One of the characteristics of the current pandemic is that it has magnified many existing geopolitical issues.
LONDON: Seven years ago, more than 16,000 dead pigs were found floating down a river in Zhejiang province, about 60 miles from China’s largest city, Shanghai. It later turned out that the water-polluting carcasses carried porcine circovirus, mercifully not known to be infectious to humans as the river was used as drinking water by the locals.
This extraordinary story resurfaced recently in discussions about China’s environmental destruction in propelling new pathogens into human population centres, as many believed happened in Wuhan. Should China’s shameful cover-up of the initial coronavirus outbreak, such as the silencing of the heroic doctor Li Wenliang, the disappearance of critics and the sowing of disinformation, be subject to an international enquiry? China is pathologically resistant to enquiries and would certainly vote down any proposal by the United Nations P5 to hold one. An enquiry by any other organisation would receive the same response from China as the critical 2016 UN ruling on the South China Sea build up: “a worthless piece of waste paper”. If an enquiry into Zhejiang’s dead pigs ever took place, the results have remained secret.
From 1978 when Deng Xiaoping opened up China to the outside world, promoting the modernisation of the Chinese economy while preserving the ideological unity of the Communist Party of China, the West assumed that China would become “a version of us”. At the time of China’s acceptance into the World Trade Organisation in 2001, both US Presidents Clinton and Bush predicted that it would improve the US-China trade balance and would encourage China to abandon communism for free-market capitalism. When Deng said “poverty is not socialism—to be rich is glorious”, many thought China was on track to change. Few noted his other dictum: “Hide your strength, bide your time”.
Under Xi Jinping, China has abandoned Deng’s dictum and has emerged as a full-spectrum world power, accelerating its efforts at challenging America on both economic and military fronts. Long before the current crisis, Washington became alarmed at the phenomenal growth and economic strength of China, pouring out of Beijing along its Belt and Road. As a global factory, China has provided affordable products for consumers across the world, a large pool of surplus labour for global industries, and affordable loans and technology to developing countries, especially in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia. This has allowed China to flex its muscles as never before, much to the consternation of Washington.
America and China are now locked in a struggle for international hegemony, the outcome of which will shape the world order for generations to come. Americans see China as an existential threat to their country both economically and strategically. A Pew poll conducted last month revealed that relations have turned distinctly sour, with two thirds of Americans expressing a highly unfavourable view of the People’s Republic, double that of four years ago under President Obama.
One of the characteristics of the current pandemic is that it has magnified many existing geopolitical issues. As a way of hitting China hard for daring to challenge its world dominance, America is determined to make sure that any lasting blame for the pandemic should fall squarely on Beijing, focusing on both the origin of the virus and China’s response. The G7 failed to agree a joint statement in March this year when the US State Department insisted on referring to the virus as the “Wuhan Virus”. On 17 March, President Trump tweeted about Covid-19 as the “Chinese Virus” and a day later a White House official referred to it as “Kung Flu”.
This escalation of rhetoric in the media in both countries is alarming. Even the moderate and respected Wall Street Journal has been urging a more confrontational stance towards Beijing. The finger-pointing and name calling in the American media has led to a predicted response from Beijing. When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the CCP “the central threat of our time”, China’s propaganda department launched a coordinated assault on him of a kind not seen since the Mao era, labelling him a “liar”, an “enemy of the people” and a “super spreader” of a “political virus”. This tit-for-tat mud-slinging simply heightens tensions and achieves nothing, other than developing a huge fault-line in international relations.
The harshness of the language used and the antagonism shown in the war of words over the coronavirus outbreak is reminiscent of the confrontation in the 1950s and 60s, when Pacific powers were engaged in war in the Korean Peninsula and Vietnam. There is an acute danger of developing a new Cold War, this time between America and China, which would have an extremely negative outcome for the world. Can this be avoided?
If the West has learned anything over the past decade, it’s that China will not play by Western rules now or in the immediate future. This means that the West cannot be strategically dependent on China, especially in the area of technology. High-tech supply chains must urgently be re-examined. It’s equally clear that the West cannot solve global problems without China. China is far too important to be ignored. The West cannot therefore be dependent on China, but it also cannot act without some kind of framework of cooperation with it. According to former UK Foreign Secretary, Lord Hague, the US is pursuing strategic independence without developing cooperation, while Europe is pursuing cooperation without strategic independence. The result is that the West overall is uncoordinated, incoherent and ineffective. Europe must get its act together quickly and decide whether it wants to look predominantly West or East.
In normal times a period of calm would be required; but these are not normal times. President Trump planned to base his re-election campaign this year on the strong performance of the US economy, with everyone winning from a record-breaking stock market. Covid-19 put paid to this. The US economy is in free-fall and 34 million Americans are unemployed, a whopping record-breaking jobless rate of 14.7%. Trump now sees his best, perhaps only, chance of re-election in November is in whipping up nationalistic rhetoric against China. As a consequence, China-bashing is unlikely to stop until the end of the year, when the international atmosphere will possibly change. A President Joe Biden would be more professional and experienced in relationships with the rest of the world, especially China, than the reality TV star Donald Trump. Biden would quickly mend fences. If Donald Trump is re-elected, all will not necessarily be lost however. In the current war of words, Washington hasn’t mentioned Xi Jinping by name, and Beijing hasn’t named Donald Trump. In “diplomatic-speak”, this suggests space is purposely being left for reconciliation.
The worst-case scenario would be a further intensification of US-Chinese rivalry and the establishment of permanent Sino-American bipolarity. This would be disastrous for the world and if happens, a new policy of engagement and deterrence between the West and China will urgently be needed. As a founder member of the Non-Aligned Movement, this could be an important task for India and who better to lead than the world-class negotiator, Narendra Modi?
John Dobson is a former British diplomat and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998.