international analysis and commentary

How coronavirus tensions sicken U.S.-China relations


Relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) were not in great shape even before the coronavirus outbreak erupted. Washington and Beijing had been waging a trade war since the earliest months of Donald Trump’s administration, and despite reaching agreement on phase one of a new trade deal late last year, the two governments are still far apart on the remaining issues. Other grievances were becoming prominent as well. PRC leaders were especially suspicious and angry about the escalating congressional and White House support for Taiwan, including new weapons sales and enactment of the Taiwan Travel Act (TTA) authorizing high-level security officials to meet with their Taiwanese counterparts.

Donald Trump and Xi Jinping at the Japan G20 summit, last year


National Security Adviser John Bolton then met with David Lee, Secretary-General of Taiwan’s National Security Council, in May 2019. That meeting was the first of its kind since Washington shifted formal diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing four decades earlier, and the PRC government protested vehemently.

Disagreements about other issues grew worse as well. China’s warnings against the accelerating pace of US naval operations in the South China Sea were becoming ever more strident. Washington’s complaints about Beijing’s extraordinarily broad territorial claims in that body of water, combined with the construction of military installations on so-called artificial islands (land built up on partially submerged reefs), likewise became more pointed. American public opinion was turning more negative toward China because of the trade disputes, the PRC government’s rising authoritarianism at home, its deteriorating human rights record toward the Uighur minority, and its heavy-handed attempt to reduce Hong Kong’s political autonomy.

The growing tensions resulting from all of those issues already were bad enough, but exchanges of nasty accusations over responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic and related issues have deepened an acrimonious global rivalry. The animosity now threatens to turn the bilateral relationship utterly toxic.

An increasingly prominent narrative in the United States is that not only did the pandemic originate in China, but that Chinese officials withheld key information for weeks that could have enabled other countries to adopt measures impeding the spread of the deadly virus. Key conservative opinion leaders, such as Fox News host Sean Hannity and Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton  harp on that narrative constantly. It has even gained some traction with mainstream experts and media outlets that spurn the more extreme allegations about China’s responsibility.

Conservatives also routinely refer to the coronavirus as the “Wuhan virus,” or even the “Chinese virus,” in an effort to whip-up greater public resentment against Beijing. President Trump himself has used the latter label.  His comment and its implications about China’s guilt, in turn, enraged the Chinese government and public. Beijing demanded that Trump apologize for adopting the “Chinese virus” term, but he refused to do so.

The quarrel over terminology is just the surface layer of the mounting rhetorical war between Washington and Beijing regarding coronavirus issues. In a mid-March article published in Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, one PRC official both alarmed and infuriated Americans when he seemed to threaten that his country might impose export controls to withhold antibiotics and other life-saving drugs from American consumers. Those controls, he stated, would plunge America “into the mighty sea of coronavirus.”

The apparent threat focused public attention in the United States about how the country is heavily dependent (in excess of 80 percent) on pharmaceutical ingredients from China. The heightened realization is driving a concerted public and congressional campaign to reduce that dependency on a less-than-friendly foreign power. Worries that Beijing might “weaponize” its control over prescription drugs predated the coronavirus outbreak, but they now became far more acute.

The bilateral war of words is escalating on multiple fronts. In an attempt to shift the blame for the global pandemic onto the United States, the Chinese government and state media began to promote the ugly assertion that Washington may have initiated the pandemic as part of a bioweapons program. Stories appeared in China’s media emphasizing the attendance of U.S. Army personnel at athletic games in Wuhan in October 2019, just before the first signs of the coronavirus began to appear. An enraged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced the Chinese government for making such allegations.

Since then, Chinese officials have made inconsistent, if not contradictory, statements about the subject. Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the United States, dismissed bio-warfare theories as “crazy.” His comments were a direct challenge to the conspiracy theory that Senator Cotton continued to promote about an alleged Chinese program. Conservative news outlets in the United States, such as the Washington Times and the British tabloid The Daily Mail, also suggested that the virus might have been developed as part of China’s bio-warfare program.

Cui Tiankai’s sneering dismissal of the bioweapon theory was directed at Cotton and other American conspiracy promoters, but they implicitly had equal applicability to similar theories that the Chinese press was circulating. Despite his depiction, though, the assertion has not disappeared from PRC media accounts, and the Chinese press refers to the “American coronavirus.”

Beijing’s propaganda campaign regarding the coronavirus also has a more subtle aspect. Much of campaign seeks to polish the PRC’s credentials and denigrate Washington’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. Chinese media prominently highlight China’s global leadership in combatting the virus, emphasizing the amount of aid that Beijing has given to vulnerable countries – especially those in the developing world. But even that campaign exhibits an implicit anti-US focus. Such stories assert or imply that US leadership and assistance has been woefully lacking.

If there is a bright spot in the war of words between Washington and Beijing, it is that bilateral cooperation on the coronavirus problem has continued despite the rhetorical animosity. President Trump has even backed away from using the ill-advised term “China virus” to describe the disease. For its part, the PRC has improved its transparency after a very bad start when it sought to conceal the extent and spread of the disease within China and spurned offers of assistance from the United States. More recently, Beijing has allowed experts from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to come to China to gain information and offer insights and suggestions.

Still, it is likely that the public acrimony over the coronavirus issue has done additional damage to an already fragile and deteriorating bilateral relationship. Both sides deserve blame for cynically seeking to score cheap points in a propaganda contest. The coronavirus outbreak should have underscored the need for and advantage of greater cooperation. Unfortunately, it appears to have done the opposite.