The virus war with China

Image of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus causing the COVID-19 pandemic). Photo: NIH Image Gallery / NIAID-RML (Public domain). Elcano Blog
Image of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus causing the COVID-19 pandemic). Photo: NIH Image Gallery / NIAID-RML (Public domain). Elcano Blog
Image of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus causing the COVID-19 pandemic). Photo: NIH Image Gallery / NIAID-RML (Public domain)

In 2003, when SARS emerged, the US and other countries cooperated with China from the outset, enabling the epidemic to be brought under control. In 2020 not only has there been no such initial cooperation on COVID-19, but the way in which China covered up the first cases and the stand-off between Washington and Beijing have paved the way to coronavirus turning into a pandemic, a source of tension and a war of propaganda, disinformation and aggressive diplomacy that could escalate. Even major European governments and institutions are distancing themselves from China. So is the pandemic the cause or the consequence of the geopolitical clash between the US and China? The Italian sinologist Francesco Sisci is in little doubt: it is a consequence.

The tension goes back a long way and deteriorated when Donald Trump insisted on referring to the ‘Chinese virus’, having initially praised Xi Jinping for his handling of the crisis. New lows were reached when, ignoring the advice of US scientists and intelligence services, he claimed that the virus had emerged from a laboratory in Wuhan, describing it recently as something worse than the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Others talk of Chinese prevarication. Meanwhile, in this mutual blame game bereft of sound judgement, Chinese officials have been disseminating the opposite: that the coronavirus emanated from a laboratory in the US. The Trump Administration’s calls for an investigation into the origins of the virus have not fallen on deaf ears, however. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, supports the idea, not in order to apportion responsibility but because she believes in the need to study its origins so as to set up a better early-warning system than the one that currently exists. The Chinese regime will resist for reasons of image, but it is precisely such resistance that will damage its image.

All this, together with some earlier factors, is combining to make Europe lose its ‘naïveté’ –the word used a year ago by Emmanuel Macron and now adopted by Josep Borrell– regarding China. Doubt must now be cast on the likelihood of 2020 being the year of ‘Europe-China’, of strengthening relations between Beijing and the EU –where there is a diversity of opinion regarding China– with a long-heralded summit in Leipzig this September during the German six-month Presidency of the European Council. China has bolstered its propaganda machine tailored to different European countries, and is becoming increasingly meddlesome here and in other countries (in the Balkans, Africa and Latin America) where Europe has interests, but less aid to give than Beijing in response to the pandemic and its effects. It has gone down very badly in Brussels, Berlin and other capitals that Chinese officials’ first post-outbreak meeting was in the 17+1 format (China plus various European countries, many of them EU members) rather than a meeting with the EU 27. In a famous policy stance taken in March 2019, subsequently endorsed by the Council, the European Commission described China as a ‘cooperation and negotiating partner’, an ‘economic competitor’ and a ‘systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance’. Although they seem contradictory, these descriptions form a whole, which encompasses technology in general and 5G technology in particular.

This does not entail that the EU is retreating to the Trump Administration’s positions (broadly shared by the Democrats); nor that it seeks an equidistant position, although the China issue, if not handled well, could be a serious cause of transatlantic divergence. On grounds of interests and values, the EU will always be closer to the US. But what the EU does not want is to see itself become the site of a bipolar geopolitical tussle between the US and China, even if finding a third way is not going to be easy in these circumstances. Much will depend on the Chinese economy’s attractiveness and capacity to recover. However, whereas Chinese capital was able to snap up European companies in the Great Recession, this time, at least as far as strategic businesses are concerned, the door is closing.

With regards to Trump, it should be borne in mind that his positions, which are generally erratic, always have one priority: ‘Me first’, which currently means his re-election. Trump believes that China wants to avoid this at all costs. Pete Buttigieg, who was vying to be the Democrats’ presidential candidate, believes the opposite: that China supports his re-election because it has become more powerful under the Trump Administration. There is a good deal of electioneering going on, at a time when the entire world is teetering. Trump must calculate that an anti-China stance may garner him even more popular support in these circumstances, as well as being a way to deflect attention from his mismanagement of the pandemic in the US. But there is also a matter of values differentiating an open society and a closed one. Trump and his Administration refer to ‘punishing’ China on ‘multiple fronts’ for spreading the virus. But are they going to tighten the screw in the trade war when the US and the world have been plunged into a vertiginous recession, something that could make recovery even more difficult? According to what has leaked out at least, Trump would prefer to trim back global supply chains and the inflows of investment into China.

‘The coronavirus crisis has led to a further deterioration in the already chronically bad relations between China and the US. As things stand, there seems little prospect that the damage can be repaired in the short term’, declares the Economist Intelligence Unit. Both countries are trying to secure positions of influence in the post-pandemic world. This confrontation is having knock-on effects on global governance. Thus Trump’s decision to halt funding for the World Health Organisation (WHO) –for having been too soft on, and influenced by, China– undermines the WHO at a time when it needs to be bolstered, not weakened. It continues down the path of destroying a world order that the US did so much to construct, albeit a world order in need of root and branch reform; among other things, to create room for China and the new realities.