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Coronavirus pandemic drives US and China closer to war



The coronavirus pandemic, in an unexpected but potentially fatal twist, has moved the United States and China a major step closer to a new cold war.

It has strengthened hard lines in both countries, and political pressures stemming from the pandemic make it more difficult for leaders to back up from escalation.

For two straight months, as the virus killed thousands and caused financial havoc around the world, officials in the two superpowers have blamed each other for diverting attention from the crisis and from their mistakes.

Early on, President Trump often referred to corona virus as the “Chinese virus.”

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Administrative officials have been quietly pushing for international sentiment on China’s obligation in the health crisis. And they have taken advantage of the medical emergency to attack the network of manufacturing and other economic ties that have grown between the two countries over the past 40 years.

Beijing, through its state-owned media and political operatives, has beaten the “racist and xenophobic” statements and actions of America’s “irresponsible and incompetent” political elites.

It has gone so far as to spin accusations that the US military started the coronavirus epidemic.

At the same time, the tariffs that Trump introduced billions of dollars in goods from China – and the Beijing tariff – remain in place, increasing trade costs at a time when many companies are struggling to stay afloat.

The penalties have also affected much-needed protective medical gear such as face masks, gloves and goggles, many of which are manufactured in China.

“It revealed how hostile US-China relations have become that they could not even hold their own and just reach out to coordinate their efforts very well,” said Susan Shirk, President of the 21st Century China Center at UC San Diego.

Shirk and other specialists in China have not given up. She and dozens of other China experts and former politicians and diplomats across the political spectrum released a joint statement Friday calling for renewed efforts to cooperate.

They urged Washington to find “the decision to work together to contain and defeat the virus at home and abroad.”

“China’s factories can create protective equipment and medicines needed to fight the virus. its medical staff can share their valuable clinical experience in treating it; and its researchers can work with ours to develop the vaccine that is urgently needed to eliminate it, ”the statement said.

Whether either side is prepared to step back from confrontation is still questionable. Both Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping have pressing political reasons to continue playing hairball.

As the deaths of the United States persist and the economic pain hits more Americans, the pressure on Trump has increased.

“In the case where we are dealing with a global and domestic recession, it will undoubtedly cast votes on populism and nationalism and xenophobia,” said Jude Blanchette, Freeman Chair in Chinese Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“And they will look for revenge and someone to blame,” he warned.

There is evidence that Trump’s anti-China message finds bipartisan acceptance in Congress and in corporate America, which has become increasingly dissatisfied with a relationship with China that has long sought to strengthen and expand.

And with November’s election on the horizon and the economic gains he had planned to take for granted, Trump is likely to step up his attacks on China and frame all criticism of his administration of media or democratic opponents as pro-China. “One way we still win this election is by making it a referendum on China,” said one of Trump’s campaign advisers, speaking of anonymity.

Beijing has also contributed to the growing dissatisfaction with China has been Beijing’s continued breakdown of disagreement and human rights, its aggressive military movements in the South China Sea and other factors.

But the human and financial charge from the coronavirus has introduced a white-hot element of the dynamic between the two countries.

On the Chinese side, the American criticism of the nation – and the economic pain caused by customs – has brought waves of nationalist outrage.

Public anger, and the Chinese Communist Party’s massive response to the fight against the epidemic, have strengthened party leader Xi Jinping’s grip on power and made it easier for him to pursue a failure of dissent.

Many in China are loosing Trump’s efforts to blame them for the pandemic as both unfair and actually wrong. They see China, with its draconian isolation of Wuhan Province and other hotspots, as a model for how to contain and conquer the disease. Many also see China reaching out to help other countries as its own crisis has subsided.

There is a story widely accepted in China that the country has been able to bring the virus under control and “that China is – if not the world’s savior – at least in this way to do more than its fair share to help the rest of the world,” said David Bachman, a China specialist at the University of Washington in Seattle.

And public outrage in both countries is likely to be intensified by the rising economic cost of the pandemic.

Both economies are expected to see their strongest drop in decades, with millions of people being thrown out of work, companies hugged or destroyed, and political leaders facing a unique crisis where conventional stimulus and other time-high economic policies seem ineffective.

As the economic pain spreads, analysts say it will probably make compromise more difficult even if scaling would benefit both sides.

“I don’t think there is any way in hell that things will get better from here,” Blanchette said. “An increasingly authoritarian China, mixed with a global downturn, mixed with a domestic recession, mixed with a populist president, mixed with an election year, is equal to an increasingly factual discourse on China.”

In the coming months, China’s economy is expected to suffer the slowest growth of more than 40 years and may even become negative for the first time since the mid-1970s.

It could threaten political stability if the Communist Party does not succeed in its compact with the masses to continue to improve their economic well-being in exchange for compliance with an authoritarian and often repressive system.

But there are signs that China’s economy may fare better than many in the West are planning. Factories have largely resumed operations, and electricity use returned to 95% of what it was this time a year ago, says Nicholas Lardy, a Chinese expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Trade will undoubtedly suffer from declining demand from recessions in Europe and America, but Chinese exports are only exerting half the weight they made on the US economy during the financial crisis of 2008. In addition, Beijing has not felt the need to stimulate growth with massive credit or provide something close to the 2-Billion Relief Pack that the United States passed two weeks ago.

If the Chinese thought they were heading for a sharp decline, Lardy said, Beijing would have injected much more stimulation than it has done. “I think it is qualitatively probably the single most important indicator. It is the dog that does not bark. “

For Trump, antagonism with China has focused on trade. He has led a tiff-for-toll tariff war with China and endured what for many years had seen the ballast in the relationship.

In January, there was a glimmer of hope that tensions could ease: The two sides struck a major trade deal where the Chinese promised to buy billions of dollars more in US agricultural products and other goods.

But “the trade agreement signed in January is already dead in the water,” Bachman said. “There is no possible way that the goals will now be reached. And then it will be a source of dissatisfaction on the U.S. side.”

In addition, the coronavirus pandemic exposed the US’s high dependence on China to critical medical supplies and drugs, as did many other manufactured products.

The outbreak broke supply chains that are now dominated by China, prompting more US companies to plan to relocate operations and reorganize global business relationships.

The disruptions occurred at a time when corporate America was already growing disillusioned by the old relationship.

Beijing’s persistent refusal to prevent its companies from engaging in intellectual property rights and knowledge of US companies was high on an extended list of complaints.

Regardless of the outcome of the coronavirus crisis, it is almost certain to accelerate long-term changes in the economic relationship between the two countries.

The pandemic “has shown that it is impossible for the US and China to be closely linked,” says Clyde Prestowitz, a former top-level negotiator in the Reagan administration. “The notion that free trade and globalization will tame China and make it more semocratic, etc. I think this has proven to be bull.”

Deborah Seligsohn, a former economic officer and later science and health advisor for the U.S. State Department in China, lamented the fact that Trump officials had ordered most US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention personnel from China.

But despite that, she said, there has been enough goodwill among working-class officials in both countries that the Chinese CDC contacted the US CDC in early January about the coronavirus outbreak.

The warnings were alarming and comprehensive enough for the United States to have responded more effectively and quickly, she said.

“The more we can find ways to work with goodwill in the public health crisis, the more we will be able to move forward and in a way rebuild the global economy,” said Seligsohn, who teaches at Villanova University.

“We know from 1997 [the Asian financial crisis] and from 2008 that the economy will bounce back better if we make sure we all flourish.

“I think there is an opportunity right now to tone down the rhetoric, think of the global health crisis as a collaborative process and create the foundation when we all try to get back to business.”

Times staff writer Eli Stokols contributed to this report.




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