US-China Tensions: When Elephants fight grass gets trampled

Dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University and former Vice-Chancellor LUMS shares his insights into how the coronavirus pandemic is changing perceptions in the world over the efficacy of the democratic system and highlights the importance of good governance in these challenging times.


Professor Adil Najam is Dean of the Purdee School of Global Studies, Boston University and former Vice-Chancellor LUMS, Pakistan. He was awarded the Sitara-i-Imtiaz in 2008.

Najma Minhas, Editor Global Village Space spoke to him to understand how the Coronavirus pandemic is changing perceptions in the world over the efficacy of the democratic system vs authoritarianism, China’s ascendant role in the World and whether developing countries will lose out from the breakdown in global supply chains and how US-China Tensions will affect the world.

In times of crisis, we usually see that countries rally together to face a common enemy, and domestic politics usually takes the backseat. However, under Covid-19, and rising US-China Tensions we are not seeing that. Whether it is in the US or Pakistan, there are differences between the state administrations and the opposition. Why is that?

Prof. Adil: I think it is partly due to the nature of the crisis and partly the nature of the countries. I think the point you raised is a brilliant one. Across the world, when we think of where has the response been good or where the response was lacking, we find all sorts of different variables responsible.

But the most important variable is that wherever the politics before COVID was coherent the response has been better. Coherent doesn’t mean everyone was on the same path, but where politics played out was reasonable or rational.

What you see is where turmoil already existed in internal politics, you see chaos. So, for example, the US, under Donald Trump, was already so divided, that you start seeing the same thing happening in response to Covid-19. You see the same thing, for example in Britain.

I think the lesson here is that this notion of stable politics helps- it doesn’t mean everyone is on the same page, but there is certain reliability to political processes and there is a focus on keeping things moving. Wherever that has happened, in New Zealand or Germany, there you see something good. So that’s the lesson, good government matters.

So, another lesson that people are drawing out of this is that authoritarianism is good. China has been applauded for its response, and increasingly people have said authoritarian governments have been able to manage the Corona pandemic response much better than any democratic country. The US with almost 70,000 deaths now, has been pointed out as an example of the latter.

Prof. Adil: Wrong lesson. Authoritarianism is not good and nor has it been shown here. I think what we have seen here is that, for whatever reason, if a government can create policy and implement it well, it will have good results. Whereas, authoritarianism is showing, that if you are the only party in government, you can clamp things down.

Furthermore, we do not see every authoritarian government doing well. So let us not extrapolate China onto other countries. There is no other China. On the other hand, look at New Zealand, not authoritarian, but very much able to control the coronavirus. And, look at Singapore.

Read more: Challenges of Imposing Lockdown: DC Islamabad explains

These two countries who you’re giving as an example, they are very small countries. Singapore is a city-state, New Zealand has a very small population (5 million). By comparison, China has 1.4 billion people and you have the United States with 330 million people. China was able to lock down Wuhan within two days, whereas the United States wasn’t able to take that decision.

Prof. Adil: Yes. But, I think Donald Trump wasn’t able to. The point I am making is that let us not conflate a system of government with what’s happening currently under coronavirus. I would argue, that the US’ problem is that Donald Trump is trying to be authoritarian in a democratic polity.

A lot of the resistance he faces is when he wants to make blanket statements, ‘I am saying so, therefore you must do it’. That may work in China, but not in the USA. I will give you another example of another authoritarian country, India. Lockdown didn’t work there. PM Modi tried to impose lockdown in India, but you see all those videos of people clamoring that lockdown has caused even more congregation.

India is a democracy. How can you give it as an example?

Prof. Adil: It’s not a question of the system. There has never been a more authoritarian leadership in India than under Modi. The way he imposed lockdown was authoritarian. However, we can take the wrong lesson from it. The wrong lesson, for example, would be, well, therefore lockdowns must be bad. That’s not true. Good lockdowns are good, bad lockdowns are bad; it doesn’t mean authoritarianism is good.

It just means bad governance is bad. One of the worries that many people have, and we know this from previous crises, is that crises encourage authoritarianism. Post the COVID crisis we are going to see this again. There are going to be elections in various places, and we will hear authoritarian leaders saying, you need a strong man, and some of them will be elected.

Before this crisis happened, it seemed that Donald Trump had a good chance of winning in the upcoming presidential election. After, this crisis, we are not so sure. On the other hand, this crisis may get people thinking we need an authoritarian type figure. And you have suggested that maybe Trump is one, so do you think Trump has a better likelihood of winning?

Prof. Adil: Yeah, if you allow me to make two points. A lot of people are worried about the rise of authoritarianism. I was speaking to Francis Fukuyama, and he said that never in his life has he been in a world where the immediate future is as uncertain. Not just the longterm future, but in nine months.

And the biggest worry he has – is the same I have had for many years now – which is we were already seeing the rise of strong men, and this could encourage that even more because these leaders will come and say, ‘you need a strong leader! You need someone who can clamp this down so, therefore, make a trade with me. Give me your rights, give me your freedoms and I will give you stability’.

Read more: Corona Entering Pakistan: The Lack of Conformity

Now we come to Donald Trump.

Donald Trump is in a very interesting position. At this point, there is no logical bone in my body that says he could win, if the election was today. He has made every mistake that you could think of, he has not shown a heart, and he has put people’s lives in danger. However, the elections are in November and we know, one, his base doesn’t care what he does. Because they have this sort of Junoon (passion), that he can do no wrong.

And the second thing is, imagine by November, let’s say despite all the bad things, hopefully, the US is coming back to a better place. In November when people are going to vote, he is going to say ‘See what I did was right’. He is going to forget all his earlier statements. So what I’m saying is don’t write this election off. Logically he should not win, but logically he should not have won last time either.

COVID-19 is being described as a moment for China in a way that 9/11 was for Muslims. It may transform relationships with China across the world, particularly in the United States. Do you see that happening, especially in light of the elections that you are mentioning, in the US?

Prof. Adil: A very good question. When you said as it was for Muslims, I don’t think COVID will be for China, what 9/11 was for Muslims, because after 9/11 till now, the pressure of Muslims just kept increasing. In a way, it became difficult to be one [Muslim] internationally. I don’t think that’s what we’re going to see for China. But you are right. I think it is going to be a defining moment for China, and bigger than 9/11 was for Muslims.

I think it’s more like a moment that it was for the US in 1910, 1914, and 1920. It’s the rise of a major power, and that was happening even before the crisis. So, what I think COVID has done is that it has accelerated this great power rivalry. Everyone knew about it, but no one talked too loudly about it. Everyone was being polite. No one has been polite right now. In the US, China used to be seen as a rival, as someone who could threaten us, now its seen as an actual conflict. The US now clearly sees that’s the country to beat.

Read more: Post-Corona World Order: Democratic or Authoritarian?

So, you would call this a transformative moment in their relationship.

Prof. Adil: It is. The elephants are going to fight. And when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled, and countries like Pakistan and others, are going to be now in the middle of this fight. The world before COVID (B.C.) had a simmering tension between China and the US, everyone knew about it, but we were polite. Post-COVID (A.C.), tensions are going to come out, and the gloves are coming off. You are going to see not just trade wars, but much more conflict between the two. I hope it doesn’t turn into an armed conflict, but it’s not out of the question.

So, for a country like Pakistan what do we do? I mean we already have seen tensions between the United States and Pakistan over CPEC and over the close relationship that China has with Pakistan. How do we need to play this then?

Prof. Adil: We need to do what animals in the jungle do when the elephants fight. Get out of the way! There will be people will say ‘this is your time to be strategic. This is your time to use your geography. This is your time to take sides’. I do not think this is the time. That time will come, but let the elephants fight first. Because of our history, America is going to be interested in us because they see us in China’s camp, or at least close to China.

China might want to see us as someone they can take advantage of or cash their cards. This is the time to say, ‘look guys we’ve got our own problems.’ In a way, I think COVID gives us a shield to say ‘we have our problems.’ Again, I say go back to 1914, go back to 1932, and go back to those world wars. If this is going to become bad, do you want to be the one who takes sides very early and possibly takes the wrong side?

Read more: Locking down the Essentials: Whilst Hoping to Survive

During this crisis, we’ve seen a rise in the belief that we should be producing many goods ourselves. So for the last 40-50 years, since GATT and the World Trade Organization, in particular, were set up, we have been all about globalization and global supply chains. Do you see those breaking down? And do you think developing countries will gain or lose out from this breakdown?

Prod. Adil: The second question first. Unfortunately, the poor never benefit. The same is true for developing countries. This is the lesson of history. The rich, the powerful, always prosper. The weak, however, have to be smarter because of that.

Supply chains are one of the biggest issues of focus today and will continue to be in a post COVID world. We have created a production world of Just in time, so, we produce and send things just when you need to buy them. That model has been under a lot of stress. I do not think that means that supply chains will go away, but I do think that they will mean something different.

To some extent, it was already happening. So, we were seeing some US manufacturing coming back home for nationalistic reasons. So between nationalism and between international trade, I think you’re right, supply chains will change. Will it be necessarily good for developing countries? I’m not so sure. What I would have wanted is that we could get a share of that supply chain. Things being made in Vietnam could be made in Pakistan. That may be more difficult.

Read more: COVID-19: Has it attacked our brains?

The one other way this might help or work out is in countries that were not as dependent on being part of global supply chains, might end up doing better, including Pakistan. So we have always lamented that we were not major exporters. But what that means is we don’t have as many factories installed as much as Vietnam, or as China has.

We are still a more agriculture-based economy. That might give us a certain buoyancy, if not buoyancy, a safety net to our economy. The honest answer is we do not know, but we do know supply chains will change. I am not sure it is automatically good for us. I think this is time for smart policies.

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