Coronavirus ‘biggest test’ for Donald Trump and US-China relations

Robert Delaney

US President Donald Trump is facing his biggest test yet when it comes to relations with China, as the global coronavirus pandemic that started in Wuhan threatens to overwhelm the American medical system and economy, analysts said.

The question on everyone’s mind: will Trump be a friend or foe?

The US leader tore up Washington’s playbook on engagement with Beijing with a trade war that started nearly two years ago, and has perplexed policymakers ever since with rhetoric that simultaneously praised his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping and demonised the government that Xi directs.

Throughout, they have chalked up Trump’s approach to a unique negotiating style that may or may not pay off economically for the US.

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“He has a difficult time thinking of international relations outside of individuals,” said Allen Carlson, director of Cornell University’s China and Asia-Pacific studies programme.

“Thus, with China, while he has taken a very harsh line on some things, he, for some reason, has a fondness for Xi and so rarely, if ever, finds fault with him, even as he does take shots at the country,” Carlson said.

“Think about his handling of the Hong Kong demonstrations last summer, when he essentially said that Xi had assured him things would be all right, and he basically accepted this line.”

But now that the stakes are higher, and as the world struggles to halt the spread of Covid-19 – the respiratory ailment caused by the coronavirus – many are paying closer attention to his next shift in tone on Beijing, arguing that cooperation with China is needed to stop a pandemic that one estimate says may start killing 2,300 Americans a day.

Sharing epidemiological data, treatment and vaccine results, efficacy of quarantines and social distancing all become more important – for the time being – than the trade imbalances and intellectual property violations, according to John Holden, who has served as president of the National Committee on US-China Relations and chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China.

“The United States and China have a complex set of relationships, some competitive, some cooperative,” said Holden, who is now senior director at McLarty Associates, a Washington-based consultancy.

“For the US, the president is the final arbiter of how these relationships should be calibrated,” he said. “This is particularly apparent in times of crisis, when the president’s responsibility to manage US-China relations gets exponentially more difficult.”

After antagonising Beijing by repeatedly blaming its early government missteps in acknowledging the epidemic in Wuhan for the pandemic and using his “Chinese virus” terminology, Trump suddenly stopped.

Trump changes tune, drops ‘Chinese virus’ phrase and lauds cooperation

On Monday, he seemed to negate his assertion that China was to blame when he said: “people are blaming China, and they are making statements to great American citizens that happen to be of Asian heritage, and I’m not going to let that happen.”

The change was not in response to any adverse effect the China blaming and shaming was having on his approval ratings. According to polling firm Gallup, Trump’s approval rating was 49 per cent as of March 22, up from 44 per cent on March 16.

“It appears that President Trump, at least for the time being, has decided to accept the advice of those advisers who argue that using the term “Chinese virus” will harm, not help, US efforts to compete with China in the diplomatic, military and economic realms,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“The time will come to focus on the question of how the pandemic started and where blame should lie, but emphasising those issues while the virus is infecting and killing people all over the world will not help advance American interests,” she added.

But the progression of Covid-19 continues to advance in the US, making it difficult to know whether Trump’s affinity for Xi, or the advice of his foreign policy team, will hold him back from confronting China as the source of the problem as opposed to a failure to take the contagion seriously enough when evidence of community spread became apparent more than a month ago.

The number of Covid-19 cases in the US surpassed China’s, according to a tabulation by The New York Times on Thursday. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention pegs the number at 68,440.

“With Covid-19, it is easier for [Trump] to grasp, and for his base to understand, it as a foreign virus, and if it is foreign then it is China’s disease,” Cornell’s Carlson said. “At the same time, his fondness of Xi makes it difficult for him to criticise the country in any sort of consistent manner.”

The unique nature of the crisis also makes it difficult to predict which way Trump will go in terms of his cooperation with China.

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“The thing is that when his foreign policy was built around more imagined crises, he was able to ramp up, and then de-escalate threats through his rhetoric, and do so in a way where his supporters only saw victory, even as little of any substance was accomplished,” Carlson said.

“The virus, though, is an empirical reality, its existence cannot be redefined through Trump’s rhetoric, and, as such, it is radically different from every other foreign or domestic policy challenge this White House has faced.

Meanwhile, Trump has a reputation for responses that serve the political exigencies of the moment, further complicating the outlook for US-China relations in the midst of the pandemic.

“Trump could change his mind tomorrow, especially if he believes that blaming China will boost his domestic support and help the stock market,” Glaser said.

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