“It is quite extraordinary that a pandemic originating in a Chinese province, a disease whose initial cover-up briefly seemed likely to deal a grave blow to the Communist regime, has instead given China a geopolitical opportunity unlike any enjoyed by an American rival since at least the Vietnam War.
This opportunity has been a long time building. Across the 2000s and early 2010s, China’s ruling party reaped the benefits of globalization without paying the cost, in political liberalization, that confident Westerners expected the economic opening to impose. This richer-but-not-freer China proved that it was possible for an authoritarian power to tame the internet, to make its citizens hardworking capitalists without granting them substantial political freedoms, to buy allies across the developing world, and to establish beachheads of influence — in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, American academia, the NBA, Washington, D.C. — in the power centers of its superpower rival.
Eventually, America responded to all this as you would expect a superpower to react: It elected a China hawk who promised to get tough on Beijing, to bring back jobs lost to the China shock, and to shift foreign policy priorities from the Middle East to the Pacific. But there was one small difficulty: This hawk was no Truman or Reagan, but rather a reality-television mountebank whose real attitude toward China policy was, basically, whatever gets me re-elected works. A mountebank, and also a world-historical incompetent, who was presented with exactly the challenge that his nationalism was supposed to answer — a dangerous disease carried by global trade routes from our leading rival — and managed to turn it into an American calamity instead.”