Dueling COVID-19 blame narratives deepen US-China rift

Dueling COVID-19 blame narratives deepen US-China rift
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As the United States continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, tensions are rising with China over the origins of the disease, and each side is attempting to blame the other for how it started. After a decade of simmering tensions, the Sino-American relationship may come to be defined by an outwardly adversarial tone — with severe implications for the world economy and global security. Should current relations deteriorate further, increasingly aggressive posturing between the United States and China risks igniting a new Cold War.

Recent reports and President Trump himself have stated that U.S. intelligence officials are evaluating the possibility that the coronavirus may have been released from a lab in Wuhan – where the disease originated late last year or early this year – despite scientists and other administration officials, including Defense Secretary Esper and Dr. Anthony Fauci, suggesting that the evidence points to a natural origin.

The Chinese government has hit back, alleging that the American accusations regarding the Wuhan lab are misinformation. But China has faced growing questions over the legitimacy of its reporting of COVID-19 cases and deaths from the United States and the larger international community, and has continually engaged in disinformation campaigns through governmental social media accounts, many of which have falsely accused the United States of spreading the virus in China.

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Based on this dynamic, it is highly plausible that the COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate a potential decoupling of the U.S. and Chinese economies, especially as companies were already wary of China-centric supply chains amid the lingering effects and consequences of the trade war. This could intensify with popular sentiment in the United States turning against China, and elected officials likelier to follow that sentiment. The economic cooperation between the United States and China over the past several decades effectively eliminated significant confrontational posturing between the two given the stakes involved.

There is also tension as China seeks to expand, not only economically but also militarily, into regions from which the United States can be perceived as receding. Decoupling as a result of COVID-19 may grant President Xi with the perfect opportunity to enable China to burst out of Deng Xiaoping’s “hide and bide” foreign policy, especially given the dramatic restructuring of his revamping and centralization of military power.

Freedom to pursue more provocative movements may expedite China’s goal of achieving hegemony in the region if they push America out — especially if they already view America as receding from Asia. Aggression in the South China Sea will grow, and China could viably insert itself, both militarily and economically, into the Middle East, Latin America and Africa, building on the foundations it has already lain with “One Belt, One Road.” This may also have severe implications for the on-and-off negotiations between the United States and North Korea. China has already turned a blind eye to North Korea’s violations of UN Security Council resolutions, especially as North Korean ships were spotted in Chinese waters last fall. 

While the scenarios described above have not yet come to fruition, thinking about worst-case projections now can help prepare a range of policy options and potential opportunities to reduce current tensions and avoid the collision-course that both countries appear to be advancing towards.

One such move that has immediate benefits on the public health and medical response side is heightened collaboration between experts from the Centers for Disease Control, the military and other U.S. government agencies with Chinese counterparts to share data, best practices and recommendations about treatment and prevention protocols or mitigation measures about COVID-19. As has been reported in the media, previous efforts this year were spurned or ignored by the Chinese government. But now seems like the right moment to advance such an initiative and make this an active channel between professionals and separate from political rhetoric. 

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Another possible measure on the national security side is a bilateral U.S.-China dialogue or a broader multilateral one with South Korea and Japan, since it is in the interests of all parties to manage the threat from the regime in Pyongyang and maintain stability in the region. As with a similar group on the COVID-19 response, bringing experts and professionals on this topic to address a significant issue like this has significant benefits. In the meantime, North Korea may have already sensed an opportunity to exploit perceived U.S.-China tensions with artillery drills and short-range ballistic tests last month, and official government claims that it has not been effected by COVID-19.

The question of Chinese transparency has now become an issue in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, with both the Biden and Trump campaigns launching attack ads suggesting that the other has been too lenient and friendly towards China, and that it is time to hold the Chinese government accountable. If the anti-China rhetoric espoused by both campaigns translates into real policy, regardless of electoral outcome, this would only reinforce concerns in Beijing about a continued and deepened rift between the two countries — and activate a parallel effort to broaden Chinese influence and scale back from its relationship with the United States. 

Rather than engaging in hyperbole and thinking only about the short-term political effects in November, policymakers must think clearly about developing a range of options that would help defuse current tensions and restore a more productive relationship at a time when so much is at stake. 

Javed Ali is a Towsley Policymaker in Residence at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and has over 20 years professional experience in Washington, D.C. on national security issues, including senior roles at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Office of the Director of National Intelligence and National Security Council. A'ndre Gonawela is the former president of the Michigan Foreign Policy Council.