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The Optics of Leadership in the COVID-19 Era

The first batch of Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccines arriving in Egypt. Photo via Xinhua.

As 2020 crawls to its end, it’s becoming clear that, all things considered, China is emerged from the year’s nested crises in better shape than many expected. 

While Europe and Japan seem headed to new slumps, and the American recovery also being buffeted by high infection numbers, China might end up being the only major economy to show any growth in 2020.

China is making use of this opportunity by positioning itself as taking the lead in providing vaccine access to the global south, at a moment when that seems far from other powers’ main concern. It’s also setting new climate benchmarks in the awkward interim before the Biden administration rejoins the Paris Agreement. 

The view from my sliver of the global south is one of China stepping into leadership positions on a number of global issues as Western powers remain inward-looking.

There are certainly bones to pick with this perception, not least the reality that, as China is back-and-forthing towards less carbon pollution at home, its companies are promoting coal-fired electricity abroad.

However, even if it were mostly spin, China’s commitment to the optics of taking the global south into account already counts for a lot. In fact, if there is one thing I’m hoping for for 2021 it’s that anxieties about China stepping into this global role will drive the U.S., Japan, Europe and other powers to reengage with the idea of global public goods, and to articulate some – any – new global vision that extends beyond their own borders.

It might just be optics, but some competition between global powers on articulating a more inclusive vision of global public goods could do a lot of good in real life. 

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