THE BLAME GAME

J’ACCUSE: Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian suggested the US might have brought the coronavirus to China
Yuwen Wu assesses the negative impact of the coronavirus crisis on the already ailing relationship between Washington and Beijing

THE BLAME GAME

At a Chinese People’s Congress news briefing on 24 May, Foreign Minister Wang Yi delivered a sombre message on the US-China relationship.
‘As coronavirus rages on, a political virus is also spreading in the US, which is to use every opportunity to attack and demonise China,’ noted Mr Wang. ‘Some political forces are trying to push China-US relations to the so called New Cold War. Such dangerous behaviour will not only bury the fruit of co-operation between our two peoples over the years, but it will also damage the future development of the United States and the world’s stability and prosperity,’ he warned.
This is hardly an ideal situation when the world needs everybody to work together to beat the disease, but it does reflect the reality of the past months, when China and the US have engaged in a battle that could have far-reaching consequences long after the crisis is over.
Since April, President Trump has intensified his criticisms of China’s handling of the coronavirus, calling it ‘Chinese Virus’, accusing China of failing to ‘stop it at source’, and asserting the pandemic is ‘worse than Pearl Harbour’. He even threatened to cut off all ties with China ‘to save the USA 500 billion dollars’.

THE WUHAN ALLEGATION

Meanwhile, US secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeatedly implied that the virus originated in a Chinese lab in Wuhan, despite America’s intelligence agency the CIA conspicuously failing to back the claim.
Other players have been caught in the firing line.
President Trump threatened to stop US funding of the World Health Organisation permanently after he blamed China for trying to cover up the outbreak and charged the WHO with failing to hold Beijing to account.
China has been fighting back tooth and nail. Beijing accuses Trump of scapegoating China to deflect criticism of his own handling of the pandemic, while Chinese TV lambasted Pompeo for days on end, branding him an ‘enemy of the people’, accusing him of ‘spreading political virus’, and ‘breaching the bottom line of a human being’.
Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson Zhao Lijian even suggested that ‘it might be the US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan’, though without offering any evidence.

CREDIBILITY ON THE LINE

The stakes could not be higher for both countries.
China’s initial handling of the outbreak was questioned as whistleblowers were reprimanded and crucial information about human transmission was not passed on quickly.
But things changed when the leadership moved to place Wuhan under lockdown, and the disease was slowly brought under control towards late March. By then, however, COVID-19 had become a global pandemic and the death toll in China appeared relatively low compared to that in other countries, including the United States.
As calls grew for an investigation into the origin of the virus and China’s handling of it, China felt it had to consolidate the official narrative to maintain its credibility and reputation: that it took decisive steps to control the disease, which gave other countries precious time to get prepared; that it acted in a transparent manner vis-à-vis its early communications with the WHO and the USA; and that it has been helping other nations to fight the pandemic.
China therefore feels it should be thanked rather than blamed. As for President Trump, his greatest concern is that a wave of public anger relating to the virus in the United States – which has claimed more than 90,000 lives there so far – will thwart his chance of re-election in November.

U-TURN: Trump initially thanked China before attacking it for not stopping COVID-19 at source

The President’s strategy is to shift the blame to China, but this is a risky approach. Trump’s critics point to the fact that he was full of praise for China earlier on, as shown in this tweet on 24 January: ‘China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency… In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!’
The Democrats have latched on to the inconsistency, with their presidential candidate Joe Biden accusing Trump of ‘rolling over for the Chinese’. As the election campaign heats up, China will become a focal point for both the Democrats and Republicans, who hope to outdo each other in the China-bashing arena.eciates their efforts and transparency… In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!’

IMPACT OF DECOUPLING

The Sino-US relationship has taken a bumpy ride under President Trump. His promise to ‘Make America Great Again’ led him to constantly present China as a rival which is not playing by the rules. This led to a protracted trade war which is far from over, despite a truce agreement reached in January. China promised to buy $200bn American goods above 2017 levels, among other concessions.
‘Even before the current crisis erupted, the Sino-American relationship was on life support,’ laments Pei Minxin, Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College, USA. ‘The outbreak may have sounded its death knell.’
He is not alone in this bleak assessment.
‘This is the most difficult period since normalization in late 1970s, with a growing strategic mistrust and an unprecedented dislike of each other”, Wang Jisi, Professor of International Studies at Peking University, said in a recent lecture. ‘In the future, the gradual economic and technological decoupling is almost inevitable, and nobody can predict how long this will last and how steeply it will slide,’ he concluded.
There are voices calling for reason and vision, such as Cui Tiankai, Chinese ambassador to the USA, writing on Washington Post on May 6:
‘Blaming China will not end this pandemic. On the contrary, the mindset risks decoupling China and the United States and hurting our efforts to fight the disease, our coordination to reignite the global economy, our ability to conquer other challenges and our prospects of a better future.’
Robert Zoellick, former Deputy Secretary of State under George W. Bush, told Foreign Policy journal that on a host of global challenges, giving up influence and engagement with the world’s largest population and second-largest economy could undermine US interests across the board.
‘If we have another pandemic, or environmental issues, or financial-sector issues, or Iran, or North Korea, how effective are you going to be if you don’t have a working relationship with China?’ he asks.
It remains to be seen what will happen after the November elections and if a different occupant of the White House might result in any changes. What is certain is that the deep dive of Sino-US relations during COVID-19 will take a long time to reverse – if it can be reversed at all.
Yuwen Wu is a London-based China specialist and former senior journalist with the BBC.