Pandemic and Rivalry

Thirty years ago, the collapse of the Soviet Union positioned the United States as the world’s dominant superpower. Since then, the terrorist attacks of 2001, an exhausting entanglement in the Middle East, the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the economic growth of China have all contributed to its decline.

According to risk consultancy firm Verisk Maplecroft, the pandemic will exacerbate the rivalry between China and the United States. Beijing will take advantage of the crisis to elevate its profile and expand its influence.

All economies will be battered, but China will recover first, predicts the Economist Intelligence Unit (CNBC, May 7). Incapacitated by the public health crisis and ineffective leadership, Washington is shying away from the global leadership it inherited at the end of the Cold War (The New York Times, May 11).

For other analysts, the balance of power is still very much in favor of the United States. According to author George Friedman, China is far from being a global military power, even with its nuclear arsenal.

In the days before the pandemic took hold, the U.S. economy stood at $21 trillion. China’s stood at $14 trillion, and its per capita income remains far lower than that of the United States. According to Friedman, there’s no evidence that contractions brought on by the crisis will close this gap.

Even though its economic and military capabilities are inferior, Beijing has been adept at manipulating how its power is perceived. Consequently, many see the pandemic as its path to global dominance (Geopolitical Futures, May 4).

History gives us beacons with which to place the Chinese American rivalry in context. China is one of the world’s oldest political entities. It has imperialistic ambitions associated with a civilization that stretches back millennia. The United States is a much more recent political unit, established in 1776.

While China was a global power until the 18th century, the United States’ entry into the big leagues didn’t happen until the 19th century. Its values, based on liberalism and individualism, are very different from those of Chinese culture.

Relations with the United States are a recent — and not very happy — phenomenon in the history of China. In the 19th century, the United States took advantage of a weakening Celestial Empire to gain concessions, clearly resented by the Chinese; for example, the privilege of extraterritoriality, which allowed its citizens to be tried in American courts set up in China.

In 1882, the United States Congress prohibited immigration from China. Extraterritoriality and the exclusion of Chinese citizens remained in force until 1943.

During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt predicted China would once again become powerful and insisted on securing it a seat on the United Nations Security Council. What he didn’t anticipate was the seizure of power by the Communist Party of China in 1949.

The United States looked with alarm at the entrenchment of Chinese totalitarianism. Although both countries have normalized relations since 1971 in the interests of striking a power balance, suspicions have persisted.

Economic easing since 1979 has not led to the democratization of China as some had hoped. Market authoritarianism, which Beijing tries to present to the world as a success in all areas — including the fight against COVID-19 — has become deeply entrenched under the autocracy of Xi Jinping.

China presents itself as resolute and desirous of historic reaffirmation in the current standoff with the United States. Washington, for its part, appears to be without leadership and with an extremely compromised economic situation.

In 2017, in the middle of this rivalry, the Panamanian government made a bad decision. It would have been better to stay as we were: in a profitable trade relationship in which the Chinese merchant fleet used our canal and redistributed Chinese products from our territory throughout the region. Chinese investment, possible in a trading system of this kind, is advantageous as long as it isn’t linked with political meddling or acts of corruption.

Closer relations were not expedient, as has become obvious, but the previous government sold us for 30 silver coins – or $143 million, according to leaks from a cellphone – and an opening up of the market which has seemingly only benefited Ron Abuelo rum. And so we find ourselves in a dispute that will only escalate as the pandemic evolves.

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