How has the COVID-19 pandemic reshaped or influenced China’s geopolitical outlook and its grand strategy for the years to come? This is a question that will determine China’s relationship with the United States, the Indo-Pacific region, and the rest of the world. In the Chinese strategic community, the pandemic has been regarded as a “watershed” event that has reshaped the structure of the international system and the power equilibrium. Its importance is elevated to the same status as the end of World War II, which determined the bipolar international system between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War which began thirty years of U.S. hegemony in a unipolar world.
Although China began as a sheer loser in the pandemic given its culpability in the origin of COVID and its early poor management of the domestic spread of the disease, Beijing believes that it has eventually emerged as a pure winner in the pandemic: the relative gain China has made vis-à-vis the U.S.’s bigger losses in disease control, national power, economic growth, global leadership, and credibility has strengthened Chinese confidence that the tide is turning in China’s favor. The “effectiveness” of the Chinese political system, as manifested in its domestic disease control, has reinforced China’s ideological conviction of its superiority. As China uses COVID diplomacy to demonstrate the superiority and desirability of its political system, the pandemic is perceived as an opportunity for it to shape the new international order and promote China’s desired “Community of Common Destiny.” Challenges remain, as the U.S. revamps its alliance system under the Biden administration and as regional powers and Western countries grow increasingly concerned and anxious about China’s growing confidence and capabilities. However, for China, the pandemic has been a great opportunity, and China has emerged from it as a pure winner.
It is an interesting question as to how the pandemic has changed the nature and the dynamics of the great power competition between the U.S. and China. Most would agree that the pandemic exacerbated, accelerated, and aggravated the deterioration of relations that the U.S. and China had already been experiencing before 2020. However, the differences lie in the degree, intensity, velocity, and extensiveness of the damage. Without the pandemic, the downward slope U.S. and China had already been on would not have come to a state of “freefall” in 2020. And that “freefall” period has long-lasting and significant implications for their bilateral relations in the post-COVID world. The damaged trust, confidence, and credibility, and the deeply entrenched sense of hostility, or even antagonism, have made any effort to repair the relations extremely difficult, if not completely impossible. And this reality will affect the regional dynamics in the Indo-Pacific region for the many years and decades to come.