes. Massive inflation has hobbled the West. The countries most exposed to China – most everyone – have been deleteriously impacted in some way.

The authoritarians have done well against the disease because they lied about the outbreak and then had the capacity to lock down their populations for an extended time to “flatten the curve.” The West could not do this. When it tried, it failed miserably. 

Freedom, as they say, is messy.

Yet where the democracies exceeded was in high-tech innovation. If the world’s democracies and autocracies are competing for primacy, then it stands to reason that the nations that can consistently innovate will dominate.

The Covid-19 vaccines in the West represented the first time (in a very long time) that the public sector allocated resources to the private sector and gave the private sector a mission. The result was expectation-defying vaccines that the authoritarians have yet to match.

That model should be replicated across the board in the United States and its fellow democracies. Large infusions of tax dollars should be given to the private sector to resolve an assortment of problems currently facing the world.

Over time, this will spur real progress – and that progress will be spearheaded by the West, which will lead to the ultimate defeat of China and its fellow authoritarians in this new competition for the future. But it will take political courage, time, and common sense … three things in short supply among today’s leaders in the democratic West. 

If the US fails in this most important task, the authoritarian states will dominate the future and our children will grow up less free.

Brandon J Weichert

Brandon J Weichert is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower. He is a geopolitical analyst who manages The Weichert Report: World News Done Right. His work appears regularly in The Washington Times and Real Clear Politics. Weichert is a former US congressional staffer who holds an MA in statecraft and national security affairs from the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, and is an associate member of New College, Oxford University.