05.04.2020 Author: Vladimir Terehov

The COVID-19 Pandemic and Relations between China and the United States

XI

The global panic over the COVID-19 pandemic is starting to have an extremely negative impact on all aspects of people’s lives. The impact that problems associated with the coronavirus outbreak are having on various aspects of the Great Global Game of politics today is therefore bound to remain a preoccupation.

Unfortunately, the one thing that is making COVID-19 such a tough match for humanity is the weaknesses of human nature, which are to blame for various failed attempts to solve these problems, particularly in international relations.

There is a popular theory that has been around for decades, going back as far as the Cold War, that if aliens were to invade planet Earth, this common threat to the future of humanity could have the power to unite rivals who had been sworn enemies up to that point in an effort to mobilize a joint response.

And now that threat is here, which we are all equally vulnerable to. It may as well have come from another planet. One would think that now is the time to do everything we can to join forces and fight this unprecedented threat to all humanity. Above all, one would expect the two main participants in today’s Great Global Game, the United States and China, to move in this direction and take some kind of action.

Unfortunately, the universal gesture of unity in the face of adversary, joining hands with friends, is not something the US and China want to do in the current situation. Moreover, COVID-19 is already being used as yet another tool, a weapon in a fight that was already being fought with a vengeance on all fronts before the coronavirus outbreak. To be more specific, the outbreak threatens to derail a positive trend that was beginning to be seen in bilateral relations, which began to take shape on January 15 this year after the US-China “Phase 1” trade agreement was signed.

The latest sign of the growing tensions in US-China relations was reported on the Daily Beast news website and by Bloomberg news agency. At a National Security Council meeting chaired by the President of the United States on March 20, it was “alleged that Beijing concealed and minimized the spread of the disease within its borders until it was too late to stop a global outbreak,” withholding initial information about the virus, a new weapon, from its own people and the world.

A few points are worth noting here. First of all, these kinds of accusations have been made in the press many times before, but this was the first time they were made by top US officials. In fact, President Donald Trump had even expressed his gratitude to Chinese leader XI Jinping over the phone just a month earlier, for the Chinese government’s success in fighting the epidemic that broke out in the country.

Furthermore, we would like to highlight that these statements were indeed made by America’s “top” government officials, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been known to take these kinds of liberties in making public statements. For example, similar statements have been made to the one we have already mentioned, as Pompeo has warned people to “be wary of authoritarian regimes and their empty promises”. Pompeo himself has been shamelessly referring to COVID-19 as the ‘Wuhan virus’ for a long time.

From this perspective and others, various observations have been made about several influential groups that Donald Trump is surrounded by. One of these groups, which can loosely be described as “hawkish”, is allegedly headed by the very same Mike Pompeo. This group does not agree with the agenda to reduce the amount of quarrels the US is involved in overseas. For instance, Mike Pompeo was allegedly opposed to the US deal with the Taliban (banned in Russia), which he only agreed to sign in Doha because he was taking orders from the top, and was told to do so by President Trump.

The US President himself has recently begun using terms like the one Pompeo uses for COVID-19 which has already been mentioned here, and has also spoken about China bearing “a great deal of responsibility” for the catastrophic scale of the epidemic. The Bloomberg news agency also describes this as a “turning point” in Donald Trump’s approach to relations with China.

At the same time, it is made clear that there is nothing particularly new about how the American President perceives his main geopolitical rival. In other words, all of this is more or less due to the worsening situation in America’s domestic politics, which already looks set to be one of the major hurdles Donald Trump will face in trying to secure a second term in the presidential elections this fall.

This negative situation for the incumbent President has two components: the frightening pace at which COVID-19 is spreading and problems with the economy, which are increasingly interconnected. Both of these problems are becoming the subject of a political struggle that is heating up, a fight without any rules.

Joe Biden, who is highly likely to be chosen as the Democratic Party’s nominee in the upcoming presidential elections, says Donald Trump is to blame for the country not being prepared for the epidemic and its potentially disastrous consequences.

In turn, the “pro-Republican” media outlet Fox News referenced a study carried out by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security (JHCHS), which claims that experts ranked the United States the best-prepared country in the world to handle a pandemic in late 2019.

The reason why these estimates differ so vastly from the current reality in the United States, where the scale of the COVID-19 virus is massive, is that they were not notified about the threat soon enough. This is what the Chinese government is being blamed for. It is worth noting that despite all of these accusations, China is considering the possibility of providing partial assistance to its geopolitical opponent in “the worst-affected US states”.

It should be mentioned that China has always had more sympathy for the Democrats, and today it is fairly clear that Joe Biden is their preferred nominee.  The Chinese Global Times also points out that evidence of Donald Trump’s falling approval ratings in America can ironically be seen in China of all places, as Chinese companies are receiving far less orders to manufacture various types of campaign merchandise (baseball caps, t-shirts, scarves) for the current President.

As for the theory that “authoritarian regimes and their empty promises” are apparently to blame for the current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic, as the saying goes “that’s the pot calling the kettle black”. It is enough to remember what happened in the summer and autumn of 1941, when a perfectly democratic United States played certain war games with Japan, the source of the “political coronavirus” in the Asia Pacific at the time. The game was dragged out until they reached a point where no one questioned whether it was really necessary to raze Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Finally, it needs to be reiterated that neither the lessons of the past nor the current hardships will be enough to change human nature. The world’s two leading players are currently shrugging off the responsibility for the COVID-19 pandemic, tossing it between one another like a “hot potato” in a blame game which could completely cancel out even the modest progress they recently managed to achieve in their bilateral relations.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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