Read: How China deceived the WHO
“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.
France, like the U.S., is deeply reliant on Chinese supply chains, not only for medical equipment needed to cope with the coronavirus, but for its pharmaceutical and auto industries too. Macron recently announced that France would strive for “full independence” by ramping up its own production of face masks and ventilators, but it’s unlikely to be a quick solution (he said it would happen by the end of the year), or a cheap one. As a result of this crisis, “French companies will be under enormous pressure to repatriate some of their productions from other countries, and the obvious choice will be China,” Philippe Le Corre, a nonresident senior fellow in the Europe and Asia Programs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told us. Some already appear to be responding to Macron’s announcement. The French pharmaceutical company Sanofi said last month that it would launch a new Europe-based company to reduce its reliance on drug manufacturing in China and India, where the majority of the world's active pharmaceutical ingredients are made.
Le Corre cautioned that efforts to reduce French dependency on China could result in Beijing doing the same, which could have an adverse effect on some of France’s most profitable sectors, such as wine and tourism. “For many of these industries, the China market does matter,” he said.
In Britain, Raab’s suggestion of a shift from “business as usual” is similarly dubious. Like other countries, Britain has looked to China to obtain lifesaving materials such as testing kits and ventilators. Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, about their two countries fighting “shoulder to shoulder” to contain the outbreak in late February, only a month before Johnson fell ill with the virus himself.
Though Beijing doesn’t rank among Britain’s largest trading partners, in areas where the two countries do engage, such as the technology and financial sectors, the U.K. is unlikely to seek to upend those ties, Kerry Brown, a former British diplomat in Beijing, told us. “As [Britain’s] economy takes this massive hit, these are areas presumably where it wants to do what it can to maintain decent growth or any growth at all,” said Brown, who serves as the director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London.