In Depth

Coronavirus: are we heading for a US-China diplomatic crisis?

Donald Trump accuses China of doing 'anything they can' to stop his re-election

Donald Trump has accused China of doing “anything they can" to stop his re-election, further souring relations between the world’s two superpowers.

In an interview with Reuters, the US president again questioned Beijing’s transparency over the coronavirus outbreak, saying authorities should have let the world know about the contagion much sooner.  

Trump has sought to deflect mounting criticism of his own handling of the pandemic by repeatedly casting doubt on China’s reporting of cases and the origins of the virus.

The US has recorded more than a million coronavirus cases and more than 60,000 deaths, according to latest figures. China, with its much larger population, has reported just over 84,000 cases and around 4,600 deaths.

Both Trump and members of his administration have hinted that there may be truth in the discredited claim that Covid-19 had escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China.

But “for the first time”, says The Guardian, Trump has linked Beijing to his re-election chances in November. 

“China will do anything they can to have me lose this race,” he said, adding that he believed China wants his likely Democratic opponent, Senator Joe Biden, to win the race to ease the pressure on US-China trade relations.

He also speculated about retaliation against Beijing, saying “there are many things I can do”.

The president’s attack on China appears to be in line with leaked Republican party memos, published by Politico, which advised candidates to aggressively target Beijing in their public remarks on the pandemic, as part of their re-election strategy.

“President Trump's criticism of China has been consistent - and increasingly sharp - in recent weeks”, says BBC North America Correspondent David Willis. 

“But this is the harshest criticism of its kind so far. By claiming that China's delay in alerting the world to the spread of the virus was politically motivated - and designed to boost the election chances of his political rival Joe Biden at the expense of his own - Trump is upping the ante in an increasingly bellicose war of words”.

Has the pandemic strained relations?

The US and China already had one of the fiercest diplomatic rivalries in the world, and both are using the coronavirus to help them compete for global influence, says Foreign Policy.

The US has pushed an anti-China narrative for years, says the magazine: “China can’t be trusted as a global leader – on leadership in international institutions, on Chinese tech giant Huawei building sensitive 5G telecommunications networks in Europe, and on aid and investment in developing countries.”

China, meanwhile, is producing propaganda pushing the notion that its president, Xi Jinping, has reacted well to the crisis, despite evidence that news of the outbreak was suppressed at the beginning.

“Both the US and China are trying to leverage the crisis to their own advantage,” said Kristine Lee, an expert on the Asia-Pacific at the Center for a New American Security think-tank.

China has expressed disapproval of Trump and his team’s accusations, and attempts to label Covid-19 “the Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus”.

Hu Xijin, the editor of the Chinese state-run Global Times, responded to Trump’s latest comments on Twitter, calling his claims “a dirty trick”.

The “blame game is undermining diplomacy between the countries”, says Michael Fuchs in The Guardian. “But the priority for every nation right now must be the pandemic, and tensions between the world’s two biggest economies cannot get in the way.”

What does it mean for the world?

Diplomatic relations around the world are already under pressure, with UN conferences and meetings closed down, and a lack of a unified global plan to tackle coronavirus.

Rapid economic growth in Asia has already seen a power shift to the region, but “Asia has its own internal balance of power. Chinese power is balanced by Japan, India, and Australia among others. None want to be dominated by China,” says Harvard professor Joseph Nye in The National Interest.

If the US can keep aligned with those countries resisting China’s influence, then it still holds power internationally.

But one country asserting its strength is no use when the response to the pandemic requires an international, joined-up effort.

Together, the US and China could fund a much bigger, better response to the pandemic’s challenges, and pool their collective knowledge, scientists and medical professionals for the good of the world.

“Both for self-interested and humanitarian reasons, the United States and China should announce generous contributions to a new UN fund,” says Nye.

“Even better would be to add a binational high level commission on Covid-19 chaired by Vice President Pence and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to provide political cover and cut through bureaucratic red tape.”

What will happen next?

China’s attempts to paint itself as the leader of the international response to coronavirus are unlikely to be successful, simply because too many people know about the Chinese government’s initially bungled response.

After Chinese doctor Li Wenliang warned colleagues in December about a mysterious virus that would become the coronavirus epidemic, he was detained by police in Wuhan on 3 January for “spreading false rumours”.

He was forced to sign a police document admitting he had breached the law and had “seriously disrupted social order”. Li died from coronavirus on 7 February.

“In the face of calls for greater transparency, Beijing ejected American journalists working for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. On Twitter, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry accused the US military of bringing the coronavirus to Wuhan,” says Foreign Affairs.

For the US and China to successfully fight the pandemic, they will need to work together.

Then “perhaps, at the end of all of this, the two countries just might end up building bridges that could be useful in tempering the more dangerous aspects of their competition”, says Fuchs.

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