It’s natural to seek scapegoats to hide your mistakes. But the steady barrage of accusations and threats directed at China by rightwing politicians in the US and Europe, and China’s defiant response, is about more than deflecting blame for the coronavirus disaster.
Pent-up resentments on both sides are suddenly bursting into the open. The danger is that escalating mutual antagonism could, if unchecked, provoke a permanent east-west rift, even a second cold war.
Under pressure to curb the pandemic, Donald Trump has agreed a temporary ceasefire with Beijing. His anti-China jibes and barbed comments about the “Wuhan virus” have stopped. Chinese officials are also stressing bilateral cooperation rather than name-calling.
But once the immediate crisis passes, hostilities seem likely to resume. And loud demands in Washington for a fundamental post-pandemic reappraisal of relations find a ready echo in Westminster.
Damian Green, former deputy to Theresa May, says the UK should adopt a more wary stance towards China “similar to our attitude to Russia in the more peaceful stages of the cold war”. Michael Gove, Dominic Raab and Iain Duncan Smith have all weighed in amid loose talk of a “reckoning”.
The European right is piling in, too. In Italy, the xenophobic populist Matteo Salvini issued his own warning about China and Covid-19. “If the Chinese government knew and didn’t tell it publicly, it committed a crime against humanity,” Salvini told parliament.
American conservatives long hostile to China are also using the crisis to bash Beijing. They accuse China of creating the problem, then exploiting its apparent success in suppressing the virus to boost its image and propagate anti-democratic ideas.
They are intensely irritated that China, which has sent aid to about 100 countries, is taking over America’s traditional global leadership role as the US visibly struggles to contain the outbreak.
“The Chinese communist party’s list of transgressions is long and shameful,” wrote James Jay Carafano of conservative thinktank the Heritage Foundation. It included failing to act sooner, lying about numbers infected, and propaganda suggesting the US started it, Carafano said.
“The crisis is inherently political because it was caused in part by incompetent, malicious and corrupt politicians,” wrote Paul Miller, a former Bush administration official. China’s president, Xi Jinping, was personally culpable, he suggested.
China’s leaders do have many questions to answer about cover-ups and delays. And there is justified anger among western governments about what appears to have been a lack of timely, accurate data from Hubei.
Since China flatly denies this, what is needed, once calm returns, is an independent investigation under impartial UN auspices. But getting agreement for an international inquiry of this type is difficult.
What is more probable is an acrimonious, post-pandemic widening of the US-China divide. Existing disputes over trade, human rights, geopolitical influence and thorny issues such as Taiwan and the South China Sea are grist to the mill of an expanding global superpower stand-off.
The seeds of this defining 21st-century collision between a rising China and a declining America were sown decades ago. The pandemic is bringing them more rapidly into noxious bud.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, says the virus has produced a “global battle of narratives”. China portrays itself as a reliable, disease-conquering partner for Europe and the wider world, in contrast to an untrustworthy US. Trump administration hawks and allies cast China, meanwhile, in the Soviet Union’s old role of contagious “evil empire”. Both narratives are parodies of the truth. But many on each side will believe them.
Europe, meanwhile, is caught in no-man’s land. EU leaders are struggling to collaborate amid competing national imperatives. A recent video summit saw Germany reject a French-led plan for “coronabonds” to bail out the eurozone. Italy, Hungary and Greece are among member states that have welcomed pandemic assistance from China, consistent with their pro-Beijing stance and entrenched Euroscepticism.
In the Netherlands, where a decision on allowing Huawei to help build 5G networks is due in June, the Chinese telecoms giant has donated 700,000 face masks. While this may win over the Dutch, Britain looks poised to review its Huawei links, along with other investments from China.
“China has been extremely adept at exploiting the virus for its global propaganda war against the US. Beijing is taking every opportunity during this crisis to drive wedges between members of the EU,” wrote analyst Peter Rough.
If this is at all true, the US should surely be wary of fuelling a global confrontation. However angry they feel now, European states that joined America after 1945 in forging the transatlantic alliance and demonising the Soviet Union are unlikely to act similarly towards China today. This holds true for most other parts of a world that is more connected and interdependent, and less in awe of the US.
The parallel crisis in present-day American leadership and competence is also key. Trump is no Harry Truman and secretary of state Mike Pompeo is certainly no Dean Acheson. Who would follow them? We can perhaps hope that a Joe Biden presidency would behave more sensibly.
Those pushing for a “get tough” approach should instead get real. The world does not need more superpower muscle-flexing.
China’s leaders have made some big mistakes. So, too, have other governments. Better to jointly discuss what went wrong, learn the lessons, and make sure it does not happen again.