Donald Trump was elected in 2016 on his promise to “Make America Great Again.” Four years later, he presides over a country that would be the laughing stock of the world if the situation were not so dire. The greatest country in the world apparently cannot provide its citizens with toilet paper, is running out of protective masks and is critically short of respirators. To make things worse, expectations are that the situation is not going to substantially improve for weeks, if not months. The two centers of American power — Silicon Valley and Wall Street — have been shut down, its “masters of the universe” paralyzed and defeated by a microscopic virus.
Mark Twain once remarked that it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. And yet, in this situation, it is difficult not to speculate what the future will entail. There are too many indicators that point in a certain direction, one that does not bode well for the United States.
Before the Fall
The ancient Greeks knew a thing or two about hubris. And, to add another cliché, pride tends to come before the fall. For Trump, and with him the United States, the fall has been nothing short of precipitous, a disaster. A daily perusal of major American media, from The New York Times to CNN, leaves you speechless — at least if you happen to live outside of the sphere of influence of Fox News. The level of ignorance, incompetence, callousness and denial displayed by what pretends to be a serious administration boggles the mind. There were many who thought a Trump administration would be bad. Nobody, however, thought it would be this bad.
To repeat: Donald Trump was elected in 2016 to make American great again. This was particularly in response to the rise of China. Not for nothing, one of the most significant policies of the Trump administration was to impose large tariffs on Chinese imports. The intent was to compel China to change course. The Trump administration introduced a number of initiatives designed to force compliance. Among them was the Taiwan Assurance Act of 2019. The act reaffirmed US commitment to the island, calling for conducting “regular sales and transfers of defense articles to Taiwan in order to enhance its self-defense capabilities” and backed efforts on the part of the American administration to promote Taiwan’s participation in international organizations.
Shortly thereafter, the Trump administration officially withdrew from the 1987 INF Treaty, which prohibited the deployment of cruise and ballistic missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Although the treaty was originally between the US and the former Soviet Union, its revocation is not primarily directed against Russia, but targets China in an attempt to thwart its presumed military ambitions in the Pacific region. It paved the way for the deployment of American conventional, not nuclear, missiles on location in the region — a plan immediately rejected by America’s allies in Australia and South Korea.
All of these measures reflected a belated recognition that the US was caught off guard with respect to the speed of China’s ability to catch up with, if not outright surpass, the West and integrate into the world economy. This was not supposed to happen, given China’s unwillingness to embrace the American model of unbridled capitalism. In fact, what seems to have irritated American observers of China’s rapid rise the most is the fact that “an economic system different from the U.S. has succeeded so remarkably” to pose a serious challenge to US-dominated, open world economy.
A few weeks ago, it seemed, Trump’s gamble had paid off. In January of this year, China and the US signed a new trade deal that was supposed to alleviate the tensions between the two economic superpowers. In reality, there was little for the US to celebrate, given many tariffs were kept in place, almost entirely to the detriment of American companies and consumers.
With the eruption of the COVID-19 crisis, none of these things matter very much any longer — at least for the time being. The crisis has laid bare the multiple vulnerabilities of the American model, severely tarnished the country’s image, and brutally exposed the profound shortcomings of an administration built on bluster, intimidation and resentment rather than substance. Sycophantic underlings might be tolerated during normal times; in the face of crisis, they are toxic for the population at large.
The likes of Rush Limbaugh, the celebrated radio host who told his millions of listeners that COVID-19 was little more than the flu, or Fox’s Sean Hannity, for whom it was nothing but a “hoax,” used by the liberal media to undermine his beloved great leader, are but the tip of an iceberg of misinformation, fake news, conspiracy theories and blatant ignorance disseminated to a gullible public that has no clue about the outside world. The most recent attacks from the far right on Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the few trusted experts in the administration, epitomizes the moral corruption of the dark corners of American society, which could care less about the wellbeing of their fellow citizens.
And then there is Rand Paul, the sole senator (from Kentucky) to vote against a bill bringing relief to COVID-19 victims. Suspecting he himself might have the coronavirus, he continued to go about his business, earning the honorary title of a super-spreader, much like UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
In the meantime, the leaders of the People’s Republic of China have done whatever they can to repair the enormous public relations damage caused by their initial response to the outbreak in Wuhan. Using draconian measures, Chinese authorities have managed to contain the epidemic. Artificial Intelligence played a leading role in the response. A recent Forbes report stated that right from the start, Chinese authorities “leaned on [China’s] strong technology sector and specifically artificial intelligence (AI), data science, and technology to track and fight the pandemic while tech leaders, including Alibaba, Baidu, Huawei and more accelerated their company’s healthcare initiatives.” It stands to reason that the emergence of the coronavirus provided the Chinese AI sector with myriad opportunities to innovate and gain practical experience with new applications, in the process extending its lead over its overseas competitors.
Take the case of Huawei, China’s pioneer in 5G technology, one of the key technologies for the coming years. 5G opens up a wide range of applications, from education to industrial production, the Internet of Things, public services and health care, to name but a few. A recent British report on 5G tech summarizes its significance as follows: “The movement of information and communications technology (ICT) toward the fifth generation of wireless networks (5G) will deliver a profound change in latency, data speed and volume, allowing for new technologies — such as agricultural or delivery drones, self-driving vehicles, and other data-driven tech. It will revolutionize Western societies and play a major part of our economic and national security).”
During the crisis in Wuhan, Huawei rapidly deployed its technology in the newly-built hospitals there. At the same time, Huawei developed a new AI-based technology that allows doctors to diagnose COVID-19 cases “dozens of times faster than manual quantitative image evaluation.” The company claims that its “tool can also more accurately distinguish between early, advanced and severe stages of the disease, allowing doctors to ‘cut through the noise.” In the meantime, Huawei accelerated its efforts to build an “ecosystem” of global developers using its technology. The initiative is designed to spawn innovation in AI.
The future will show to what extent new technologies have helped China to deal with the crisis and recover from it. Recovery, in turn, has allowed the country to resume and accelerate the production of materials, vital for combating the crisis. At the same time, China has expressed its willingness to extend its help to countries in distress. One of the most egregious early cases in point has been Serbia, which appealed to China for help — and got it.
Serbia is hardly unique. Take, for instance, Italy, the European country most profoundly affected by the coronavirus. China has sent medical personnel and equipment to Italy to support efforts to confront the crisis. Or take Switzerland, where authorities are about to establish an “air bridge” between Shanghai and Geneva to bring in medical equipment into a country in desperate need of masks and protective gear.
In the Wake of Crisis
These are just some examples of China’s show of goodwill. It is to be expected that those who receive it today, such as Italy and Spain, will remember it tomorrow, even if in some cases it may have fallen short. For the moment, China clearly is at an advantage compared to the United States, which has nothing to spare — except for a president who is universally disliked, if not loathed.
In the wake of this crisis, America’s image abroad is likely to erode further, particularly in Europe. Last year, the German tabloid Bild published the results of a survey that stunned observers. It indicated that more than 40% of respondents considered China a more “reliable partner” than the United States. Only 20% opted for the latter. The results should not have come as a surprise. Already in late 2018, a Pew survey revealed a dramatic worsening of German opinion about the relationship with the US. More than 75% characterized it as bad. Worse still, only about 40% thought Germany should cooperate more with the United States — almost 50% less.
Against that, about two-thirds of respondents thought Germany should cooperate more with China. The main reason for these results, as surveys from other countries clearly suggest, is Donald Trump’s poor image. In France, for instance, 75% of respondents viewed him unfavorably; this was even true for the supporters of Marine Le Pen (only a third favorable).
These developments have practical consequences. Earlier this year, the British government decided to give Huawei the go-ahead to build “non-core” 5G infrastructure, excepting sensitive sites such as military installations and power plants. And this in the face of intense warnings and threats from the White House, which apparently irritated 10 Downing Street enough to show Washington the cold shoulder.
Europe is clearly Huawei’s major target region, with Germany the most important prize. In late 2019, the company launched a five-year, €100-million ($109-million) AI ecosystem program. A year earlier, it had already established a cybersecurity center in Bonn, which also houses the Federal Office for Information Security. The lab is supposed to facilitate source code reviews by “examining the programming language used to run network gear, for example screening it for vulnerabilities such as ‘back doors’ that might allow spy agencies to gain covert access.”
At the same time, Huawei’s chief representative to the EU started a charm offensive by playing up the question of Europe’s future digital sovereignty, stressing the importance of openness and cybersecurity. Later in the year, the company announced it would build a production site for 4G and 5G equipment in France, the largest production facility outside of China. So far governments in Germany, France and elsewhere have been reluctant to follow the UK, citing security concerns — concerns which were also expressed in the British report mentioned above.
At the moment, they have other things to worry about than 5G, worries which only China is in a position to alleviate. A few days ago, France announced it had commanded 1 billion masks from China. Once the coronavirus crisis is over, it will be seen to what extent it has impacted the relative position of the US and China.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.