How China Can Exploit the Coronavirus to Defeat the USA

The United States and communist People's Republic of China are rivals, engaged in competition for influence and power in East Asia and throughout the world.  The spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus and its devastating effects should sharpen our awareness of the depth, extent, and intensity of this rivalry and of the stakes involved.  If the United States is not vigilant, we risk handing China a decisive victory.

How could a virus that originated in China, killed many thousands of Chinese, provoked brutal repression and countless human rights violations by the regime against its own people, disrupted the Chinese economy, and brought the Chinese communist leadership into disrepute globally turn into a strategic victory for China?  Through sophisticated information operations and propaganda combined with, relatively speaking, fiscal restraint, even at the expense of human life.

China's communist leaders wake up every morning with two thoughts on their minds.  First and foremost, how does the Communist Party retain power and avoid a revolution?  Second, how does the Communist Party reunify China to include Taiwan by its stated goal of 2049, the centennial of the communist revolution; establish dominance in the region; and eventually become the global hegemon without directly confronting the United States militarily?

The virus can serve each of these ends.  China still has something approaching half of its population of over 1.4 billion living in poverty.  From the perspective of the brutal communist leadership, so what if there were fewer people, even in an economically vibrant area like Wuhan?  Not a problem, as long as the communist propaganda machine lays blame elsewhere other than the regime.  Mass death creates greater economic opportunity for the many migrant workers who remain.  The virus kills the weakest, who are an economic drag on the system.  Domestic propaganda about the regime's success in combating the disease may reinforce popular approval of the government as nationalistic feelings are mobilized to place the blame on the United States enemy.

In ways surpassing even the communist leadership's hopes, the virus also is accelerating the communists' plans to overtake the United States and establish a new regional and global order to meet their own interests.  The statistics coming out of the Wuhan region are unreliable, making it difficult to estimate the true number of deaths there.  By one estimate, the number exceeds 40,000.  It is even harder to determine what resources China expended to quell the virus within its own borders.  But it seems safe to say China did not break its bank in trying to save lives.  It closed the Wuhan region and other regions by using brutal tactics for a matter of several weeks, only to trumpet its economic reopening and announce that it is back in business.

Meanwhile, the virus, thanks in large part to China's cover-up of its origins, infectiousness, and lethality (a cover-up assisted by China's enablers in the World Health Organization), spread to the Middle East, Europe and eventually the United States and the world.  What was the response of the United States government, largely on the recommendation of its public health officials?  To shut down much of our economy, the largest economy in the world, just as China was beginning to reopen its own, which is the second largest.

The economic consequences of the United States lockdown were, and are, catastrophic.  Even with massive government stimulus, over 16 million people have lost their jobs.  Unemployment, however brief, may peak at a staggering, depression-level 32 percent.  Entire industries, include the United States' energy industry, are at risk.  Many people were unable to pay rents or to meet medical expenses.  Small businesses such as family-owned restaurants have been forced to close.  Markets crashed, at least for a time, diminishing lifetime savings and depleting pension funds in a few weeks.  Corporate debt loads threatened to become unsustainable, and many already leveraged companies veered toward bankruptcy.  Private borrowers could not meet mortgage payments or student loan obligations.

To quell the panic and prevent irreversible collapse, Congress passed stimulus measures far in excess of numbers we have seen before, injecting anywhere from 2 to 6 trillion dollars into the American economy.  Hopefully at least some portion of these sums used to assist businesses will be repaid.  Still, these sums could equal a quarter of the annual United States Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and exploded the already 20-plus-trillion-dollar national debt.  The national debt now has either re-approached or surpassed the size of the United States economy as measured by GDP, long considered a trip-wire in the economic health of a nation.  This has happened only twice in modern history — in 1947, after World War II, and in 2011, after the Great Recession.  Household and business debt has increased substantially, too.

The economic damage that has already been done to the United States is significant if not severe and will require a restoration and retooling of our economy, which will take time, perhaps years.  This economic disruption combined with the huge stimulus spending risks translating into a strategic blow to the United States.  The vast expansion of the national debt, which was already ominously high, may eventually threaten the United States' borrowing capacity, undermine its creditworthiness, or crowd out lending for private businesses.  The higher federal, state, and local taxes needed to pay for recovery measures will be a drag on the United States economy for a protracted period.  The costs of funding medical care and unemployment benefits will add to these burdens.  

Economic power backstops military power and enhances cultural (so-called "soft power") influence around the world.  As former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen warned nearly a decade ago, when the national debt was last similarly exploding, "the single biggest threat to our national security is debt."  China's leaders know this.  We can expect them to exploit other opportunities that the pandemic offers.

The tools of 21st-century warfare, with all its domains, including land; sea; air; space; cyber; intelligence; and, prominently now, bio-defense, are extremely expensive.  The United States has chosen to commit trillions of dollars in an attempt to protect against a virus that appears to have low lethality rates for the vast majority of our population and that in any case may recur within a year.

Certainly, we are not a communist dictatorship and should not react brutally as the Chinese communists did to the virus in its own country.  But that does not mean that we should act without heightened fiscal awareness and prudence in response to the virus or to any other threat.

The United States could take a number of cost-effective initiatives in diplomacy, trade, finance, and military affairs to counter any attempt by China to wring advantages out of the pandemic.  For instance, as Professor Charles Lipson recently argued, the United States could create an alternative organization of the Chinese-dominated WHO, using its own resources and those of allied nations, to gather and disseminate reliable information about future pandemics.  

Like Japan, the United States could use its stimulus funds to repatriate United States businesses operating in China, supporting American employment at a critical juncture and increasing tax revenues.

The United States could sponsor a United Nations Security Council resolution calling on China to close its wet markets, which are believed to have created the conditions for the virus to spread to humans.  Let China, a permanent member of the Security Council, veto it.  

The State Department could call for an independent examination into the origins of the outbreak of the virus last year in Wuhan.  China's President Xi has a lot of questions answer.  

The Department of Justice can and should continue its widening dragnet against Chinese espionage underway within the United States.  

Though it would require a significant investment, the United States could elevate the biological defense program to form a military branch modeled on the new Space Force, to defend against potential attacks in the microbial domain, as it does in the land, sea, air, and space domains, and to assist in times of disaster.  

Our task is not simply to save lives where we can, but to live in a world that respects human life, dignity, and freedom.  While the virus is in all likelihood a temporary phenomenon, our competing vision for the world with China could last for most of the 21st century and even beyond.  China may well be emboldened by anything it views as a show of weakness or fiscal irresponsibility, and will be ready to fill any void that our circumstances or our responses to the virus create.  We can and must find ways to fight the virus without handing China a decisive victory.

Robert Delahunty is the LeJeune Professor of Law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, Minn.  Chad Bayse is a Navy judge advocate and former counselor to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and attorney at the National Security Agency.  The views expressed in this article are his own.

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