A sharp escalation in tit-for-tat retributions between China and the United States marks a deeply uncertain moment in relations between the two countries, already under strain from a longstanding trade dispute and a fierce debate over international use of Chinese technology.
Both countries have scrambled over the last week to shape the international narrative surrounding both the inception and response to the COVID-19 virus.
Trump began resolutely referring to the disease as the “Chinese virus,” brushing aside concerns about whether the phrase is racist and will incite unnecessary anger inside China. Trump, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have all blamed China for the pandemic, and have called for more details on the origins of the virus.
“If the Chinese government had been more transparent early on, we’re talking late fall, December at least…all the nations of the world would have been able to get our arms around this and contain it in China where it began and prevent its propagation around the world,” Esper said Friday morning on Fox & Friends.
In China, party officials are spreading false information suggesting that the virus originated in a U.S. military lab. This week, Beijing expelled journalists from the New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. And as the number of new cases inside China has dwindled, Beijing has sought to claim the mantle of a world leader on coronavirus. While the U.S. has struggled to ramp up testing and address medical equipment shortfalls, China has publicly committed to provide thousands of test kits, masks and respirators to Italy, Iran and countries with active outbreaks — including the United States.
“Shifting the blame to China will not help combat the epidemic in the US,” Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said in a press conference on Wednesday. “The U.S. should get its domestic issues handled first. In the meantime, we hope it will make constructive efforts in international cooperation to safeguard global public health security.”
In a tweet, Zhao said, “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!”
But the fall-out of the virus could move beyond rhetoric and optics-shaping.
Even before the outbreak, the United States and China shared a fraught and unusual relationship. Under the 2017 National Defense Strategy, Washington considers China a “strategic competitor,” and the Pentagon is preparing for a potential future war with it. But China is also the U.S.’s largest goods trading partner. Administrations of both parties have sought a more cooperative relationship with Beijing with varying degrees of success. After launching a fierce trade war last year, the Trump administration in December negotiated what it terms “phase one” of a trade deal with China to address systemic intellectual property theft by the Chinese and what the president sees as an unfair trade relationship. Billions of dollars worth of tariffs remain in place.
Coronavirus has put additional strain on that already-tense relationship. With no clear idea of how widely the virus might spread before it peaks, or when scientists might develop either a treatment or a vaccine, or how low the economy might sink as Americans are forced to stay at home, some analysts fear that it could fracture under the strain.
“If the COVID-19 epidemic leads to mass casualties and sustained economic damage in the U.S. then prepare for things to get really ugly,” China expert Bill Bishop wrote this week in his influential newsletter, Sinocism. “I can not think of a more dangerous time in the U.S.-China relationship in the last 40 years, and the carnage from the coronavirus has barely begun in the U.S.”
Other analysts are more skeptical that the coronavirus crisis will cause a tectonic shift in America’s interwoven economic and security strategy towards China.
“It’s not an inflection point, it’s more evolutionary,” said Randy Schriver, who was the Pentagon’s top Asia policy official until December. “We’ve taken a more competitive poster [towards China] consistent with the NDS and I think this will contribute to that trajectory but not inflect it.”
Schriver anticipates that the U.S. will take steps to become less reliant on China for pharmaceutical and medical material needed to respond to a pandemic, but it won’t go so far as to “decouple” the two economies, as some of Trump’s more hard-line advisors have advocated. (Trump has publicly smacked down complete “decoupling” in the past.)
“The problem we’re facing is that any time we have a public health emergency, people wake up to the extreme foreign dependency that we have,” White House trade advisor Peter Navarro told Politico this week. “And after the crisis is over, they promptly go back to sleep.”
But the future of “Phase II” of the U.S.-China trade deal remains perilously up in the air. Trump has said he sees no reason to remove currently existing tariffs, even amid the sharp economic downturn caused by coronavirus.
In the Pentagon, the strategic focus on China up until now has largely been focused on preparing for an eventual war in the future, and objecting to Chinese militarization of islands in the South China Sea. A novel pandemic emanating from China presents an entirely different challenge.
“I think the CCP’s response to Taiwan is also very telling,” Schriver said, referring to the ruling Communist Party of China. “Taiwan handled this better than anyone and the CCP can’t handle that loss of face, so their response was to fly military aircraft around Taiwan.”
Despite the tougher rhetoric towards the nation of China, Trump has assiduously avoided criticizing Chinese President Xi Jinping directly. In January, President Trump praised China for “working very hard to contain the Coronavirus,” including both their “efforts and transparency.”
“I know President Xi. He loves China. He respects the United States,” Trump said during a press conference Friday afternoon. “And I have to say I respect China greatly and I respect President Xi.”