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The Chinese Dilemma

In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the G20 Extraordinary Virtual Leaders' Summit on COVID-19 via video link in Beijing, capital of China, March 26, 2020. Leaders of the world's most powerful economies convened virtually on Thursday with the aim of coordinating a global response to the fast-spreading coronavirus, which has shuttered businesses and forced well over a quarter of the world's population into home isolation. (Li Xueren/Xinhua via AP)

The immediate aftermath of the coronavirus epidemic will be characterized by increased Western hostility to the Chinese Communist Party that will result in reduced trade, the reshoring of manufacturing formerly produced there and military preparation to contain Beijing’s expansion in the region.

Australia is gathering international support for an inquiry into the possible Chinese origins of the virus itself.

The U.S. military is openly transitioning from a post 9/11 “small wars” force to one capable of fighting China. “Marines with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, or MEU, seized a small island and airfield with elite special operations airmen and soldiers as part of a test of its future fighting concept. That fighting concept, known as expeditionary advanced base operations, or EABO, will see Marines spread thinly across the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, operating from small bases — a tactic that will help Marines stay alive in a high-end fight with China.” The Marines no longer see themselves storming ashore against low-tech enemies but leading a networked battle against Beijing amid the thousands of islands of Southeast Asia.

Under the EABO concept, smaller elements of Marines would use air assaults and smaller ships, including unmanned surface vessels, to seize control of small islands and rapidly set up forward operating bases. Unmanned platforms, including drones, unmanned ships, and unmanned ground vehicles, including remotely-operated mobile artillery systems, would be important to giving these Marine units additional capabilities without the need for significant amounts of additional manpower.

Missile units, especially with anti-ship missiles, would then be able to conduct strikes on hostile ships from this constellation of island outposts.

Although such plans and exercises are hypothetical, what is definite is U.S. Companies are leaving China because it’s proved too dangerous to put all the supply chain eggs in one basket.

“Three decades ago, U.S. producers began manufacturing and sourcing in China for one reason: costs. The trade war brought a second dimension more fully into the equation―risk―as tariffs and the threat of disrupted China imports prompted companies to weigh surety of supply more fully alongside costs. COVID-19 brings a third dimension more fully into the mix­, and arguably to the fore: resilience―the ability to foresee and adapt to unforeseen systemic shocks,”

Western leaders are under enormous pressure to “reshore manufacturing” both to hold off the economic nationalists and provide jobs for populations hit hard by unemployment.

The return of manufacturing to the U.S. would be an economic boon and also a vital national security interest to help combat future pandemics and public health crises, economists said.

“Out of this black swan event, I do think the good news is it will really bring more manufacturing back to America and get people back to work,” said Professor Nada Sanders of Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business.

Low-interest loans and tax incentives from the federal government would encourage companies to bring jobs back to the U.S. from China, Sanders said. China is now under growing international pressure, suspected of failing to act swiftly or truthfully to stop the virus that emerged in Wuhan late last year.

All this is already happening. The coronavirus has already disrupted many of the arrangements that powered Beijing’s rise. How will it respond?

The Chinese Communist Party will finally hold its long-delayed congress later in May. There are several ways they can react to these developments. The first is to abandon or significantly delay Xi’s China dream “to transform his country into the world’s supreme power.” The second is to continue the course regardless. Much may depend on how the CCP thinks the European and U.S. political systems will react to either course of action.

Mike Pompeo and Ted Cruz have articulated the presumed position of many American conservatives. “The new SARS mystery is entering its ACT III, and in this act, the U.S., Australia, and the United Kingdom all lash out at China for its lackluster biosafety features at one of its most secure virology labs.”

Over the weekend was yet another page turner in the new SARS origin story. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that it escaped a P4 Wuhan virology research center, and — making matters worse — China hid its knowledge of a potential escape by using its time before notifying the world of the outbreak to vacuum up medical safety gear from Brazil, and elsewhere. In other words, China feared something big was coming.

By contrast, the Democrats seem to be taking a much more conciliatory tone. Ben Rhodes tweeted in reply to Pompeo: “This is really dangerous language – both in inciting bigotry against Asians and raising the risk of conflict with China.” Joe Biden is portraying himself as able to “out-tough” Trump on China based on his experience in the Obama administration.

Joe Biden says his decades of experience dealing with China make him better suited than President Trump to handle Beijing, though that record is drawing scrutiny over whether he mishandled the emerging U.S. rival.

As a senator and then as vice president, Mr. Biden backed trade deals with Beijing and spent time with several Chinese leaders, especially the current president, Xi Jinping. He asserted U.S. interests, his aides said, pushing back against Chinese expansion in the South China Sea and pressure on economic policy.

This puts the Chinese Communist Party in a quandary. If Xi takes a hard line in the coming congress he’ll be handing ammunition to Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and Australian prime minister Scott Morrison. A reaffirmation of the China Dream will only fuel the voters’ worst suspicions. On the other hand, the CCP can throw the Western left, including America’s Democrats, a lifeline by sounding conciliatory.

If the Western conservatives win, Xi faces active opposition to the China Dream. Logically, Beijing should extend the olive branch. But whether the Chinese can eat crow and risk encouraging domestic dissent from Hong Kong and defiance from Taiwan is a big question. Either way, Xi faces risks. Like everyone else in the age of the coronavirus, China finds itself at a crossroads.  In these cases, Yogi Berra advised: “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” That’s sound advice if you don’t know where either branch leads.

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