A War of Words with China Helps Nobody

This is no time for either Beijing or Washington to point fingers.

March 23, 2020 • Commentary
This article appeared on Foreign Policy on March 23, 2020.

Republican hawks in the United States seem determined to be in conflict with everyone all the time. Sanctions on North Korea, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea. Military intervention against the Syrian government. Strikes on Iran. The long‐​standing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Military threats against almost everyone.

None of these has worked out well. Nor will the diplomatic and rhetorical attacks on China for causing the coronavirus crisis.

As the administration of President Donald Trump struggles to respond coherently to the spread of the virus, it has prioritized a verbal assault on China, pushing the term “Chinese virus” and highlighting China’s role in the initial outbreak. The latter is particularly stupid after the U.S. government botched its own response to the spreading epidemic and is suffering shortages of medical equipment. The advantages of bilateral cooperation against a putative pandemic that Beijing appears to have surmounted, at least for the moment, should be obvious.

Indeed, Washington is unlikely to find much international support for its attacks. The United States’ adversaries, such as Iran and Russia, have joined China in spreading conspiracies. Even Washington’s closest friends, the Europeans, are turning to Beijing. China has won favor for sending medical materiel and manpower to Italy, Spain, and other European countries, regardless of whether it sent them to win political advantage. Rome had called on its neighbors for assistance, to no effect. Serbia’s president recently criticized the European Union and requested Chinese help.

To be sure, there is much to criticize China on. The government of President Xi Jinping is shifting from loose authoritarianism to brutal authoritarianism. In almost every area—online censorship, academic freedom, religious liberty, liberal criticism, Uighurs’ status, dissenting space—the regime is moving rapidly and often dramatically backward. The demand for obeisance by Beijing is evident in its treatment of Hong Kong and Taiwan. Of even greater concern to China’s neighbors and Washington is the Xi government’s increased aggressiveness in pursuing sometimes dubious territorial claims.

And in this case, the United States has a valid complaint against the Chinese government: The latter covered up the initial epidemic, allowed the disease to spread, and failed to inform foreign nations. And Beijing officials should be called out for their shameless attempt to suggest that the virus might be an American bioweapon gone awry—even though, ironically, Wuhan hosts China’s only microbiology lab dealing with such diseases, the Wuhan Institute of Virology. That caused the bellicose Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, among others, to suggest the virus was a Chinese bioweapon gone awry.

However, past U.S. conservatives valued prudence, viewing it as an essential aspect to foreign policy. The question is how to confront China effectively. Fulminations and sanctions might offer emotional release, but rarely change behavior, especially when China has the ability to retaliate, substitute, or ignore them.

That’s why moves such as calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus,” while geographically accurate, achieve nothing. No one believes that the president, Republican hawks, and right‐​leaning commentators are using China or Wuhan after an objective examination of the most accurate descriptive phrases available. The rhetoric is not inherently racist or xenophobic. But it is political, adapted to advance a campaign already well underway.

Even before the coronavirus exploded globally, critics were bemoaning U.S. trade with and investment in China. There were proposals to take advantage of Beijing’s moment of weakness as its economy slowed and the trade war affected it. The viral outbreak increased talk about the possibility of “decoupling” from with one of the United States’ largest economic partners. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was almost gleeful in suggesting that the epidemic could “accelerate the return of jobs to North America.”

Chinese policy blunders matter and should not be repeated. However, there is no evidence that Xi’s government planned to unleash viral hell. The virus is natural, not artificial. Nor is a naming spat likely to advance Washington’s overall campaign against China. Especially since the entire world is focused on something else: containing what many fear will become a truly global pandemic.

Frantic European officials certainly are not interested in joining the Trump administration in this feud. Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio has said, “We will remember those who were close to us in this difficult period.” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen thanked Chinese Premier Li Keqiang for offering 50,000 test kits, 200,000 respiratory masks, and 2 million face masks: “We need each other’s support in times of need,” she said​.It would be better for U.S. officials to suggest that Washington and Beijing set aside their political spat and cooperate. During the first few weeks of the outbreak the United States offered assistance, which China accepted without fanfare. At the very least the delivery of a few Chinese face masks would be useful. And perhaps much more. Washington could propose some sort of international coordinating body, highlighting the experience, knowledge, strategy, and materiel of those countries which now seem to be exiting the crisis.

Such an effort might help alleviate the crisis. The Chinese people went through a horrendous trial—one that isn’t over, as the prospect of a second wave of infection lurks. The West should do what it can to take advantage of that experience. And that process would be aided by fostering a civil relationship with Xi’s government. This is precisely the worst possible moment to drive the relationship into the ground.

Concern over deteriorating U.S.-China ties reaches beyond today and the coronavirus. Perhaps the most important difference between the United States’ relationship with the Soviet Union and with China has been the broad connection among the Chinese and American peoples, especially students, journalists, and investors, and between the countries’ institutions, such as businesses and universities. Such links likely would not be enough to prevent conflict if other factors overwhelmed. World War I occurred at a time of rising globalization and prosperity; Europeans had significant contact with one another prior to World War II.

Nevertheless, broader and deeper connections create at least an imperfect firebreak, one largely absent during the Cold War. It is easier to battle the unknown and misunderstood “other.” Moreover, links, both social and economic, raise the price for conflict. The potential disruption and destruction of relationships would be most unsettling and even threatening.

Washington should be particularly concerned about maintaining ties that the more closed Xi regime might be willing to sever, such as the presence of U.S. journalists in China. The Trump administration is correct that the Chinese state media in the United States is a tool of Beijing, the reason it gave for recently slashing its numbers. However, China’s retaliation, tossing out at least 13 American journalists—who seem also to be banned from supposedly autonomous Hong Kong—was entirely predictable. Peking University’s Zha Daojiong, a professor of international political economy, worried: “All we have left is the political grievance, or diplomatic grievance impulse to score points.” The great loser is the United States. With planes everywhere grounded and semesters canceled or forced online, the ordinary ties made by students, tourists, and other visitors are already being severed. When the situation allows, the United States should work to rebuild ties with China across the board—while maintaining legitimate security concerns, but with a generous and liberal eye.

Most important is the economic relationship. Support for ensuring greater diversity and especially domestic production of important life‐​saving or security‐​protecting technologies is reasonable, but the number of such goods is small. The cost of broadly replicating supply chains and forgoing the efficiencies of foreign production would be high and ongoing. China’s inclusion into the supply chain has provided the United States with more for less, an important part of our prosperity, and it has created another important link with China. The Chinese Communist Party might be willing to sacrifice that for political reasons, but the cost to the Chinese public and ultimately the government might force the regime to think twice.

Republican hawks should stop, at least for the moment, creating more enemies. Beijing’s bad behavior can be left aside for another day. Now the United States and Europe, along with the rest of the world, should focus on containing the virus. And that means working with the Chinese government, which has much to offer in helping to clean up the mess it helped create.

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