Pandemic politics and cooperation with China
America politics is reviving — with a twist — the raging debate of 70 years ago: Who was responsible or “Who lost China?”
Now it’s “Who was softer on China?”
President Trump and former Vice President Biden, Trump’s likely opponent this fall, already are taking out dueling adds charging the other guy has been a patsy for the Chinese rulers.
China already was a volatile political issue with its ascendancy — economically, politically and militarily, the world’s only other super power. With the COVID-19 pandemic, which originated in China — which in turn covered it up for a month, the partisan finger pointing has intensified.
Trump, after weeks of praising China for its handling of the virus and looking for someone else to blame for America’s slow response, started labeling it the “Chinese virus” — while some in the White House apparently, taking the cue, referred to it as the “Kung flu.” Trump has escalated with more threats as the pandemic mounts in America, while assailing his opponent as weak.
Biden, the almost certain Democratic nominee, charges the American pandemic was fueled by Trump’s initial indifference, insisting he would have been tougher earlier.
Graham Allison, a Harvard scholar, former Defense Department official and author of a book on the possibilities and perils of a U.S-China conflict, says COVID-19 underscores why both countries should frame the relationship differently. The United States and China, he says, are going to be “fierce rivals” on trade, democratic values, cyber- and national security — and simultaneously should be partners on climate change, terrorism and especially the pandemic threatening the world today.
That’s impossible politically for now; neither side in our upcoming election wants to let up on China for the next six months.
The former vice president charges that Trump “rolled over for the Chinese,” taking their word for things on the coronavirus. Trump dismissed the peril until mid-March, in contrast to the countries that moved quickly after China belatedly acknowledged the threat in mid-January.
The president also consistently lauded Chinese President Xi Jinping as late as March 13, praising him for handling the situation well and giving little credence to the demonstrable evidence of the dangers.
The Trump camp today makes clear that anti-China attacks will be a central focus of the general election. The charge is that Biden failed to “stand up” to the Chinese and was part of the accommodating polices of the Obama administration.
The president’s broadsides against China are escalating daily, threatening more tariffs, suits against China for negligence, even refusing to pay debts. As often with Trump, he’s partially bluffing — but as it affects his election, most bets are off… and he almost certainly will get more vicious.
In the Administration, all hands are on board — led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who on China sounds more like a partisan gunslinger than a diplomat.
In Congress, the chief Republican attack dog is Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, who first warned of the virus threat and China’s cover-upon in late January. Cotton hasn’t let up, peddling the generally discredited theory the pandemic originated in a Chinese research lab rather than a Wuhan meat market, proposing legislation permitting legal actions against that country and barring Chinese students from studying science at American universities.
But Cotton seems more interested in partisan China-bashing than in the pandemic itself. He assailed, correctly, China for a month of lies about the spread. Yet on Feb. 25, Cotton declared Trump was “on top of” the response to the virus. That tragically was wrong.
The Chinese aren’t shrinking from the feud, accusing Trump of using them as an excuse, to “blame others” for his own failings. Their social media narrative, full of distortions, is robust. Also, they are actively supplying pandemic-hit countries with medical supplies and equipment — as they did earlier for the U.S.
The reason there’s a dangerous downside to this bitterness is these two super powers need each other in selective, but critical, areas, like dealing with the pandemic.
John Allen, the president of the Brookings Institution and a retired four star Marine general, observes that high level tension is inevitable: “They have an alternative model, authoritarian capitalism, which has some appeal around the world. We will compete with our (better) model.” But he says the constant name calling and confrontation in today’s crisis “is an enormous amount of wasted energy that could go to solving one of the world’s great crises.”
Likewise, Allison notes, “We cannot succeed in this war against coronavirus without making China part of the solution.” Cutting medical and scientific ties is crazy.
It doesn’t mitigate the rivalries and tensions, he says, but both countries should embrace a notion enunciated by President John F. Kennedy during the Cold war: crafting a “rivalry partnership.”
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.