COVID-19 heightens US-China geopolitical rivalry
Anis Chowdhury
After mismanaging the virus outbreak, Trump accused China in March for a lack of transparency and then on April 18, he warned China of consequences if it was ‘knowingly responsible’ for the coronavirus pandemic as he ratcheted up his critic of China’s handling of the virus outbreak. Trump has also accused the World Health Organisation that it is China-centric and suspended its funding at a time of exceptional need.
Initially, president Trump downplayed the threat, gambling ‘it will all work out well’ and claiming ‘it totally under control’. As infection and deaths rapidly mount, the Trump administration is now engaged in a dangerous blame game.
Trump began by insisting on calling COVID-19 a ‘Chinese virus’. His secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, tried to persuade allies to join the United States to accuse China for the predicaments it is now in. On May 7, Trump ‘upped the ante’, by insisting the outbreak — which China could have stopped but refused to, according to him — as worse than the Pearl Harbor or 9/11 attacks.
Japan, Taiwan and others seeking to mobilise against China’s ascendance are joining the anti-China, anti-WHO fray. Japan has linked its COVID-19 economic package to incentives for the Japanese companies to shift their factories away from China.
The United Kingdom, France and Germany are also doubting whether China has been transparent on COVID-19 outbreak. Some leading Australian politicians, including the home affairs minister, have openly accused China of a cover-up. The Australian government is urging top allies to back an independent review of WHO’s handling of the outbreak.
The Australian prime minister did not hide that he was talking to Trump. He tweeted, ‘We also talked about the WHO and working together to improve the transparency and effectiveness of the international responses to pandemics.’
China acts despite initial stumbles
Undeniably, Wuhan local authorities’ initial inaction and later attempts to suppress information, including, punishing local medical whistleblowers slowed response to the epidemic. But when the problem came to surface, the central Chinese authorities acted swiftly and decisively, with Dr Zhong Nanshan — the 83-year-old medical doctor specialising in respiratory diseases who became a national hero in the fight against SARS in 2003 — spearheading the fight against this coronavirus.
The problem was compounded by the novel character of SARS-CoV-2, responsible for COVID-19 disease, which was not immediately self-evident. Chinese scientists immediately began analysing the virus, and on January 12, China publicly shared the decoding genetic sequence of COVID-19. On February 11 2020, the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses announced ‘severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)’ as the name of the new virus that causes COVID-19. China’s response and spirit of collaboration were praised by the WHO. President Trump, too, spoke very highly of China, tweeting on January 24, ‘China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency.’
Conspiracy theories
Right-wing media (eg Fox TV) and some influential public intellectuals (eg celebrated UK imperialist apologist historian Niall Ferguson) continue to fan conspiracy theories, despite Western intelligence agencies finding no clear evidence of either China deliberately or accidentally releasing the deadly virus. Even after the scientific community (Lancet, March 7) strongly condemned such conspiracy theories and overwhelmingly concluded that SARS-CoV-2 virus could not be ‘manufactured’ in laboratories and it evolved (muted) naturally, albeit in particular environmental circumstances, the conspiracy theorists are still persisting in the name of finding the truth and blaming China for the ‘original sin’.
Some ostensible mainstream media are also publishing various stories or ‘circumstantial evidence’, such as apparent absence of phone activities during October 6–11, implying possible shut-down of the Wuhan virology lab due to accident, etc. to implicate China at least for a deliberate cover-up and hence contributing to the current predicaments. They are also accusing the WHO for its complicity or ‘China-centric’ reporting.
Daniel Bell, a Canadian political theory professor, who has harshly criticised Chinese authorities for making terrible mistakes at the start of the coronavirus crisis, challenged Ferguson’s implication that China deliberately allowed, if not encouraged, the spread of virus outside China, particularly to the West, by allowing direct flights from Wuhan long after January 23 when China banned outward domestic flights from Wuhan. After analysing various sources that Ferguson supplied, Bell could not find any evidence supporting Ferguson’s claim.
Ferguson eventually conceded that he was wrong to allege that regular flights left from Wuhan to the rest of the world after January 23. But, then he claims that China should have stopped all out-bound international flights as by then the virus had spread all over China.
Ferguson continues his allegation in an updated blog, ostensibly in pursuit of a noble cause of finding the truth about the virus origin. However, he ignores that doctors at a Paris hospital found evidence that one patient admitted in December was infected with COVID-19. The person had no history of travel to China or contact with any known infected person.
Ferguson selectively uses circumstantial evidences from stories such as in The Washington Post (April 14) about some earlier warning from the US officials about lax security arrangement in the Wuhan virology lab and possible risk of virus leaks. He questions why the Chinese authorities allowed the ‘disgusting’ wet markets to continue. Ferguson denies that he is a conspiracy theorist despite peddling it. He is providing ammunitions to other conspiracy theorists, and to those recklessly demanding class actions or seizure of Chinese overseas assets for trillions of dollars in compensations.
Demanding trillions dollar compensation from China
A conservative UK think-tank, Henry Jackson Society, argued that the G7 nations could sue China for 3.2 trillion pounds ($6.3 trillion). The suggestion has been quickly taken up by ‘Oby’ Ezekwesili, a former vice president of the World Bank for Africa and a former Nigerian cabinet minister. He wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post (April 17) demanding that China must pay compensation to African countries for the virus, including a complete write-off of debt worth US$140 billion.
In the US, the state of Missouri filed the first lawsuit in federal court, accusing Beijing’s leaders of an ‘appalling campaign of deceit, concealment, misfeasance, and inaction’ over the coronavirus and claiming Chinese officials are ‘responsible for the enormous death, suffering, and economic losses they inflicted on the world’. Thousands have reportedly signed onto a class action lawsuit in the state of Florida, which seeks billions of dollars in compensation from the Chinese government for COVID-19 damages.
Meanwhile, two Republican lawmakers have introduced a bill on April 16 to amend the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. If passed, it will make easier for private American citizens to file suits against China for deaths and economic hardship unleashed by the virus. A separate class action is now seeking billions of dollars in damages on behalf of five Las Vegas businesses.
Speaking to the influential Foreign Policy magazine (May 5) professor Donald Elliott of the Yale Law School has argued for a stronger action, more than compensation ‘to deter future risk-taking with the lives and livelihoods of other people around the globe.’ He suggested seeking a court order for Uncle Sam to send Chinese debt repayments to victims of the virus, and raising tariffs even more.
Professor Elliott suggested another option, establishing ‘a ‘foreign claims tribunal’ to pay the claims of the injured, either by voluntary agreement or by seizing the property of the guilty party,’ i.e. China. He cited the example of forcing Iran to pay $2.5 billion out of the seized Iranian assets to settle 4,700 claims by victims of the Iran’s hostage taking in 1979–1981.
Law professor John Yoo of the University of California, Berkeley and Ivana Stradner, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, proposed economic assault on China (Foreign Policy, May 5). These include sanctioning Chinese leaders and supporters, denying Chinese students and scholars access to university and research facilities, and enhancing ‘efforts to exclude China from buying and selling advanced technologies, such as microchips, artificial intelligence, or biotechnology.’ They also argued for seizing the assets of Chinese state-owned companies, and encouraging developing countries to undertake legal processes for ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ related debt cancellation and expropriation of Chinese assets.
US-China cold/hot war?
Recently (May 5), a former top White House trade negotiator Clete Willems told the CNBC that the rising tensions between the US and China — made worse by the coronavirus pandemic — is the start of a new Cold War. Niall Ferguson also believes that the United States and China are heading towards Cold War II, which he did not think some decades ago.
However, a year before Trump’s electoral victory, Graham Allison, a former director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a former US assistant secretary of defence for policy and plans, argued in The Atlantic (September 24, 2015) that when a rising power confronted a ruling power ‘in 12 of 16 cases over the past 500 years, the result was war.’
Nevertheless, Allison believes a full-scale China-US is not inevitable. The four cases that did not end up in military confrontations provide some guidance; it would require ‘a long pause for reflection’, away from muscular rhetoric about China’s rise and its rightful place in world. (Allison has published his ideas in Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? 2017).
Frighteningly though, the US defence secretary, Mark Esper, has ratcheted up anti-Chinese sentiment to the level of military confrontations. In an interview with the CNBC in February, Esper said that the US is in a new ‘era of ‘great power competition,’ and that means we need to focus more on high intensity warfare going forward.’ He identified China as No 1 ‘long-term challenges’ for the United States.
Esper has said that in many ways China is growing in military strength and economic power illicitly. He even thinks that China’s use of international rules-based order to grow and to acquire technology undermines the sovereignty of the US and its allies.
There are some potential trigger points around China’s claims in the South China Sea and over Taiwan, not speak of some adventurism of North Korea. Human rights issues in Tibet and autonomous Xinjiang region may also provide some excuse, as Esper included China’s human rights violations in his list of accusations.
However, an optimist might say that the claims of Chinese conspiracies, court actions and anti-WHO rhetoric could all be stunts designed to impress Trump voters with the US elections less than six months away. They might all slowly go into oblivion after the November elections, particularly if Joe Bidden wins.
Let us hope, the optimists are right even if Trumps wins and there will be ‘a depth of mutual understanding not seen since the Henry Kissinger-Zhou Enlai conversations in the 1970s’.
Damage done
But there will still be huge damages of lives and livelihoods as COVID-19 ravages the world. The scientific community believes that ‘The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation around its origins.’ This will adversely affect the work on finding affordable effective vaccines and treatments. Thus, the politicisation of the epidemic is undermining the desperately needed multilateral cooperation needed to address the crisis and its many ramifications.