The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed nearly 600,000 lives, infected well over 13 million people, and threatened to send the global economy into its worst downturn since the Great Depression. This human tragedy is occurring against the backdrop of a strategic one: Precisely when the need for emergency coordination between the United States and China is most self-evident, their relationship has reached its lowest level since normalization, with no bottom in sight. Even those observers who hesitate to speak of a “new cold war” concede that Washington and Beijing view each other in increasingly adversarial terms.
While the United States has an abiding interest in salvaging a baseline of cooperation with China, which has the world’s largest population and second-largest economy, there is an equally pressing, more achievable, objective at hand. The United States needs to engage middle powers that are increasingly disillusioned by both countries’ collective leadership—or lack thereof. Washington and Beijing have both done themselves serious damage this year. The former’s ongoing mismanagement and “America First” posture are eliciting growing criticism; so, too, are the latter’s initial mishandling of the pandemic and its increasingly vocal “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy.
Where middle powers may have hoped at the beginning of this year that the two countries that collectively account for nearly 40 percent of the world’s economy would find common cause in stemming COVID-19’s further spread, they are increasingly concluding that that reasonable expectation was, in fact, highly misguided and that they must coordinate among themselves—not only to ensure continued progress on specific fronts such as funding vaccine research, fighting climate change, and sustaining open trade but also to uphold the broader promise of multilateralism. The Brookings Institution’s Bruce Jones observes that the “influence (of middle powers) on the world stage has increased markedly during the pandemic, which demands exactly the kind of multilateral coordination these powers have long championed.”
A renewed American diplomacy should heed this growing middle-powers activity, beginning by applauding the exemplary performances that many small- and medium-sized powers have delivered in responding to the pandemic—many of which, importantly, are China’s neighbors, some of them thriving democracies. Taiwan’s response has been sufficiently impressive, for example, that a growing number of countries are calling for it to be granted observer status at the World Health Organization (WHO). Vietnam, meanwhile, has no confirmed COVID-19 deaths even though, as the Washington Post’s Adam Taylor and Miriam Berger summarize, it is “not a wealthy democracy like South Korea, nor a highly developed city-state like Singapore, and it has nowhere near China’s might.”
The United States should also solicit proposals for and coordinate with middle powers to cultivate a more nimble, creative kind of multilateralism—one that can be organized on an ad hoc, opt-in basis and that can function outside of established institutions and prescheduled meetings. One precedent to consider is the coordinated response to the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, in which military and humanitarian personnel from Australia, India, Japan, and the United States came together to form the Tsunami Core Group. While the tsunami’s scale may not compare directly to that of COVID-19, the response can serve as a useful template. With its epicenter in Indonesia, the disaster wreaked havoc on at least 13 countries in the Indian Ocean, killing around 230,000 people and even reaching Africa’s east coast. The Tsunami Core Group paved the way for the emergence of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—or the Quad, as it is more commonly known—involving the four democracies. This sort of agile response will be essential not only to addressing the pandemic but also to building resilience in preparation for the full range of transnational crises, health and otherwise, that will increasingly shape geopolitics.
In partnering more fully and intentionally with middle powers, though, the United States must take care to treat them as partners on their own strategic merits, not as instruments of an intensifying rivalry with China that is undermining the resilience of the postwar order and the potential for collective action.
To that end, the next administration—whether a second-term Trump administration or an incoming Joe Biden administration—should convene as soon as possible a forum of middle powers that handled COVID-19 well and hold lessons for the rest of the world to emulate. Bringing together a diverse group of countries—including but not limited to Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam, and Germany—would showcase various models of governance and systems of public health that have effectively combated the virus while leveraging the United States’ unique and enduring ability to organize in times of global turmoil what the Lowy Institute’s Michael Fullilove has dubbed “coalitions of the competent.” Washington should also consider including representatives from Taiwan in such a summit, given that Taipei has registered one of the most impressive responses to the pandemic in the world—judged by its containment of COVID-19 as well as its exports of personal protective equipment.
Thus far, unfortunately, the United States has undercut collective action on perhaps the most urgent crisis thus far of this century. The Trump administration failed to send a representative to a virtual conference of world leaders convened by the European Union in early May, aimed at mobilizing global efforts to develop a vaccine, and, more recently, it announced its withdrawal from WHO.
But it is not too late for Washington to return to the fold. Successfully putting together a summit of middle powers would serve as a sorely needed signal that it is still committed to global cooperation. Global opinion polls continue to indicate that despite unease with the Trump administration’s alliance management, protectionist impulses, and unorthodox diplomacy, many countries still hold out hope for the United States to play a leading role in world affairs. According to a 2019 Global Attitudes Survey by Pew Research Center, India, Japan, Poland, and South Korea all regard the United States more favorably than China by a margin of over 30 percent; the margins in Canada, Hungary, Italy, and Sweden, meanwhile, are greater than 20 percent.
In Southeast Asia, reeling from COVID-19 and home to the most acute U.S.-China competition, polls reveal persistent support for the United States and mistrust of Chinese influence, even as respondents identify China as the region’s most important economic and political power. Resounding majorities express concern about China’s strategic intentions, and nearly a quarter of respondents report that they have the most confidence in the United States to uphold a rules-based order—more than Japan (20 percent), Australia (5.7 percent), or China (5.5 percent).
With Washington’s flailing response and unilateral instincts continuing to erode partners’ patience, however, the next administration will face a constricted window of opportunity to dig itself out of its self-inflicted reputational hole. The proposed summit would be a modest step the United States could take to signal a renewed commitment to partnerships and multilateralism—a commitment that must exist and endure independent of China’s declarations and pronouncements. As the Financial Times recently editorialized, citing Beijing’s missteps will not compensate for America’s: “America’s allies in Europe and Asia are also angered by Beijing’s behaviour. They simply do not trust the Trump administration’s leadership in countering it.”