As the Cover-19 pandemic sweeps the globe, the world’s two superpowers are coming to blows.
The vaccine race is on, diplomats are squabbling, foreign media is being kicked out in escalating waves of retaliation, conspiracy theories are getting official backing, and the whispers of a new cold war are increasing in volume. As the Covid-19 pandemic sweeps the globe, relations between the the world’s two superpowers have perhaps never been so terse.
Foreign journalist expulsions
When countries get into rows they often take it out on each other’s press corps. In February, China kicked out three Washington Post journalists because their publication put out a story who’s headline Beijing did not like and refused to apologize for it. The Trump administration did not take kindly to this and retaliated by giving the boot to roughly 40% of the US-based staff at four of China’s media operations, which, due to their state-owned nature, the US government classifies as foreign missions. Beijing was quick to answer the call and expelled all of the American reporters working in their country for the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, as the tit-for-tat retaliations continue.
Government officials squabbling
“There’s a lot of dynamism and strength in the Chinese economy but the foreign policy is still struggling for lack of knowledge of other countries and other cultures, and that’s creating a lot of trouble in all kinds of ways in many geographies,” Bruno Maçães, the author of Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order, explained.
Along with China coming out into the world and taking a more pronounced role in global supply chains and infrastructure development comes a new breed of official. They take to Twitter and Facebook, defending China’s reputation in the world via the English language, incited by the CCP’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, to show more “fighting spirit”. Each week there seems to be a new threat issued by a Chinese diplomat to the country they’re posted in or some other squabble involving a Chinese diplomat taking place on social media, confusing the narrative, pushing Beijing’s position, and, very often, seeding disinformation — taking a page out of Donald Trump’s playbook, some could say, or, perhaps more accurately, Russia’s.
The battles of the day are currently centered around the proper terminology with which to refer to Covid-19 and the location where the outbreak actually started. Offended by U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s reference to Covid-19 as the “Wuhan virus,” some individuals working in China’s diplomat corps retaliated by challenging the established convention to colloquially label new diseases by the places where they were first identified — e.g. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Spanish Flu, African Swine Flu, Ebola, which is named after the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Hanta Virus, etc… — and deemed associating the virus with China as racist and Sino-phobic.
Stoking the fires of this reactionary sentiment was Lijian Zhao, the former secretary of the Embassy of China in Washington and current deputy director general of China’s foreign ministry. Zhao didn’t stop with a routine PC callout but began pushing a new narrative altogether: that Covid-19 didn’t have its origin in China, but the United States, going as far as to imply that thousands of the US’s influenza deaths were actually from Covid-19 and that the US military may have been the ones who brought the virus to Wuhan, shifting blame for the pandemic away from China and onto its primary Western adversary. Other officials picked up on the refrain and reverberated these accusations as far away as Kazakhstan, where some locals found them reminiscent of Soviet-era propaganda.
“China’s diplomacy remains inept,” said Jonathan Hillman of DC’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. “As the crisis unfolds, for example, some Chinese officials are peddling conspiracy theories on Twitter that will likely harm Beijing’s image globally rather than helping it.”
The unsubstantiated accusations of Covid-19 originating in the US and being spread by the US military did not sit well with the US administration and provoked a retaliation from President Trump, as he doubled down on his efforts to continue referring to Covid-19 as the “China virus” or “Chinese virus,” which, of course, resulted in even more outrage from Chinese officials.
In a further escalation, the matter of what term to use to refer to the Covid-19 pandemic was one of the main discussion points of the G7 meeting on Friday. US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo asserted that this was “the most pressing agenda item” and that the term “Wuhan virus” should be used. Some other members didn’t quite see it that way, and an agreement was not reached.
Then there was the report of the US State Department which directed how officials should speak about the Covid-19 pandemic publicly. The main talking point? China’s “Propaganda and Disinformation on the Wuhan Virus Pandemic.”
The question of “who’s to blame” has become central to both Washington’s and Beijing’s strategy, with both superpowers exerting their influence to elicit words of support from other nations all over the world — it’s become a litmus test to find out who’s on our side and who’s on the other.
“I think the question is going to be this competition for post-pandemic global influence,” James Palmer, the author of The Death of Mao, spoke solemnly. “It’s sort of going to be this post-WWII situation where you have this enormous chaos and need and these two enormous powers want to compete and be seen as the giver of global goods, which frankly the US looks extremely behind on at the moment.”
China has begun making strategic geopolitical moves as the Western world is knocked down in its fight against the Covid-19 outbreak. Dubbed “pandemic diplomacy” China has stepped into a global leadership role by providing medical supplies, test kits, and doctors to Italy, Spain, Poland, Serbia, Cambodia, and Pakistan. All of these nations receiving Chinese assistance happen to be key Belt and Road countries, promoting Chinese President Xi Jinping to refer to the aid as the construction of a “Health Silk Road.”
“Some of this is about contrasts and the absence of US leadership,” Hillman admitted. “China’s recent efforts wouldn’t appear so remarkable if the US had a better strategy in place, domestically and internationally. Beijing sees Washington faltering, and it is trying to take advantage of that opportunity.”
Part of this opportunity to get countries to turn to the east came in Serbia. After being denied protective equipment by the EU, who banned medical exports since Covid-19 took hold, Serbia very publicly pivoted to China, with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić proclaiming that “European solidarity does not exist” and “Only China can help us in this situation,” while repeatedly referred to Xi Jinping as a “brother.” Beijing rapidly responded with five million masks and a team of doctors.
Frans-Paul van der Putten of the Clingendael Institute of International Relations in the Netherlands explained that China donating medical equipment to Europe serves two purposes. First, it contributes to Europe’s ability to overcome the crisis, which is vital as the EU is one of China’s biggest trade partners. Secondly, it helps China to strengthen ties with European counties which improves the country’s international image.
“This is a way for China to show European countries that it is a dependable partner during times of crisis, and that the United States is not necessarily Europe’s only main partner to address common problems,” van der Putten continued.
James Palmer adds that through providing such medical supplies China obtains more “credibility and willingness to exert power there in the future, in terms of people being more reluctant to speak out and speak against China, better trade conditions in the future — they are breaking people away from the US”
“China’s donations should be welcomed,” Hillman added, “but I don’t think anyone is going to forget where the virus originated and that it spread because Chinese authorities tried to cover it up.”
Suspicion of the strings that are attached to China’s Covid-19 assistance becomes even more warranted when it came out that the second largest economy in the world contributed a mere 3% towards the WHO’s $675 million Covid-19 fundraiser.
American sentiment towards China has also dipped to a record-tying low, according to a Gallup pole conducted last month. They found that just 33% of Americans view China favorably, a drop of 20 percentage points in just two years, and China, in a tie with Russia, is now being thought of as the biggest enemy of the United States. The last time American sentiment towards China dropped to such depths was in the wake of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.
These political squabbles and soft power plays are also being backed up with military might and strategic infrastructure construction.
The US Navy has pivoted to the Pacific in an effort to contain China’s growing military push. Last year, the number of US patrols in the region were a record high, which Beijing called “deliberate provocations.” Just last week the US Navy targeted China with missile tests from the Philippine Sea.
Meanwhile, Beijing has been building military infrastructure on artificial reefs in the South China Sea, which has large amounts of untapped energy reserves and is the thoroughfare for a third of all maritime trade, and in December commissioned its first aircraft carrier.
In a recent survey done by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, half of the people in the ASEAN region didn’t have much confidence in the US’s ability to provide security and 46% said that, if required to choose, they would side with Beijing over Washington.
On top of this, at least three of the sea / overland multimodal corridors of China’s Belt and Road initiative are designed to provide alternative routes between Africa, the Middle East, and Europe to China which subvert the Strait of Malacca, which could be easily blockaded by the US Navy.
A new cold war?
“Is this looking like the start of a new cold war?” I asked James Palmer.
“I think we’re pretty close,” he responded. “You can sort of pick nits over whether it’s an ideological struggle, but I think it’s very clear that the two superpowers see themselves in clear opposition and very large portions on each side see it as a fundamental and almost existential struggle over the course of the next few decades.”
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