Coronavirus: the high stakes propelling the US-China blame game

Mark Magnier

Already battered relations between the United States and China have declined to their lowest level in recent memory at a time when the coronavirus crisis calls for unprecedented global cooperation and collaboration.

A range of irritants, mutual recriminations, long-standing and festering tensions, China watchers say, are putting the global economy at further risk and increasing the chance of a military misstep.

Events fuelling trans-Pacific mistrust in recent weeks include finger-pointing over who “started” the deadly coronavirus, something Trump has doubled down on as seen by his latest comments from the White House Thursday.

Adding to this has been recent moves to expel journalists reporting from each other’s countries; a deeply destructive trade war; and a growing fear among Americans that China – the world’s leading manufacturer of medical supplies – could restrict exports of surgical masks and medical equipment needed to save lives.

Trump resumes blaming Beijing for the pandemic

“Shocks and crises such as Covid-19 tend to exacerbate rather than repair already fraught relationships, and this is no different with respect to the US and China,” said John Lee, a senior fellow at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney in Australia and with the Hudson Institute in Washington.

The tensions between the two nations, he added, were at a worse pitch “than at any time since diplomatic relations began in the late 1970s”.

Most obvious and pronounced of many irritants, at least this week, is the blame game over the origin of the virus. Trump in recent days has repeatedly referred to the coronavirus as the “China virus” or the “Wuhan virus” despite repeated calls by the World Health Organisation, US public health experts and Asian-American groups to avoid stigmatising.

“The world is paying a very big price for what they did,” Trump said at a White House briefing, accusing Chinese authorities of covering up the outbreak’s early stages.

“If people would have known about it … it could have been stopped right where it came from: China,” Trump added.

Beijing – equally intent on not looking weak domestically, and keen to deflect parallel criticism from Chinese citizens over its early denials and mishandling of the virus – has propagated its own irresponsible counter-narrative. Fanned by tweets and retweets from foreign ministry officials, it posited that the entire virus was started by the US military.

The war of words elevated to official channels Monday when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi and registered “strong US objections” to what the US characterised as Beijing’s effort to shift blame. In the call, Pompeo tarred Beijing for spreading “disinformation and outlandish rumours”.

Political analysts say that both the Chinese Communist Party and Trump, when feeling politically vulnerable, have long histories of finding an issue or outside actor to blame. This allows them to distract their respective citizenries and otherwise obfuscate an issue. And this war of words certainly appears to fall into that category, they add.

“In Beijing and Washington, the leaders made big mistakes or underperformed in ways that need public attention to be diverted,” said Douglas Paal, a veteran of the National Security Council who is now a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“For China, that’s Washington after messing up in Wuhan,” Paal, who also once led the American Institute in Taiwan, added. “For the US and playing down the virus, that’s Beijing.”

US stocks plunge, nearly erasing gains since Trump became president

For the first time in his career, Trump is facing a crisis he didn’t start, can’t control and can’t easily deflect. Financial markets, which he considers a benchmark of his performance, have crashed. And he faces widespread criticism that he failed during crucial weeks to take the pandemic seriously, fearful that it would undermine his re-election prospects.

That prevented the federal machinery from mobilising, delayed testing and impeded awareness of social distancing – missteps that may ultimately cost thousands of lives.

A Gallup poll released earlier this month found China’s favourable rating among Americans at a three-decade low. The survey found only 33 per cent of the American respondents had a positive view of China – a 20 percentage point drop since 2018 and below the 34 per cent favourability reading immediately after the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

Another source of friction in recent weeks has been the tit-for-tat expulsion of workers at each other’s top news agencies. The Trump administration earlier in the month expelled several US-based Chinese employees at People’s Daily, Xinhua and CGTN on short notice. That led to this week’s expulsion by Beijing of US employees in China, including Hong Kong, of The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

US President Donald Trump during a briefing on the coronavirus pandemic at the White House on Thursday. Photo: EPA-EFE

The administration’s subsequent strong defence of the US news organisations came despite the president’s years of excoriating US media as purveying “fake news” and “witch hunts” to bring him down.

Analysts said the damage could have been avoided if the two sides were talking to, rather than past, each other.

“The larger problem that this points to is the lack of any meaningful mezzo-level interactions between Washington and Beijing, in which such an outcome would likely have been prevented,” said Andrew Mertha, the China programme director at Johns Hopkin University School of Advanced International Studies.

“Xi may have miscalculated, given Trump’s disdain for the media,” he added, referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping. “This is foreign policy by tweet and is as subtle and sophisticated as a two-by-four with a rusty nail.”

Deeper distrust stems from the protracted trade war involving fundamental differences over their respective economic systems; a growing feeling in the West that China has gamed the international trading system and concern over China’s mercantilist model, outlined in its Made in China 2025 economic blueprint, which seeks self-sufficiency and an end to billions of dollars worth of foreign tech products.

China, for its part, believes that established European and North American players have worked to keep China contained, that it has followed the letter of World Trade Organisation rules – if not the spirit – and that its role as the engine of global growth has not been appreciated.

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The two sides declared a trade truce with a phase-one deal in mid-December that saw Beijing commit to large purchases of US products and adherence to intellectual property protection measures. But in Washington there’s profound scepticism toward China, limited inclination to give Beijing much slack despite the global downturn and suspicion it won’t ultimately keep its word.

The stakes are huge, particularly if there’s a flare-up over Taiwan or more chest-thumping over trade at a time when the global community is already reeling.

“Trump and Xi are all about themselves, not the greater good,” said Paal. “Hair-trigger emotions in both countries and a complex, hard-to-manage issue that crosses perceived red lines could get us in a lot of trouble.”

Experts say that the odds of a rapprochement any time soon are low. But they expressed hope that reason can ultimately prevail – helped perhaps by a return to traditional dialogue mechanisms, military exchanges or a change in US administration with a more nuanced view of diplomacy – if for no other reason than the respective self-interest of the two giants.

There is “a perfect storm resulting from a sustained effort over the past few years by both sides to harm the relationship, now combined with short-term opportunistic fearmongering driven by mutual anxiety about domestic legitimacy,” said Russell Menyhart, a partner in the Taft Stettinius & Hollister law firm and a former US diplomat in Beijing and Shanghai.

“It is worse than in recent memory, but still can be stabilised if both sides stop the petty sniping and focus on what their people need – an effective response to an unprecedented public health and economic crisis,” Menyhart added.

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