While in the midst of a pandemic and with a crying need for the United States and China to unite and work together, it is unfortunate that China-U.S. relations have deteriorated to a level not seen since the Cold War before Nixon's historic visit to China in 1972. This deterioration was and is completely avoidable. One would have hoped that the rhetoric would have dissipated as cooler and more rational voices prevailed to restore a greater sense of cooperation with the world’s most important bilateral relationship.
Sadly, rather than pressing to collaborate and enhance a good working relationship with China, during the early part of this year there was a concerted effort on the part of some U.S. officials to play down and ignore evidence from China and Asia that the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) was a global threat. Then, when the virus finally spread to the U.S., there was an effort to lay blame elsewhere, engage in unfounded speculation, and Sinophobic scapegoating. The COVID-19 pandemic has been increasingly politicized, which poses a real danger not only to China-U.S. relations but to the world. Rather than seeking consensus, the pandemic is increasingly being used by some U.S. politicians as an excuse to confront China on a variety of political and economic issues that are wholly unrelated to the pandemic.
Unfortunately, a number of politicians from both major U.S. political parties have continued to work hard in their competition to "one-up" each other with "tough on China" rhetoric—a stance that is, regrettably, seeing an increase in resonance among some Americans. During the past two weeks, we have seen escalations from both sides, although arguably the most worrying aspect is the trend among a group of U.S. politicians who seem eager to fuel anti-Chinese sentiments by embracing the unsubstantiated and discredited theory that COVID-19 originated in a lab in Wuhan. With a U.S. Presidential election looming on the horizon, there is little likelihood of a change in approach from the U.S.
Engendering mistrust through mendacity and vendettas is no way for the U.S. to conduct a cogent China policy. Escalating renewed threats of tariffs and other retributions on China may play well among President Trump's base, but emotional outbursts are an ineffective tool for advancing America's national interests. Rather than following through on a pledge to work closely together with China, the Trump administration has attempted to obstruct consensus within the Group of Seven and the Group of Twenty, suspended funds from the World Health Organization, and delayed international cooperation that could both contain and ultimately defeat COVID-19. Despite this hostility, scientists in both the U.S. and China are managing to work together, which I will take as a positive sign for the future.
In a more genteel time, the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic would not be seen as an opportunity to prove American exceptionalism or refute aspects of ideological systems. However, we are not in a genteel time within American politics. Rather than seeing the pandemic as a moment for coordinating resources and ideas between China and the U.S., we are instead witnessing heightened Sinophobic rhetoric on behalf of Trump's re-election bid.
Trump's political advisers have created a narrative that it's all China's fault. By deflecting blame and criticism away from the U.S. and its slow response to the pandemic, this narrative has encouraged Trump and his supporters to take a much more aggressive approach toward China because they believe it will help them politically. Disappointingly, recent internal polls shown to Trump bear this out. Up to 51 percent of voters in U.S. "swing" states blame China most for the COVID-19 outbreak, while only 24 percent blame Trump. Trump's re-election message thus becomes clear: Blame China, because it's responsible for creating the COVID-19 pandemic, stealing millions of American jobs, damaging the U.S. economy, and is an existential threat to the U.S.
This narrative of Blame China has fostered an environment that has convinced the Trump campaign to refer to the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden as "Beijing Biden" and run both online and television advertisements that darkly hint at his alleged China connections. Following Trump's lead, campaign consultants for the Republicans in the U.S. Senate recently circulated a 57-page memo that instructed their candidates to attack China and to attack the Democrats for being "soft" on China. The memo bluntly stated that "China caused this pandemic by covering it up, lying, and hoarding the world’s supply of medical equipment." U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly and aggressively criticized China, blaming it for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people from the coronavirus, and intimating that it deliberately released the COVID-19 virus and intentionally concealed the severity of the virus.
During a recent Fox News town hall, Trump suggested that China's leaders deliberately allowed global travel so China would not suffer alone from virus. He also has claimed that China's handling of the pandemic is proof that it "will do anything they can" to make him lose his re-election bid in November. For a moment, consider the mental gymnastics that went into this claim. China's entire chain of command within both the Party and the State somehow decided that it would be a great idea to expose its own people to a deadly virus, hoping that it would somehow eventually make its way to the U.S. and infect enough of the American population that they would then not re-elect Trump. Got it.
At what point does it finally become unreasonable to scapegoat China for the policy failures of the U.S., irrespective of how the virus originated? On January 24, China quarantined the entirety of Hubei Province. On January 25, President Xi was publicly quoted from a meeting of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee that discussed the accelerating spread of the coronavirus and that it was a grave situation. Does this sound like a cover-up that caught the U.S. off guard? No. Yet certain U.S. officials repeatedly claim that China refused to cooperate or give information. Complaining about China and punishing them does nothing to fix an ineffective U.S. response. The real tragedy is that the U.S. was either unable or unwilling to look at the extraordinary evidence—the Lunar New Year national lockdowns—and draw even the most obvious of conclusions from this. The result was a deplorable lack of preparedness.
China is not the enemy of the United States. The virus is the enemy. It would behoove the U.S., China-U.S. relations, and the world if ego and nationalism were put aside in order to focus on the goal of defeating the novel coronavirus. Perhaps then the damage that has been done to China-U.S. relations will reverse course and begin to improve.
The author is a Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at the University of Texas at San Antonio