Washington Insights, Vol. 8, No. 2

Unlike previous Washington Insights based on attendance at panels and person-to-person contacts, this one draws from a mixture of Zoom meetings and articles from Washington-based think tanks. Extracting alternative scenarios from these exchanges, we do not report on specific sources except for a small number of citations. The objective is to capture the overall tenor of the debate with an eye to what lies ahead in Sino-US relations and critical regional responses. Implicit or, at times, explicit in these exchanges are scenarios for the future of these relations.

On-line panels have replaced think tank gatherings, and questions and answers have shifted from raised hands to posted queries awaiting responses for many minutes. On the positive side, the DC seminar is internationalized, both in panelists and in respondents. On the negative side, the only topic of interest is the pandemic, putting Sino-US contention at the center. However, fundamental questions are being raised on the assumption the world is approaching a tectonic transformation beyond anything seen since the end of WWII and its early aftermath. Providing some continuity is the idea that what is occurring is an acceleration, not a reversal, of post-cold war pathways. Pessimists foresee a new cold war and look to the old cold war to get their bearings. Optimists hope for an upsurge of middle powers, preserving globalization in a more balanced manner. Perhaps a majority wistfully expect more continuity with the past ten years as if their hopes could somehow put the brakes on powerful forces that many now fear.

At the crux of ongoing exchanges are predictions of possible scenarios for Sino-US relations. If the subject appears rather removed from that core theme—whether tackling US alliance ties or rumors about North Korean developments—the respondents find it difficult to ignore predicted scenarios for Sino-US relations, which put pressure on allies and shape the background for all. If polarization was generally perceived earlier, in early 2020 it is the indisputable preoccupation.

Before outlining various scenarios, we should consider the national identity thrust of the rising polarization. First, there is an ideological dimension, reflected in renewed accusations that the virus emanated from Communist China, whose system is responsible for spawning it, or that the success shown in controlling the spread of the pandemic is proof of the superiority of China’s system over the democratic, capitalist order of the US. Historical memories are rekindled in this new atmosphere, including US references to the Maoist legacy and the Tiananmen massacre, and China’s references to US cold war thinking, never much altered from anti-communism in opposition to the Soviet Union as well as “Red China.” Both sides are quick to dismiss the era of Deng Xiaoping and US optimism about China’s integration into the existing world order as little more than an aberration, when one’s own side had been naïve about the other’s real nature.

For the time being, the international order takes a back seat to domestic necessities. Change must start within countries, especially the US and China, as occurred inside the Soviet Union, before a new order can take shape. Idealism about some lesser powers coming together to drive change is an illusion we cannot afford, although their actions can influence the course of events. How Washington and Beijing navigate relations with certain great and middle powers will set the tone for the emerging order. Four scenarios warrant our close attention even at this early point before the contours of the ensuing stage of the international system are clarified. In each of these scenarios Sino-US relations are in the forefront and the Indo-Pacific is the arena.

Four scenarios

Scenario 1: China controls the epidemic relatively well, offers financial and equipment help to many countries, and gains a big boost for the coming era, while the US suffers a depression for years, divided at home and unwilling to exert leadership abroad. This is a China-win, US-lose outcome. The immediate picture suggests that this is a serious possibility. In this scenario, Xi is successful in rallying other leaders behind him, pressuring as well Putin, Moon, Modi, and Abe. The regional order tilts to Sinocentrism, and the liberal order built after 1945 is undermined. In national identity terms, socialism prevails against democracy, the Trump era is equated with the failings of a country torn by divisions while the Xi era culminates China’s successful climb, in the post-cold war competition, with state cohesion and strength decisive in place of civil society.

Scenario 2: China does not emerge unscathed, given its debt-ridden system and dependence on serving as the “factory of the world.” It suffers prolonged stagnation, casting its social stability and model in doubt. Meanwhile, the US likewise is in a prolonged downturn unable to reboot its economy. This is a lose-lose scenario, casting doubt on globalization and unlikely to provide clarity about what kind of order is emerging, much as was the case during the depression in the 1930s. In this scenario, leaders in the Indo-Pacific are largely on their own without clear direction. The old order is badly disrupted, and no new order is constructed due to every country for itself. If national identity is aroused to deflect blame for failure and weaponized against the other great power, it only serves to reinforce divisions in the world without leading to one side prevailing.

Scenario 3: The US seizes the crisis as an opportunity, changing political leadership in 2021 and renewing its moral leadership even if the economic situation requires considerable time to heal. Meanwhile, China also recovers rather soon and continues Xi’s quest for a new regional order. Competition resumes on a more intensified scale, leading to a prolonged new cold war. Rather than call this a win-win outcome, it is better characterized as a standoff likely to endure. This scenario would continue to test leaders in Asia, adjusting flexibly to the widening polarization. Two rival Indo-Pacific orders compete for supremacy with many countries hedging their bets. This is as close to the peak of the Cold War as one can get, sustaining identity charges and countercharges. China would have trouble making inroads in democratic states unless it can regain economic momentum and gradually use their dependency to increase their hedging. China would likely be keen to punish those willing to criticize it for human rights violations.

Scenario 4: The US is much more successful than China in adjusting to a new era of lessened globalization. The Chinese model proves less resilient, given the need for extensive reform. This is a US win, China lose outcome, reflecting also the trust achieved with other countries, even if the period sees slow growth and globalization limited compared to earlier expectations. For the leadership of Japan and South Korea and India too, the appeal of US-led regionalism would rise.
While there are continuities with the post-cold war era just past (China remains a formidable force), the US would build a more multilateral framework to contain its alternative ambitions.

Which of these scenarios is most likely depends on factors such as public health developments, economic revival strategies, and domestic political contentiousness beyond the purview of this review. Below, the focus is put on geopolitics and national identities in the Indo-Pacific arena. That means assessing, along with the nature of Sino-US relations the responses of Japan, Russia, South Korea, and India in the various arrangements forthcoming due to the Sino-US rivalry. The four countries are decisive in shaping the Indo-Pacific framework, as seen in China’s pressure on Russia, wooing of Japan, and treatment of South Korea and India as states at a crossroads. Of course, other states matter too, but the purview of this journal is the Indo-Pacific region.

Scenario 1 explained

China grows emboldened by success in overcoming the virus and seizes the opportunity to showcase a superior model, blames the US for its abject failure to manage the crisis with intimations that it was in fact the source of the virus in some insidious manner, and presents China’s benevolence by assisting other countries at a critical time. By late April 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had disrupted the world’s economy, aroused sharp accusations targeted at other countries, and raised still unanswerable questions about what effect there would be on geopolitics. As the source of the epidemic and as the rising power challenging US global leadership, China is foremost in the minds of many who strive to look beyond the daily news about the virus and its impact, while the global spotlight remains on the United States, as its cases spike and its economy swoons. Xi Jinping seizes on the opportunity, much as China responded in 2008, when he was already making an impact after just joining the Standing Committee. He is pressing the neighboring leaders to give a big boost to Sinocentrism.

A persistent theme in the early spring assessments of the coronavirus effects was that it could reshape the global order, diminishing the standing of the US and elevating that of China. Among the strongest arguments were those of Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi on the maneuvering for world leadership ahead.1 Trump was erratic in his message, botching the initial response, going it alone, and failing to show leadership in assistance and real coordination with other countries. Similarly, Miyeon Oh warned of US allies turning to China.2 In one DC panel, a poll showed that more expect China to emerge with an advantage from the epidemic. Downplaying or even lying about its role in spawning the pandemic, China was assuming the role of leader in reviving from the crisis and touting its indispensable support for others to battle the health crisis. Naturally, China showcases its superior model.

China’s tone has changed month by month. Since the beginning of March, contrasting China’s “success” to other countries’ “failure” in disease control, Yun Sun explains, Beijing has tried to “showcase the effectiveness, superiority, therefore, desirability of its political system not only to the Chinese people but also to the rest of the world. Through sharing China’s ‘wisdom’ and providing public goods such as medical assistance to countries most affected by COVID-19, China is turning the crisis into an opportunity to demonstrate China’s credibility and benevolence.”3 An energetic campaign has sought to transfer discontent with government stifling control, which allowed the epidemic to spiral out of control, with pride in the draconian controls that limit its spread.  Some resent this thinking from the source of the pandemic, but over time if the US image continues to be battered, it could be reinforced by economic benefits.

From Putin, Xi seeks closer economic integration and more support for China’s regional agenda. With oil prices depressed and Russia’s economy particularly hard hit, Xi has new levers to use. As Putin strives to secure constitutional reform enabling him to stay as president to 2036, he must grapple with the consequences of an epidemic only now beginning to engulf Russia and a collapse in oil prices, for which he bears some responsibility after refusing coordinated cuts in production proposed by Saudi Arabia. Yet Russian bravado rings loud, insisting that financial reserves keep its economy secure, authoritarianism protects it from social unrest and enables it to control the virus better, and the West is being exposed as fragile without the capacity to deal with a serious crisis. As Dmitri Trenin writes, “the Kremlin believes the shortcomings of the international response have validated key aspects of its worldview.” Steering a fine line in ties with China after quickly closing the border and aggressively screening Chinese living in Russia, Russians abruptly “began to extoll China’s response to the virus and even echoed charges that the “virus is a U.S. biological weapon deployed to stop China’s rise.”4 Not only was this virulent epidemic taken as an opportunity to redouble support for China and Sino-Russian relations, it gave Putin a chance to gloat versus the US. While Russia was claiming to have matters largely under control, many of its commentators were claiming vindication for its model and failure for the weak states and misplaced regionalism and globalism of the liberal order. Outside observers saw this as hubris from a country with a struggling health care system, sharply declining currency, and fragile economy. Insisting that self-reliance has saved it further isolates Russia at an uncertain time.

China’s apparent success, Russia’s increased vulnerability, and Russian antipathy toward the West redounding to China’s credit are a recipe for Xi to have his way with Putin, who has put all his eggs in the Chinese basket except for militarization—of scant use in a health and economic crisis. Reopening Russian borders, however delayed, would favor China’s “quiet expansionism.” Alexander Gabuev argues that the pandemic bolsters China’s influence in Russia and Eurasia.5 Switching from September 2 to 3 as the end date of WWII accentuates the joint Sino-Russian worldview rooted in history at a time when the May 9 victory military parade cannot proceed.

China in late 2019 was pressuring Moon Jae-in to “balance” ROK relations with China and the US, urging Narendra Modi to forego the Quad and enroll in RCEP rather than to contain China, and wooing Abe Shinzo with hints of pressure to embrace BRI more and avoid decoupling in high tech with military and intelligence applications. In Scenario 1, Xi would have more impact, although these targets pose challenges, especially Japan, where criticism of Xi has intensified.

Scenario 2 explained

The situation devolves in this lose-lose scenario into mutual attacks, triggering national identity spikes on both sides in a kind of ideological war. The geopolitical and trade wars already gaining steam become shrouded in rhetoric raising the clash into a cold war. Washington distracts from its own failings by shifting blame to China both for the epidemic and for economic policies that interfere with US recovery. China does likewise. More pressure is put on Japan and South Korea to stand firmly with the US, decoupling in substantial ways with China as the US seeks not only to become more self-sufficient but also to relocate supply chains with the cooperation of close allies. China is no less aggressive in making demands on countries backed by threats of closing its markets. The sort of economic pressure applied to South Korea from 2016 is a precursor to what becomes commonplace. The old notion that economics and security can be separated is passé, as is the idea that the Sino-US rivalry can be straddled for the sake of economic interests.

A lose-lose scenario could see coercive economic measures accelerating after gaining ground in the past few years. China uses them to force compliance with its Taiwan and Hong Kong policies, in defense of national champions, and for security reasons. A lack of US responses had led some states to feel abandoned. With the pandemic, supply chain demands from the US are growing, forcing countries to comply at the cost of hedging against risks. We can expect more industrial policies, involving use of coercive economic tools, although US reasons for doing so have varied from intellectual property theft, to a trade deficit, to decoupling for security reasons. Troubled conditions in both China and the US could lead to more such coercion, alienating other states. If the US were to proceed in a far more coordinated fashion with its partners through multilateral export restrictions and coordinated research and development, the US losses would be reduced.

The illusion has spread in the post-cold war period that with the demise of the communist bloc values are no more than a minor consideration in international affairs. Neither Washington nor Beijing in this second scenario would agree. Leaders on the spot would be pressed to take sides. Putin has cast his lot with Xi, joining in disinformation against the US and making ideology more salient in fueling a national identity spike. Abe has been more reticent of late to play the “arc of freedom and prosperity” card against China, but when vital interests such as Taiwan and Hong Kong are at stake, he is a reliable US ally. Modi’s priority for national autonomy while fueling anti-Muslim emotions makes India’s willingness to take sides more problematic. Finally, Moon, under the shadow of Kim Jong-un’s military threats and China’s economic threats, may be the most intent on hedging and the most likely to feel the pressure of not making a choice.

Scenario 2 sees a prolonged lose-lose outcome with anxieties and displaced accusations much as in the 1930s. Countries, however, would still be too integrated into trade networks with both China and the US to risk siding firmly with either at a hefty economic price. Entrapment would likely be avoided. Thus, this would be a chaotic period of a ceaseless tug-of-war. The Indo-Pacific order would be strained much more than in the 2010s by the sharpening rivalry.

Scenario 3 explained

More optimistic that the US can emerge ahead of China if leadership failings are overcome is an article by Michael Green and Evan Medeiros in Foreign Affairs.6 Likewise, Gerry Shim wrote that Beijing was only getting mixed results from its campaign to capitalize on the epidemic, in many cases even suffering a backlash, ending with a warning that a reckoning lies ahead for China after the epidemic ends.7 Other recent US sources offer similar optimism.

If it starts with the Trump administration deciding to target China for the “Chinese virus” and doubling down on accusations, in an attempt to shift the blame for its failures, demonizing the communist system’s censorship and malicious aims, the US does not win with this approach. Only by replacing Trump and finding a more uplifting narrative, along with resolving domestic challenges, would there be cause to expect a lasting US successful reassertion of leadership. If it were weakened relative to its timetable, China would have the option of quieting the assertive tone taken under Xi or reinforcing it to deflect blame for failing to satisfy the expectations it had raised. Were China to moderate its identity narrative, the US would be inclined to do so.

One possibility is a more muted competition for soft power backed by economic incentives, prioritizing countries already torn between economic dependency on China and security ties leaning to the United States. South Korea, increasingly under pressure to alter the balance of its relations with the two powers, is an obvious target. Given Xi Jinping’s wooing of Abe Shinzo of late, it is worth considering whether Japan could become a target as well. Should China choose to prioritize soft power and economic support, would the US mount a worthy counterstrategy?

During the Cold War there were ups and down, especially when the Soviet Union felt it needed more economic integration with the outside world or sought to counter Sino-US relations when they grew closer. China is, of course, much more integrated into the international economy, but it could also respond to economic troubles with outreach in search of more markets and more investment. A win-win scenario could appear to be on the horizon, as it was with Moscow in 1958, 1972, and 1987. Yet the pandemic will have added to the momentum to limit excessive interdependence, especially in vital supplies and the high-tech sector. The greatest chance for a soft landing lies in both the United States and China bouncing back rather quickly from the pandemic, recognizing their need for each other and giving other countries space to hedge as diversifying mostly prevails over energetic decoupling with security issues left in abeyance. The ideological nature of the competition would not be accentuated as much as in Scenarios 1 or 2.

DC seminars have explored some US moves to forge coalitions to build critical technologies, to diversify especially in IT without decoupling from China and to take advantage of a growing fear in much of East Asia of vulnerability to China. The US would do better by limiting the competition with China to arenas acceptable to allies and assuaging distrust over its own motivations. “America First” is not an answer. If abandonment is the main worry under Trump, entrapment is likely to be a growing concern in an emerging scenario. The ideological and geostrategic edge Washington might gain from Scenario 3 leaves geo-economics uncertain, as a lengthy interim begins where competition is kept within bounds absent any serious conflict.

Scenario 4 explained

US recovery and recommitment to multilateral leadership is a scenario that is greatly desired in much of the world, and it could become the mission of the Democratic Party after the autumn election. The dysfunctionality of the Trump administration’s divisive ideology at home and in the world could be transformed. The impact would be much greater than in Scenario 3 if China discovered that the only way it could revitalize its economy would be to recommit to the world order that it has been challenging (or at least pause its pursuit of a different order) and allies of the US rallied around the kind of leadership they have been missing. This does not signify a return to the 2000s when relations were relatively cordial much of the time, but it would mean, under a new US strategy for winning the long-term competition, a gradual competitive process.

Russia would be left on the margins should China choose to bide its time again, while it could be a force seeking tougher pushback by China. Chinese pressure on South Korea or India would slacken. Japan could take satisfaction as the foremost US partner in constructing the narrative of the new order, centering on freedom and the rule of law. Success inside the US will be key to rallying others behind a multilateral agenda, which would require agility in managing China’s continued clout and the inclinations of US allies and partners to find a path toward cooperation and not to allow the national identity gap to widen into a cold war style ideological struggle.

The Situation in late April 2020

The situation is changing rapidly. In January and early February China’s model appeared to be marred by its role as the source and epicenter of the virus. Civil society had been stifled by a top-heavy system intent on suppressing bad news and maximizing economic growth no matter what stood in the way. Talk centered on countries reducing dependency on China by moving some of their supply chain elsewhere. “Decoupling” appeared to be accelerating. In late March, however, talk turned to the failure of the US model, too decentralized to coordinate an effective response, too individualistic to foster community solidarity in controlling the spread, and too dysfunctional with Trump at the mantle to honestly acknowledge the long-term sacrifices needed to lick the crisis. Bickering at home left a poor image for a world pleading for leadership and a plan. In April, the negative image of the US did not abate, but the pushback against China accelerated.

While news of domestic crises crowded out geopolitics, some foreign policy analysts began to explore the impact of COVID-19 on the post-pandemic world. Naturally, the Sino-US rivalry took center stage. Other countries in East Asia entered the narrative as places able to manage relatively well the spike in cases or as objects of renewed competition between Beijing and Washington. Given the obsession in the Abe administration with the Tokyo Olympics, their postponement to 2021 was accompanied by discussion of the cost to Abe and his agenda. As South Korea drew praise as a model for managing the epidemic, Moon benefited from a huge electoral success even if he still struggled to manage relations with other states. Assessment of geopolitical and geo-economic impacts of the pandemic remained tentative, even as its national identity impact exacerbating the Sino-US divide was coming unmistakably into the forefront.

One message from Trump supporters is that the US is already on the right course to take world leadership over China after the epidemic. It has shifted from interconnectedness, which was a failed approach to pacifying and transforming China as well as Russia, to decoupling. In this way it has set a course for realigning the world order. The focus has shifted from building a rules-based order to preventing Chinese hegemony, beginning with the Indo-Pacific region. If other regional challenges arise, the US should not be distracted from keeping the focus on the cold war-like threat from a malign China. Trump was vindicated in the pandemic in bringing manufacturing back to the US (in light of vulnerabilities exposed) and in securing US borders (as other states are now doing, and the US has done on a larger scale). Buttressing claims that the US has the right strategy were assertions that the key lesson of the pandemic is that it reveals the true nature of the Chinese system. This defensive message is wishful about a Scenario 4 ahead.

The new era is expected to prioritize no less than an arms race and high-tech innovations (with 5G as early focus), an information war. This is already visible in the new disinformation being spread by China and Russia (as well as Iran), even if the Trump effort to blame China for the virus alienates many as well. The lack of transparency in China would appear to give the US the advantage, but Trump squanders that by playing a “blame game,” never taking the high road.

In the new era integration with China will be purposefully reduced, although cooperation within the framework of competition will persist. Should the US emerge from the pandemic with new leadership and confidence while China is groping to forge a new model for the era, we should not expect a return to the 1990s, as if the US won the post-cold war as it had the Cold War. Xi’s leadership in the 2020s will be different from Yeltsin’s. China will not collapse. Its economy will remain formidable. Countries will not flee from dependency on it even if some hedge away for more balance. China may be less assertive as it searches for new footing, but competition will be intense. Even in the best-case scenario for US power, the US edge will be rather limited, and a powerful rival will keep rebooting to even the playing field with the least possible delay.

A win-win scenario is not a return to US rosy-thinking about China or Chimerica, as some put it. There is scant optimism in the US that China will change course even among those who insist that at a time of pandemic crisis and in response to climate change and other global challenges cooperation must be sought. In light of Trump’s failings, the goal, more than ever, is for the US to change, especially through a “whole of government” strategy and, above all, through clear policies to implement the strategy. The “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” is not derided, as TPP was in 2016, but it is not viewed as a strategy, let alone a pathway to forging a regional order apt for the unfolding competition with China, which has an unwelcome alternative order in mind. The first necessity is ideational, clarifying the nature of the challenge and the principles behind the response. The second theme is bureaucratic, specifying the diverse agents working to respond. The third is political, rallying a broad coalition behind the agenda. The fourth is multilateral, an abrupt turnaround from “America First.” Only on this foundation is a fifth task pursued, seeking common ground with China (and Russia) in adjusting the regional and international order. These ideas are floating around Washington, often in such guarded bilateral language that they make no reference to the failings of Trump. Yet in light of Trump’s egregious departures from what had long been regarded as effective diplomacy and of the reality that only a democratic victory could make this strategy possible (but not guarantee it), the political reality is that inevitably Biden would distance himself, if elected, and define a new strategy in opposition to Trump’s. This is not about spending more money or pressuring allies to do so—a foolhardy aim in the years of recovery from the pandemic. It is about reframing US national identity and the regional order.

The US gains credibility not by Trumpian declarations but by coordination, beginning in Asia with Japan, South Korea, Australia, and other close allies or partners, recognizing difficulties in including Modi’s India given recent developments. The US edge over China depends not only on US revitalization but on an agenda for regionalism with ideational, economic, and diplomatic components, not just a military thrust. Scenario 4 makes this the clearest, but in all but Scenario 1 the US will stand a good chance to compete by clarifying what is its own identity.

Given China’s priority for the Indo-Pacific and the struggle under way over 5G, the battleground on the horizon is clear to many observers. China regards South Korea as vulnerable, seeks more targets in Southeast Asia after having success there in the 2010s, and eyes India as an eventual target. The US is repurposing the Global Engagement Center (GEC) from counterterrorism to the struggle with China, Russia, and their partners such as Iran. The war of words in the early spring 2020 is a harbinger of what lies ahead, despite the late March phone call between Trump and Xi that cooled the rhetoric for a time. The most instructive lesson from this spike in disinformation may be the unleashing of Chinese diplomats on social media with invectives and accusations, apparently in response to a late 2019 message from Xi to be more aggressive. Chinese claim they are counterattacking, and the US is containing China, but those were long Moscow’s messages.

The pandemic has vindicated East Asian social cohesion, which Americans would be remiss to overlook in polarized thinking about authoritarianism and democracy. Already in the Cold War era it was increasingly apparent that East Asian states were succeeding in modernization with types of social organization distinct from those predominating in the West. In the post-cold war period their dynamism drew further attention. Whether through a win-win scenario or a US-win scenario, US success in joining forces with these partners is critical. Lessons from successes in the fight with COVID-19 matter not only for responding to epidemics but also for other needs.  We see governments and societies working together, public buy-in for state leadership, and trust of the public without China’s technological repression of privacy and social credit scores. Experts are respected. Whether there is a cultural variable at work or just success in learning from past mistakes in handling epidemics, East Asian examples are worthy of close attention in the US. In contrast to American triumphalism of the 1990s and Trump’s “America First,” togetherness with East Asia may be vital to US success in various scenarios, all involving competition with China.


The pandemic brought to the fore the competing messages of the new era. China’s rhetoric and disinformation included: the US cannot be trusted not to have caused it in an insidious plot to cast blame on China; only China’s strong central control could contain the spread rapidly and restore the economy; only China is a responsible world power in the way it is assisting other states to resuscitate their economies; and US attacks on China in this process are evidence of a cold war mentality and containment intentions. In contrast, on the US side one hears: the virus began in China and was not contained in a timely manner due to a flawed, autocratic system; Chinese disinformation about the US and their own situation reflects a hostile attitude that must be countered with truth; diversification is needed to reduce vulnerability to stoppages in China’s exports of critical products, including pharmaceuticals; democracies win trust at home and abroad and are better able to weather such challenges; and the competition ahead in 5G, dual use technology, trade, and soft power is clarified by this pandemic. Optimism about Washington and Beijing working together to deal with the pandemic and the economic recovery is scarce even if some cooperation is possible.  

Where do these mutual accusations lead? In Scenario 1, China doubles down on its rhetoric, while extending the narrative to all dimensions of national identity and sharpening the divide. Xi’s embrace of socialism hardens; his accusations against US hegemonism accelerate amid vivid contrasts with the benevolence of Sinocentrism; a model of Communist Party control over society is extolled in opposition to the flawed model of the US; China’s economy is reinterpreted with socialism, as if the market economy is marginal; and countries in the Indo-Pacific are pressed to varying degrees to stop endorsing the US-led order and, at least, recognize that no order is superior. While in Scenario 2, China would be less emboldened, the importance of transferring blame would be key to promoting a similar outcome, however limited the persuasiveness of the contrasts.

Scenarios 3 and 4 are most likely to quiet the rush to a cold war atmosphere, due to the need for China to show more restraint. The divide in the US would be tested by temptations of new triumphalism as in the 1990s but without an idealistic core in the case of Scenario 4 and of the utility of the blame game in the case of Scenario 3, which could tilt the advantage to those keen on using China’s perfidy to distract from past or present US shortcomings. An all-out assault on the ideology, history, civilization, state-society nexus, and international worldview of China could be accompanied by xenophobia and could reduce the chances for coexistence. Similar moves by some Republicans during the Cold War railed against softness toward the Soviet Union.

Chances for effective US leadership in the Indo-Pacific are greatest under Scenario 4 if the urge to triumphalism is restrained. China has its biggest opening in Scenario 1, but it is even more endangered by arrogance. Scenarios 2 and 3 would find front-line states, including South Korea and India, in the most sensitive roles and most eager to hedge. The competition between the identities trumpeted by Washington and Beijing is unavoidable in all four scenarios, but the two sides have control over how it is pursued and how respectful they will be over the responses in countries located along the battlefronts—from Russia, very hard to wean from China, to Japan, very hard to wean from the US, to South Korea, India, and many hedging states in between.

1. Kurt M. Campbell and Rush Doshi, “The Coronavirus Could Reshape Global Order: China is Maneuvering for International Leadership as the United States Falters,” Foreign Affairs, March 18, 2020.

2. Miyeon Oh, “Coronavirus Could Bring the United States’ Allies Closer to Beijing,” New Atlanticist, March 23, 2020.

3. Yun Sun, “Understanding China’s Response to COCID-19,” Stimson Center, March 18, 2020.

4. Dmitri Trenin, “Confronting the Challenges of Coronavirus, Russia Sees Its Worldview Vindicated,” Carnegie Moscow Center, March 20, 2020.

5. Alexander Gabuev, “The Pandemic Could Tighten China’s Grip on Eurasia: Despite Border Closures, Russia and Others May Be Pushed Even Closer to Beijing,” Foreign Affairs, April 23, 2020.

6. Michael Green and Evan S. Medeiros, “The Pandemic Won’s Make China the World,” Foreign Affairs, April 15, 2020.

7. “Beijing’s Campaign to Repair Its Image Is Backfiring,” The Washington Post, April 15, 2020.