Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis provides China with fresh gains

As our new era of U.S.-Chinese major power competition accelerates, this week’s train wreck of an American presidential debate, followed more dramatically on Friday by President Trump’s positive Covid test and hospitalization, contribute both to the perception and reality of Beijing’s historic gains.

Chinese officials are unlikely to use this moment of unanticipated U.S. distraction for any sort of dramatic move that might provoke Washington, such as a military move on Taiwan’s independence to complement its recent actions to more fully control Hong Kong.

At a minimum, however, Chinese officials will embrace this period as additional, welcome “breathing space” to escalate their ongoing efforts across a range of fronts to build upon their momentum – from tightening party control on the Chinese private sector, to the accelerated development of a digital currency, to closing remaining technology gaps with the United States.  

Recent events have also contributed to Chinese confidence that their single-party, autocratic system – for all its failings and inefficiencies – is better designed to provide public needs and political stability than the disorder of American and Western democracy.

Though Chinese officials have been cautious this week in their reactions to both the U.S. debates and President Trump’s illness, commentators that typically reflect official views left little doubt that President Xi Jinping regards this past week as a powerfully positive one for the Chinese team.

“Such a chaos at the top of U.S. politics reflects division, anxiety of U.S. society and the accelerating loss of advantages of the U.S. political system,” wrote Hu Xijin, editor of the English-language Communist party mouthpiece, the Global Times.

Commenting later in the week on the positive Covid tests in the White House, Hu Xijin underscored a message that’s been sent consistently by Chinese officialdom to their global partners that U.S. institutions and leaders have failed badly in handling this year’s crisis in comparison to their Chinese counterparts.

“President Trump and the first lady have paid the price for his gamble to play down the Covid-19,” tweeted Hu Xijin.

Chinese leaders began more actively to question the durability of the American model, and the dangers in their dependence upon it, during the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. Chinese leaders now see 2020, burnished by their role as the first major economy to return to growth after Covid-19,  as a chance to accelerate the global shift of power and influence in their direction.

Two Congressional reports released this week in Washington – one from the House Intelligence Committee and the other from House Republicans on a China Task Force — underscored bipartisan consensus that the United States could be falling behind China in a multidimensional contest for the future.

In any other news week, both would have gained more attention for their findings and recommendations.

“What we found was unsettling,” wrote Adam Schiff, the Democrat House Intelligence Committee chairman, in Foreign Affairs on the findings of a two-year study that concluded that U.S. intelligence agencies “are not ready – not by a long shot” to tackle the Chinese challenge.

“China itself views competition with the United States unfolding in ideological and zero-sum terms,” wrote Schiff. He called for intelligence agency recruitment of a whole new set of individuals to develop skill sets to take on China’s focus on “new domains, such as space and cyber, that would redefine existing conceptions of how a twenty-first century war would unfold, extending the battlefield to our political discourse, mobile devices, and the very infrastructure that modern digital communications and communities rely upon.”

House Republicans Kevin McCarthy and Michael McCaul, writing in National Review on their task force’s findings, warned, “…the United States stands to lose the future to today’s Communist superpower.” Their plan calls for a doubling of federal research and development funding for artificial intelligence and quantum computing over the next two years, ensuring that America leads both in setting international 5G standards and the fabrication of advanced semiconductor chips.

For its part, China is accelerating comprehensive efforts across political, technological and economic domains to ensure that they translate 2020’s disruptions into historic gains.

President Xi has been nationalizing and taking measures to ensure party control over the actions of private enterprises, which provide 60% of the country’s economic output and 80% of its employment. He’s at the same time considering blacklisting foreign enterprises, and he jailed a prominent, uncooperative Chinese CEO, designed to send a message to all…

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