The Price of America First vs China First

© Chinese propaganda poster from After the start of the Korean conflict in 1950, the United States officially became China’s main foreign adversary. The war provided numerous opportunities to cast Americans in an extremely unfavorable light. A recurring theme at the time was the accusation that America engaged in bacteriological warfare against China. Starting in 1952, this allegedly included airdrops of contaminated or disease-carrying rats, insects and other vermin on Chinese soil. As a result, mass inoculation campaigns were organized, in concert with Patriotic Hygiene Campaigns to combat unhygienic conditions in urban and rural areas, and to annihilate potential disease-spreading animals and insects.

03/26/2020_While the world is struggling to cope with the Corona-virus and frantically looking for ways to slowdown the spread, the price we are paying for the America first vs China first folly is becoming painfully clear.

In the midst of an unprecedented health crisis, the two superpowers have stepped up their war of words. The background to the deteriorating relationship has been described in my blog before, no need to repeat here (see f.e.

Propaganda War

The Corona-virus has now become part of the geopolitical dispute, and a main theme in a propaganda war. The Chinese Communist party, after a month long phase of denial during which it blocked the truth about the character and extent of the virus, is very eager to rewrite the narrative about the pandemic. Chairman Xi Jinping is keen to show the world China has the situation completely under control, daily reporting a falling number of local infections, down to zero as per yesterday! The only remaining reported cases are “imported from abroad”, i.e. Chinese nationals returning from the US or Europe, according to Chinese news media. Those media also like to point out China has done a terrific job in keeping the number of infections down by its lockdown approach, highlighting Italy’s and Spain’s death figures have in the meantime by far surpassed those of the People’s Republic due to a too loose lockdown stategy by their respective governments….

Whereas the news from China is certainly encouraging, numbers coming from the PRC should be treated with caution. Could f.e. during the denial stage deaths have gone unreported by the Chinese authorities? Or to give another example: China has officially stated 80,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus to the WHO since the outbreak began in December, but by the end of February, when the outbreak was at its peak in the country, over 43,000 people tested positive without showing symptoms, according to the South China Morning Post yesterday. It is still unclear what role asymptomatic transmission is playing in the global pandemic, but these cases were certainly not included in official figures.

In other words, the number of infections is much higher than stated by the Chinese authorities, simply because they have not done enough tests (just like many other countries) or don’t want the outside world to know the truth. According to some rumors patients have even been turned away from hospitals without getting tested because Wuhan authorities have been under orders to meet the desire for no new cases. Infections have not been completely eradicated in China, irrespective of what the Chinese propaganda machine wants us to believe. There is still a considerable risk re-opening Hubei and other provinces could see a second wave of infections, via another domestic spread…

Trump government inaction

On the other side we have the Trump government, which wasted precious time not taking the Corona-virus serious, unwilling to heed advise from intelligence services and medical experts. Trump probably genuinely believed/believes himself to be immune to the virus. Strikingly, as the virus spread rapidly across China in the month of February, Trump repeatedly praised Xi Jinping’s response to the crisis, saying he handled it “really well” and that he was doing a very good job in extremely tough circumstances. Trump has always prided himself of a very special relationship with Xi and other strongmen around the world. At the same time government officials and strategists around Trump were probably eager to portray the virus as an exclusively Chinese problem to him, perhaps secretly hoping the US would benefit from China’s misery and eventual mismanagement. The Corona-crisis could in this way accelerate an economic decoupling of China from the West – exactly what those officials had been aiming for all along…

Now the virus has invaded the US, Trump has been making a u-turn to mask his own government’s misjudgement & initial mismanagement. The President has attempted to shift the media attention away from his own government’s inaction, by publicly putting all the blame on China for its initial handling of the crisis and by calling COVID-19 “the China-virus”. It serves as another reminder of the price being paid for an overdose of nationalism: both sides are preoccupied with their national pride and self-image, sacrificing international health and co-operation for useless and cheap rhetoric. When global coordination is desperately needed to fight the pandemic, the two powers are busy antagonizing each other and selling themselves as “the greatest”….As the pandemic is gradually spreading to the Southern hemisphere, where the medical infrastructure is far below western standards, the consequences of this lack of global co-ordination could be devastating…

Ludicrous Chinese accusation

Trump’s comments came in response to a ludicrous Chinese government official’s accusation the US military had planted the virus inside Wuhan. In China just like in the US, nationalistic, political & strategical considerations are playing a very unhealthy part in policy responses to an urgent health crisis, obfuscating virological and epidemiological insights and experience. The sad state of the Chinese-American relationship has facilitated the spread of the virus. Reuters informed earlier this week the Trump administration over the past 2 years eliminated key American public health positions in China intended to help detect disease outbreaks in the PRC. Most of the reductions were made at the Beijing office of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For example, the American expert, Dr. Linda Quick, was a trainer of Chinese field epidemiologists who were deployed to the epicenter of outbreaks to help track, investigate and contain diseases. Quick could have provided real-time information to U.S. and other officials around the world during the first weeks of the outbreak, when the Chinese government tamped down on the release of information and provided erroneous assessments. Quick left amid the bitter U.S. trade dispute with China when she learned her federally funded post would be discontinued as of September 2019.

The American CDC claims the elimination of the adviser position did not hinder Washington’s ability to get information and “had absolutely nothing to do with CDC not learning of cases in China earlier.” And a spokesman for USAID ( United States Agency for International Development), a key American organization for foreign aid, said its decision to shutter its Beijing office was “due to significantly decreased access to Chinese government officials as well as the Agency’s position that the Chinese model of development is not aligned with U.S. values and interests.”

Lack of medical co-operation

Clearly all these developments did already heavily impact the exchange of informal (scientific and medical) info between both countries way before the Corona outbreak. Today the exchange of crucial medical info or experience between public health officials of both countries is further hampered by the on-going blame game. Scientific and diplomatic co-operation and co-ordination has almost come to a standstill. Moreover, by the end of 2019 the Chinese communist government, historically averse to transparency and no doubt infuriated by the trade war and on-going American campaign against Huawei, must have felt even less inclined than usual to share any news on the virus to its American counterparts via any official channel. To have sufficient (informal) American channels and boots on the Chinese ground could have made a significant difference….But the Trump government concluded only China, not the US, had benefitted from the wide presence of such American organizations in the PRC. Valuable informal communication channels got cut…

Washington is meanwhile trying to push back against the stepped-up Chinese propaganda efforts to portray itself as a force of good, i,e. by distributing medical equipment and teams to Europe and Africa etc. China is a leading supplier of critical medical materials. Though the US is facing an acute shortage of medical equipment and protective material, it’s hard to imagine the Trump government, intoxicated by its own America first ideology, is going to humbly ask the Chinese “to help out America”…it will probably fall to the governors of the individual states to contact Chinese enterprises directly to get any sort of Chinese help..As the pride of the CCP got seriously hurt by the Trump government over the past years, the Chinese responsiveness to eventual behind the scenes American requests for assistance remains to be seen. It is to be expected Trump will use the crisis to further propel his “made in America” campaign, hoping to provoke even stronger nationalistic sentiments among his base as well as mainstream Republicans. He will claim the bi-partisan financial stimulus package as his own government’s achievement and success.

Will the two superpowers be able to shelve their blame game and geopolitical dispute at least for the short term to address an urgent, world-wide health problem? It doesn’t sound like it, but let’s hope for the best…

The future

Even if China and the US would agree to briefly set apart their differences for the sake of resolving the current crisis, what should we anticipate in the aftermath of the Corona-virus besides a massive global economic impact? A few quick thoughts:

  • in a best case scenario the leaders of both countries would realize the self-destructing nature of their nationalist policies and would embark on a course of reconciliation or appeasement despite viewing each other as system rivals. Before the virus outbreak, such a turn of events didn’t seem likely, let’s not forget American Congress had already gone further in its anti-China stance than Trump himself. And after? As said, we should always keep hope, but signs ain’t good: the crisis seems to only have exacerbated mutual distrust and anger. Trump is already using his daily press conferences on Corona as a platform to glorify the achievements of his America first policies. Other American government officials have increased their direct attacks on China. Meanwhile Beijing is trying to use the crisis to exert and grow its influence in the UN, Africa and Europe. All these developments are paving the way towards a new low in the bilateral relationship and a kind of permanent state of conflict between both big powers.
  • a more intense (re-) discussion & re-assesment in the rest of the Western world, in particular Europe, regarding the strategic dependency on China and existing supply chains, not just concerning 5G/Huawei and our digital infrastructure (as regularly described in this blog), but f.e. also for pharmaceutical supplies. I don’t think European citizens realized even for medical supplies and antibiotics our continent is heavily depending on China…A clearly defined European China strategy, as repeatedly stated in this blog, is urgently required….
  • A much more emotional and tense discussion about the (geopolitical) role and effectiveness of the EU. Populists will want to make us believe with renewed enthusiasm physical borders are more critical than ever and pump up their anti-EU rhetoric. Unfortunately for them, a virus doesn’t stop at a border, not now nor in the future. Nor can these politicians undo the interconnected world. But as the EU has again displayed a complete lack of unison and compassion during the Corona saga, with all member states just taking their own measures and criticizing others, one wonders what it will/has to take to forge a more united and centralized European policy. What does have to happen to have European countries really work together, showing solidarity in times of crisis? Launching an EU stimulus package is crucial, but not enough: the lack of unity and compassion will be vigorously exploited by populist parties across Europe, even though they don’t offer any solutions themselves. Could the EU become the ultimate victim of the corona virus? Or could it be the populists? If Trump manages to get re-elected despite his complete misjudgement of the Corona pandemic, populists across Europe will get another huge boost and the EU is in for a very, very rough ride.
  • Further scrutiny of the WHO. The US relationship with United Nations organizations has always been ambivalent and unstable. American governments in general and the Trump government in particular find UN organizations too bureaucratic, inefficient and highly politicized. Ethiopian Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the first African head of the WHO, who took office two-and-a-half years ago with strong Chinese support, is seen as too close to China, as he went out of his way to effusively praise the Chinese leadership in January 2020, knowing the latter had been hiding the truth about Corona for over a month. The WHO is also accused by many in the US and elsewhere in the West of downplaying the virus threat for too long and declaring the disease a pandemic too late, just out of courtesy towards China. Let’s remember in February, before the outbreak of the virus in the US, Trump already mulled cutting the American funding to WHO by >50%…After this crisis is over, would the US perhaps start to consider to severe all ties with the WHO? Will there be any alternative? A health emergency centre under the coordination of the G20? With America First still on the rise, it doesn’t seem to be in the cards..
  • A re-election of Trump = further attack on science, facts & the media. The American President has structurally undermined the value of national intelligence, science, expertise and the media during his first tenure. Even in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis, he prefers to display his own superiority. He will (have to) spin his (mis)management in more and more drastic, theatrical and nationalistic terms, further downplaying the importance of science and expertise. His war on “fake news” will intensify. America First version 2.0 will be a far more aggressive version than 1.0. His nationalist ideology could reach a new peak, tensions between the US and its traditional allies could boil over. It will leave people even more wondering: whom to consider as an ally, whom to trust? The President, the expert, the media? Authoritarian regimes in China and Russia will exploit this confusion in the West, spreading more disinformation. Populists and nationalists around the world will feel re-energized to continue their attacks on multilateral organizations and the media and relentlessly call for borders or walls. They will all hail a kind of “splendid isolation” and the nation-state as our salvation.

Obviously nobody can predict the future, the above thoughts could turn out to be completely wrong and too pessimistic. There is no guarantee Trump will be re-elected: things might get so bad in the US during the Corona-pandemic it could doom his chances for re-election. The American Republican party could face serious repercussions in such a scenario. A Democratic President could opt for a return to multilaterism and rebuilding of ties with America’s traditional allies, while still treating China as a system rival, yet not seeking its exclusion from our international system. The EU still has a chance to fix its credibility problem, take on a geopolitical role on the international stage and show more compassion for all EU member states. The Chinese government could tone down its rhetoric and perhaps scale down its megalomaniac plans for world domination. Yet the current strong nationalist tendencies in both China and the US, the lack of real leadership and of a sense of international responsibility and urgency, don’t bode well for the times to come, even after the pandemic is over.