Covid-19 and US-China Tussle
A lose-lose proposition that will do damage worldwide
Covid-19 is becoming a key element in US-China relations. The pandemic has aggravated the already sinking US-China relationship attributed to the two countries’ trade, technology and geopolitical wars. The United States is increasingly blaming China for the spread of the coronavirus, the damage it has done to the economy and the colossal number of deaths. Trump in some of his almost daily briefings on Covid-19 vowed to investigate the Wuhan Institute of Virology, from which US intelligence “sources” speculated the virus was released intentionally or accidentally. China, for its part, accuses the US (and the West in general) of squandering a two-month opportunity to act on its January 3 release of information that Covid-19 would spread rapidly. The blame game appeared to be heating up, with both sides demanding investigations on whether the charges or conspiracy theories were true. However, it must be considered that blaming each other for causing Covid-19 will only worsen the economic, geopolitical and social damages that the pandemic has already caused.
Future historians might record that the Covid-19 pandemic marked the start of a new cold war between China and the US. Even before coronavirus emerged, tensions between Washington and Beijing were rising. China had challenged American power in the Pacific, by building a chain of military bases across the South China Sea. In the US, the Trump administration had initiated a trade war. The two countries’ relations were already going through a rough patch for a variety of reasons. In the meantime, territorial disputes between China and US allies in the region have reached an alarming level of tension in the last few years. Disputes between several countries over the maritime borders of the South China Sea and sovereignty over the Spratly Islands between Japan and China in regard to the Senkaku Island have been the most prominent of these geopolitical challenges. The “trade dispute” between two countries has already been widely acknowledged as having developed into a “trade war.” Despite the signing of a deal in mid-January, there is still a lot of bad blood in regard to the future of relations.
However, with the coming of the coronavirus crisis, we have seen a totally new issue having been raised that affects the future of Sino-US affairs. Now as the pandemic wreaks havoc on the world economy, with more than one-quarter of the world’s fatalities in America, Donald Trump is increasingly turning on China. The US president has endorsed the idea that the coronavirus originated in the Institute of Virology in Wuhan. He has also speculated that it might have been deliberately manufactured — an idea his own intelligence agencies have explicitly repudiated. The White House is also reported to be interested in trying to nullify the legal doctrine of “sovereign immunity”, which protects China from being sued for damages in US courts.
China has also contributed mightily to the rise in tensions. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, has floated the evidence-free idea that coronavirus might have originated in the US. Beijing has also responded with calls for an international inquiry into what is now a global disaster.
There is an undeniable element of xenophobia in some of the China-bashing that is going on in the west, which has led to a spate of verbal and physical attacks on Asian-Americans in the US. Senior American politicians, such as Republican senator Tom Cotton, are campaigning to stop Chinese students enrolling in technical courses such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing in US universities. There are even some hotheads in Washington who are calling for the US to renege on debt owed to China.
In China meanwhile, the nationalist twist that was given to the school curriculum 30 years ago, after the Tiananmen Square massacre, has raised an often-angry generation, quick to take offence at alleged slights by foreigners and eager to demonstrate Chinese power. Those sentiments are nurtured by a government that wants to deflect discontent away from the Communist party itself.
As of now, there are still too many unknowns about what could have been the potential trajectory of the coronavirus – however, we can be sure that things will be at least slightly altered between China and the US in the coming period.
First of all, it is important to remember that the coronavirus crisis is not over and looks likely to continue to haunt us for the foreseeable future – at least until a potential vaccine is developed. If the crisis continues throughout the summer and makes a dangerous comeback in the fall, there will be plenty of time to ask, “What went wrong?” So far, the US administration has responded to this question with two different narratives. President Donald Trump, who praised China’s handling of this crisis in tweets in January, seems to have had a change of heart. Although never having sought to cut ties with China, President Trump and those within his inner circle have always been skeptical about China’s role in dealing with this crisis. In March, President Trump started to refer to the virus as “the China Virus,” defending his decision as simply a result of where the illness originated.
However, following a phone call with Xi Jinping, he changed his line of thinking on this and went back to referring to it as the coronavirus. However, it is obvious that he has still not been satisfied with other explanations, going on to target the World Health Organization (WHO) for allegedly misinforming the US about the extent of the pandemic. According to President Trump, the WHO had become an instrument of the Chinese government and thus misinformed the international community about the outbreak.
The US administration suspended all funding for the WHO on the basis of its mishandling of the coronavirus crisis, with Trump blaming the WHO for acting like China’s “public relations agency.” However, soon after, information started to leak to the press from US intelligence regarding the origin of the virus.
According to one of these reports, China was apparently misinforming the world about the extent of the outbreak while stockpiling necessary medical supplies. Beijing started to restrict the export of some of the critical medical equipment during the initial period. Trading figures regarding these products demonstrate that US “imports of surgical gowns declined by 71%, surgical face masks by 48%, medical ventilators by 45% and intubation kits by 56%.”
Another report prepared for Western intelligence agencies again contended that the Chinese government had hidden facts about the coronavirus outbreak very early on, suppressing information and stopping doctors from speaking out about the outbreak. According to this report, the government of China also destroyed a certain amount of evidence and refused to provide samples for scientists around the world – thereby delaying work on a potential cure.
These claims grew yet more controversial when President Trump stated in his now-regular coronavirus crisis news conferences that he saw evidence about the origin of the outbreak. He said with a high degree of confidence that he can say the virus is originated in a lab in China. Furthermore, he openly stated that he did not believe information given to the WHO by China. In the meantime, China has struck back at these allegations and its responsibility for the virus. This week, following statements by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the tone in Chinese media started to escalate. This level of tensions will likely spill over into public opinion … soon enough.
As the economic and human costs of the pandemic increases, we may see an escalation of this tension between two major economic superpowers. This escalation may lead to an increasing degree of nationalism in both countries, vying against one another with allegations. While most of the outstanding issues between the two countries have never directly affected the public of either, the coronavirus crisis is something that directly touches on the health and economic wellbeing of all citizens. This direct impact will definitely make a major impact on the image, standing and threat perception of two countries against each other at the public level. If the virus makes a comeback in the fall, especially, we may see more extreme measures adopted by the two countries against each other.
As the pandemic is worsening, so is the scape-goating. In the US-China tussle, we may see the introduction of a totally new era – that of confrontation based on pandemics. However, no sane person would deny that such infantile blame games and insinuations will only poison a sour relationship. This time should be treated more than as a show of strength between competing political economies. This is a time to establish joint cooperation and voluntary collaboration to defeat the disease globally.
Political Motives behind China Smearing
China’s achievement in the fight against Covid-19 is way better than that of the US. But China is confronting waves of accusations, which have been launched by Washington, and supported and followed by other Western countries and forces.
It is the urgent political need of the Republican-led government to pass the buck to China for its own failure to contain the outbreak, so as to win the upcoming election. This is a life-and-death matter, so it would spare no effort to smear China and mobilize all possible public opinion forces to do so to cover its selfishness.
Moreover, the US regards China as its strategic competitor. This is a bipartisan consensus in the US. China’s ability to handle the crisis and its industrial production capacity have further increased the sense of crisis among American elites. The idea of stopping China from becoming stronger during its fight against the epidemic, creating more trouble for China, and promoting more hate against China from across the world can easily resonate among elites in the US and the Western world.
If China had been in the same boat as Western countries in suffering from the pandemic, the West might have felt better. However, unlike the West, China has done an outstanding job in fighting the coronavirus. As China takes a turn for the better after its temporary economic shutdown, the West continues to struggle. In this context, stigmatizing China has become popular in the West as they need some psychological comfort.
Some people are fond of kicking up a fuss. China has done well, but the US is leading a blame game against China, offering a fantasy where China would provide compensation to lure more countries into the game as if they could benefit from it.
The Chinese people have noticed that the West won’t stop rocking the boat. China has to withstand the US-driven public opinion not in its favor. This is the price China has to pay for growing stronger.
We placed too much importance on attitude from the US and the Western world in the past. But now we have to get used to their attacks, and be able to pinpoint the logic of their accusations against our achievements and exaggerations of our problems. We don’t have to be nervous or quickly respond to all their comments, but instead be vigilant and realize that their attacks prove we are doing the right thing.
We see familiar faces in the “bashing China” chorus – the US and its core allies in the Five Eyes alliance, Western media that wins hits by attacking China, and some “temporary political actors” coming to hype things up.
It is our century-old dream to see China become a power that makes the US feel uncomfortable. It’s of no use for the Chinese people to miss the good old days in the 1980s when the Western world wooed China against the Soviet Union.
It is time for China to withstand challenges. Washington from now on would say nothing positive about China, but constantly condemn us. It has a few followers like Australia. But these countries can barely influence us. China only needs to manage its own business well and fix its own shortcomings. This has nothing to do with US recriminations, but continuing to progress is our goal.
The West is more capable in terms of shaping public opinion and the situation can’t be changed immediately. But China’s continuous development will eventually work to reshape the pattern of world public opinion. Time is on our side.