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May 4, 2020

The US-China row

Opinion

May 4, 2020

It seemed that tempers were cooling down when the US and China agreed to suspend their trade war in early January 2020. Suddenly the world scenario changed and the trading rivals were seen battling against a common invisible enemy – Covid-19.

This was a unique moment to settle differences and work in cooperation against this devastating enemy that has wreaked terrible human tragedy and economic catastrophe. But the Covid crisis accentuated the political differences between the adversaries. Moving away from a tariff war, they engaged in a full-blown war of words bringing the tempers to a boiling point.

The spat began with the origin of the coronavirus. US President Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have trumpeted that the coronavirus originated in a research lab in Wuhan, China, branding it as ‘Chinese virus’ and ‘Wuhan virus’, implying that it was a bio-weapon introduced to harm the world in general and US in particular. Trump slammed China for its lack of transparency and exacerbating the pandemic with its early coverup.

Chinese diplomats have reacted with fury calling the comment by Trump racist and, in a tit-for-tat approach, which alleged that the virus was introduced by the US military in Wuhan in October 2019 when the city hosted the Military World Games. On a broader level, these accusations are viewed by the Chinese as a way by the US of deflecting criticism over its lack of preparedness in tackling the escalating number of fatalities.

If China had acceded to the request by America, in early January, and now again, to allow access to inspect Wuhan laboratories would there be any prospect of a better relationship? Probably not, because the air was dense with a smog of mistrust already when the US had blatantly accused China of cybercrime and intellectual property theft, blacklisted tech giant Huawei over allegations of spying, consistently challenged China’s claim in the South China Sea, outrageously blamed China for loss of its manufacturing activity and high deficit – thus imposing steep tariffs on imported goods from China.

Covid-19 may have contained the trade war, inadvertently, but tensions have spiraled in many other areas like throttling flow of information. On February 18, when China was grappling with the deadly coronavirus and the US was not so critical, the Trump administration designated five Chinese media organizations as ‘foreign missions’ of the Chinese government branding them as propagandists and not journalists. Much provoked, the next day Chinese announced expulsion of three Wall Street journal reporters apparently as a punishment for a headline in the newspaper that called China as the “real sick man of Asia.”

In brazen retaliation, America expelled sixty Chinese nationals working for those five media organizations it had declared ‘foreign missions’. The blame game did not end here. China ordered expulsion of all American citizens, almost a dozen, working for the New York Times, Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. Journalists are the collateral damage in the Covid crisis in a struggle for global pre-eminence.

The virus may have originated in the Wuhan city of China, initially, but we have seen how infections have dwindled in China and surged in the US. That should be an alarming sign, a wakeup call for introspection to focus all energies to combat the virulent disease. Ironically, at such a critical juncture, Trump suspended American funding to the WHO, accusing it of a pro-China bias in pushing the misinformation on the coronavirus. This is a highly embarrassing position taken by the US. It also raises the question of whether Trump is even interested in leading a global response to the virus.

Foreign policy watchers in the West have opined that China will be the winner from the Covid catastrophe. Not a misplaced observation; we have seen how China has smartly outwitted the attack of the invisible enemy at its gate. And now it is at the forefront in helping countries with meager health resources and delayed response by providing them medical supplies. It has emerged as a big creditor with its willingness to back the G-20 deal to suspend bilateral loans repayments by the poor countries for the year as a relief measure.

As the pandemic is worsening, so is the scapegoating. Such infantile blame games and insinuations will only poison a sour relationship. This time should be treated more than as a show of strength between competing political economies. This is a time to establish joint cooperation and voluntary collaboration to defeat the disease globally.

The writer holds an LLM degree in international economic law from the University of Warwick.

Email: [email protected]