Pandemic politics: Does the coronavirus pandemic signal China’s ascendency to global leadership?

People wearing face masks walk at a main shopping area, following an outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Shanghai, China May 6, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Editor's note:

This post is the second in the Pandemic Politics series.

The absence of global leadership and cooperation has hampered the global response to the coronavirus pandemic. This stands in stark contrast to the leadership and cooperation that mitigated the financial crisis of 2008 and that contained the Ebola outbreak of 2014. At a time when the United States has abandoned its leadership role, China is seeking to fill this vacuum by touting the superiority of its governance system in containing the virus, while deflecting attention away from its misplaced efforts to suppress information in the pandemic’s early days.

Has the coronavirus signaled the beginning of a new global order with China at the helm? Will China be able to overcome its own institutional weaknesses to fulfill this role? Can China and the United States learn to work together more effectively on issues of global concern? 

Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi argue that “Beijing is moving quickly and adeptly to take advantage of the opening created by U.S. mistakes, filling the vacuum to position itself as the global leader in pandemic response.” Likewise, Frederick Kempe argues that “The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed more clearly than ever before the nature and relentlessness of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s ambition to place itself at the center of global power and influence.” 

However, Michael Green and Evan Medeiros suggest that “There are real limits to China’s capacity to take advantage of the current crisis—whether through disingenuous propaganda or ineffective global action.” Minxin Pei goes further, arguing that “Chinese leaders are… constrained by the rigidities of their own system and therefore limited in their ability to correct policy mistakes.” 

In the end, Keyu Jin notes that “A pandemic is no time to tout the superiority of any country’s governance system or approach, let alone compete for global dominance. China should quietly win trust by helping the US and other countries, not out of strategic interest, but on moral grounds.” 

Indeed, global actors such as the United States and China must put aside their differences and collaborate to address pandemics, financial crises, climate change and other global issues. This is what leadership is all about.  

Below is a short selection of articles for more on this debate. 

“Beijing understands that if it is seen as leading, and Washington is seen as unable or unwilling to do so, this perception could fundamentally alter the United States’ position in global politics and the contest for leadership in the twenty-first century.” – Kurt M. Campbell, Chair & CEO of the Asia Group and Rush Doshi, Director of the Brookings Institution’s China Strategy Initiative. The Coronavirus Could Reshape Global Order, March 18, 2020.

“China is acting to shape the Covid-19 period and its aftermath with considerable focus and planning. At the same time, the U.S. response to China has been inconsistent, lacking in long-term strategy and close coordination with allies.” – Frederick Kempe, President & CEO of the Atlantic Council. China has a big but brief chance right now to speed its way to global leadership, May 2, 2020.

“Beijing faces internal and external challenges that stem from its choices about economic and political governance at home and global governance abroad.” – Michael Green, Professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and Evan S. Medeiros, Professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. The Pandemic Won’t Make China the World’s Leader, April 15, 2020.  

“The worst public health crisis in the history of the People’s Republic of China has revealed a number of significant weaknesses. The regime’s capacity to collect, process, and act on critical information is much less impressive than most would have anticipated.” – Minxin Pei, Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College. China’s Coming Upheaval: Competition, the Coronavirus, and the Weakness of Xi Jinping, May/June 2020.

“The pandemic gives China a rare opportunity to address its strategic dilemmas as a rising power, above all its struggle to win the trust of the US and other leading powers.” Keyu Jin, Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics. Is This China’s Global Leadership Moment?, April 3, 2020.