COVID-19 Has Created a New Kind of International Gamesmanship

The sane approach to fighting a pandemic is for nations to collaborate, not compete against each other.

COVID-19 has a proven antiviral remedy called Remdesivir, but buying up three months’ worth of the drug’s global supplies has put the United States in the crosshairs of international criticism, making America look both heartless and hypocritical.

Just a few months ago, Western nations were calling out China for actively promoting profiteers snatching up global supplies of protective PPE medical gear. China directed an army of market marauders to take big bites out of other countries’ economies and medical infrastructures in order to leave them vulnerable, if not for dead.

Masks, gowns, ventilators were bought and shipped back to the People’s Republic just before the pandemic hit the rest of the world. China then turned around either to sell PPE for enormous profit or slowly dole it out for diplomatic gain with plagued nations.

The United States cried foul when China hoarded PPE, but is arguing all’s fair with Remdesivir. There is a difference, though. Remdesivir is on the open market at a time when everyone on the planet already knows about the coronavirus.

Today, all nations understand the pandemic’s reach and destruction. The world is now knowledgeable. While it may be unfair that rich countries can buy up stocks of lifesaving American drugs, the fair market allows highest bidders to get the goods. At $3,100 for a course of the antiviral Remdesivir, poor countries can’t compete.

Back in January, however, the world was cruelly COVID-unaware, and China purposefully misled everyone about the coronavirus’ virulence and lethality. That’s when China bought up protective medical PPE equipment, hoarding supplies and protecting its manufacturing stranglehold. China’s outrageous price gouging on the desperate world market followed. N-95 respirator masks soared from $1.27 to an astronomical $23 per mask. This did not happen accidentally; it was insider trading.

Beijing had more than an inkling of the virus’ ravaging and extremely contagious character. It bought low, based on its insider knowledge, and sold high once the pandemic hit the rest of the world. They hid the virus and weaponized the world’s supply of emergency PPE.

Adversarial nations use all available means to weaken, undermine or destroy countries with which they compete. In an ever-evolving world, this is a universal truth. Sometimes, they go to the extreme of launching invasions and fighting violent ground wars. Other times, they use means that are less obvious, aggressive, or inviting of retaliation. Medical supplies and weaponizing critical supply chains is just one example.

Countries in both the East and West use stealth and aggressively compete just below the threshold of outright military conflict. Scholars and military planners refer to this hybrid warfare activity as occurring in the “gray zone.” On the surface, things may look and feel normal, but there is a whole lot of aggressive and dangerously hidden activity taking place just below the surface. PPE-gate was a quiet shot across the bow.

Gray-zone activity is hard to detect and harder to confront, unlike openly hostile behavior. Direct actions taken by states against states are open and shut, black and white. They demand retaliatory action. If, for example, Moscow launched an ICBM at Washington, that action leads to war.

Moscow’s horrifying and reprehensible act of paying Afghans bounties to kill American GIs, however, edges right up to the point of conflict but lands in the gray zone. Russia complicates the issue by using proxies to maintain distance and deniability. Former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta argues that the Russian bounties come “as close to an act of war as you can get.” President-for-life Vladimir Putin is expert at hybrid warfare. China is paying close attention during “World War C.”

The sane approach to fighting the coronavirus war is for nations to collaborate by sharing data, research, equipment, expertise and medicine. China instead used this crisis to attack the national resilience of countries like Australia and the United States.

There is precedent for nations strategically cutting off medical supplies to hurt their enemies. During World War I, for example, Germany actively sought to corner the market on a critical pharmaceutical—aspirin. Germany’s Bayer was the dominant global manufacturer and the country kept “the miracle drug” away from the civilians and militaries it battled.

COVID-19 cases are rapidly rising, but states are not now wildly scrambling to find protective gear or build hospital capacity. Remdesivir offers hope, vaccines are being developed and masks control community spread.

As a result, China’s pandemic profiteers are no longer in as strong a position to make big money from panicked Americans. Instead, they’ll profit off America’s tragic addictions. China, after all, continues to supply the United States’ illegal and lethal street fentanyl. Drugs are one more way to fight a gray-zone war.

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Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is McClatchy’s foreign affairs columnist, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of Spin Wars and Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence. He is president and publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.