Can the West Actually Ditch China?

April 25, 2020

How severely can countries really punish China when many of them need Beijing for the most crucial of things—medical supplies?

“Hold China accountable,” urges a fundraising appeal from U.S. President Donald Trump. U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab vowed to ask “hard questions” and threatened the end of “business as usual” with Beijing. German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged China to be more transparent about how it tackled the outbreak. French President Emmanuel Macron said that it would be “naive” to compare China’s handling of the crisis with that of Western democracies, adding, “There are clearly things that happened that we don’t know about”—an apparent reference to the growing international skepticism over Beijing’s claims that it has contained the virus.

Denouncing China was a bipartisan sport in Washington well before the coronavirus pandemic, but now leaders in Europe, where the pandemic has also hit hard, are clamoring for accountability from China because of its early missteps and obfuscation, which abetted the spread of coronavirus around the world. But how severely can they really punish a government when many of them need Beijing for the most crucial of things—medical supplies?

China was already producing half the world’s medical masks even before the pandemic spread; it’s also a major source of pharmaceuticals and protective equipment at a time when countries around the globe are experiencing shortages.

“The world is dependent on China for manufacturing,” Willy Shih, a professor at Harvard Business School who has written on U.S.-China supply-chain issues, told us. This isn’t just about medical supplies—it’s also about electronics, textiles, furniture, toys, and a lot more, adding up to about half a trillion dollars in imports. “So I’m in the school that talk is cheap. And if you really want to go down that path, then you have to be prepared for the consequences,” Shih said.

And it isn’t just a matter of simply relocating to hubs other than China, given that Beijing has cemented itself as the heart of global manufacturing, with more advanced internal supply chains than other possible substitutes.

If Western displeasure with China’s coronavirus performance is currently more rhetoric than substance, it may still presage some long-term changes, though there’s some evidence that countries are worried about even just antagonizing Beijing too publicly with their words.

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