Clash of the titans: how the coronavirus became the new China-US battleground
- Rather than joining forces to subdue the pathogen, Beijing and Washington have used the pandemic to try to score points against each other
- The health crisis has shifted attention away from other areas conflict – but only temporarily, observers say
Shi Jiangtao in Hong Kong/Beijing
Published: 11:00pm, 15 Mar, 2020
Since the coronavirus broke out in China late last year, the two countries have markedly dialled up the rhetoric against each other, trading stinging barbs on everything from the origin of the virus, and whether American medical experts should be allowed to visit Wuhan to who should be blamed for the pandemic.
The Chinese foreign ministry and diplomats have used every opportunity to slam the US, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi underlining the point at the Munich Security Conference a month ago.
While many analysts shrugged off Beijing’s strident criticism as its own overreaction, Beijing insisted that the US moves were based on stigma and politically motivated, which in Wang’s words, “triggered unnecessary panic”.
“Honestly, at a time of crisis like this, we would expect the US to take the high ground and show more support for China. It turns out that the US continues to pursue its course on China,” said Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Centre in Washington.
Over the past week, Beijing has called out US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “despicable practice” of calling the pathogen “the Wuhan virus” despite objections from China and the Beijing-friendly World Health Organisation (WHO).
And after US national security adviser Robert O’Brien said on Wednesday that China’s cover-up of the pneumonia-like disease and its slow response cost the world two months when the crisis could have been prevented, Beijing stepped up a gear in its increasingly assertive, and often angry, defence.
Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang accused the US officials of trying to shift the blame to China and claimed China’s lockdown and other extreme measures had “bought the world time” to deal with the virulent disease.His ministry colleague, Zhao Lijian, who was once described by former US national security adviser Susan Rice as “shockingly ignorant”, was even blunter. Echoing a popular conspiracy theory, he said on Twitter in both Chinese and English on Thursday that “it might be US Army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan”, without providing any evidence to substantiate his shocking allegation.
Huang Jing, an expert at Beijing Language and Culture University’s Institute of International and Regional Studies, said that Washington might even backpedal on the hard-fought trade truce and the so-called phase one deal.
“Washington is keen to take advantage of the outbreak, which has left Beijing vulnerable both domestically and externally. Despite their differences on most other issues, neither Trump nor his opponents can afford to soften their stance on China in the lead-up to the elections later this year. That’s why Beijing should be prepared if Washington continues to weaponise the coronavirus in China-US relations,” he said.
With public support dwindling and both Beijing and Washington becoming increasingly internal-looking, “we have to ask ourselves this question: what kind of US-China relations and external environment are we craving?” An Gang said.
Despite the deep distrust, China should put forward its own initiative for bilateral and international cooperation.
“It is impossible to solve a global crisis without global cooperation. It is imperative for China to act first because the US is in the midst of an unfolding crisis. It’s in China’s national interests to act like a leader and lay out a set of Chinese solutions and it would help repair and restore China’s global image, no matter how the US chooses to respond,” he said.