On Monday, US President Donald Trump posted a tweet suggesting that China was responsible for the global economic damage that will be caused by the coronavirus pandemic, because the virus was first detected there.
The tweet may come to be viewed as the first shot in a blame game between the world’s two largest economies, as they look to fault the other for an incoming global recession that analysts now see as inevitable this year.
That the economy is set to nosedive in a US election year provides greater motivation for Trump to find a scapegoat, as he looks to shore up his domestic support.
Whether Trump’s blame game will produce results, or whether it will fall flat on its face given his own shortcomings in responding to the coronavirus outbreak, remains to be seen, analysts said. In any case, it will worsen already frayed relations between Beijing and Washington.
The United States will be powerfully supporting those industries, like Airlines and others, that are particularly affected by the Chinese Virus. We will be stronger than ever before!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 16, 2020
Until now, the verbal duel between China and the US had focused on the pandemic’s origin.
US national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, accused China of a cover up, which he said delayed the global response by “at least two months”, while US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has regularly labelled the illness the “Wuhan coronavirus”.
China has responded by suggesting the virus did not originate in China and backing a conspiracy theory that it was imported into China by a visiting US military delegation. That theory went viral on Chinese social media and caused the US to summon the Chinese ambassador to complain.
But as stock markets have cratered and global companies have warned of pending collapse, the focus of the verbal tussle appears to be shifting to the economic fallout.
“It is very likely that the Trump administration will blame China for any global economic downturn,” said Peter Harris, assistant professor of political science at Colorado State University.
Data released Monday showed that China's industrial output, retail sales, and fixed asset investments all collapsed in the first two months of the year, the first time in the history of the data series that the figures had not shown growth.
The much weaker-than-expected data convinced most economists that it was all but certain the global economy would fall into recession this year, with Western economies lagging China’s by roughly two months in their exposure to the pandemic.
The question of who is to blame is set to be debated at length.
“I think the economic question is more tied to the political [question]. The US is realising, and I think this hits people in both [political] parties, that we are far too dependent on China and that the connection with it has helped the elites but not much else,” said Joel Kotkin, presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University in California.
Further “crude China-bashing”, particularly from Republican lawmakers, media personalities, and even Trump himself, is likely, said Harris at Colorado State.
“The president and his political allies will probably try to scapegoat China for any global crisis that results from the coronavirus pandemic purely for domestic political reasons. For them, China is a punching bag,” Harris said.
Oxford Economics’ chief US economist Gregory Daco said Trump could try to pin a US downturn on China in a bid to win the election, but that rescuing the economy should take up most of his focus.
China would likely retaliate by capitalising on the Trump’s international reputation as a “reckless, nationalistic” leader who is “seduced by short-sighted policies”, said Harris.
Furthermore, the widespread perception that the Trump administration bungled the initial response to the outbreak in the US, a blame game plan could easily be turned on its head, even as China’s early efforts to cover up the virus cause consternation in the West, Harris said. “He makes for a good scapegoat himself – which is somewhat ironic.”
“While the US administration has been trying to blame China, its incompetence will soon be reflected in rapid growth of domestically transmitted cases, and breakdowns in the health system. At that point, early failures in Wuhan will no longer seem significant, compared to the effective [Chinese] response subsequently,” added John Quiggin, an economics professor at the University of Queensland in Australia.
Fresh memories of the global financial crisis, caused by the implosion of US subprime loans, could also thwart Trump’s blame game, said Australia-China Relations Institute’s professor James Laurenceson.
“I think much of the rest of the world will be reluctant to join a Trump-led China bashing exercise,” he said. “Others will remember the subprime crisis which originated in the US and stemmed from woeful US regulation of financial institutions. They will not recall American leaders taking the blame for that one.”
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