Future historians might record that the Covid-19 pandemic marked the start of a new cold war between China and the US. Even before coronavirus emerged, tensions between Washington and Beijing were rising. China had challenged American power in the Pacific, by building a chain of military bases across the South China Sea. In the US, the Trump administration had initiated a trade war.
Now as the pandemic wreaks havoc on the world economy, with more than one-quarter of the world’s fatalities in America, Donald Trump is increasingly turning on China. The US president has endorsed the idea that the coronavirus originated in the Institute of Virology in Wuhan. He has also speculated that it might have been deliberately manufactured — an idea his own intelligence agencies have explicitly repudiated. The White House is also reported to be interested in trying to nullify the legal doctrine of “sovereign immunity”, which protects China from being sued for damages in US courts.
China has also contributed mightily to the rise in tensions. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, has floated the evidence-free idea that coronavirus might have originated in the US. Beijing has also responded with unreasonable aggression to calls for an international inquiry into what is now a global disaster. When the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, called for such an inquiry, the Chinese ambassador there raised the idea that his country’s consumers might boycott Australian goods in retaliation.
Chinese officials seem to be under instructions to try to extend their own censorship regime to the foreign media and even foreign governments, policing what can be said, and threatening retaliation against those who fail to comply.
The Chinese ambassador in France has attacked the “malevolence” of the French media and crowed that people in the west are losing faith in democracy. Outspoken nationalists — such as Mr Zhao, the foreign ministry spokesman — have been rewarded with promotions. But these efforts are counter-productive and are fostering the anti-Chinese sentiment they claim to be repressing.
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If Beijing took a more subtle approach to the protection of China’s image, it would agree to an international inquiry into the origins of the virus. Such an investigation — if it was staffed by respected scientists from all over the world, including China and the US — would help to defuse some of the wild, and often contradictory, conspiracy theories circulating in both countries. Above all, an independent inquiry could provide valuable lessons to avert the next pandemic.
Of course, Beijing is highly unlikely to accept any such inquiry. Agreeing to let foreigners investigate events in China would be portrayed as a humiliation by nationalists. The Chinese government is also ruthless in protecting the image of both the Communist party and President Xi Jinping. An honest account of the early stages of the pandemic — and the intimidation of doctors who tried to raise the alarm — would embarrass the party. It might also be true that China has other damaging secrets to conceal.
China also has legitimate reasons to doubt the good faith of Mr Trump, who has consistently dabbled in conspiracy theories and repeated “fake news” while claiming to denounce it. This behaviour is likely to get even worse as the November US presidential election approaches. However if China were to accept calls for an international inquiry, it would not be Mr Trump who drew up the terms of reference. Other parties, including the UN and the EU (whose commission president has also called for an inquiry) could help to ensure the objectivity of the process.
Do I expect any such inquiry to happen? Not really. But in the absence of an independent investigation, the blame game between the US and China is likely to escalate and become more dangerous.
Even before the pandemic, there was a strong case for the west to toughen its line with China on a range of issues, from Taiwan and Hong Kong, to investment in strategic industries. But the risk now is that a reasoned and principled reset of relations with China will slide into something more dangerous.
There is an undeniable element of xenophobia in some of the China-bashing that is going on in the west, which has led to a spate of verbal and physical attacks on Asian-Americans in the US. Senior American politicians, such as Republican senator Tom Cotton, are campaigning to stop Chinese students enrolling in technical courses such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing in US universities. There are even some hotheads in Washington who are calling for the US to renege on debt owed to China.
In China meanwhile, the nationalist twist that was given to the school curriculum 30 years ago, after the Tiananmen Square massacre, has raised an often-angry generation, quick to take offence at alleged slights by foreigners and eager to demonstrate Chinese power. Those sentiments are nurtured by a government that wants to deflect discontent away from the Communist party itself.
At worst, all these angry emotions on both sides will lead not just to a cold war, but to a hot one: a real, armed conflict. Both the US and China need to move off that dangerous path. The first step would be to agree to an independent international inquiry into the origins of Covid-19.
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