Penn on the World after COVID-19, China, United States When the U.S.-China Rivalry Goes Viral

August 13, 2020
By Jacques deLisle | Penn on the World after COVID-19

Jacques deLisle is the Stephen A. Cozen Professor of Law, Professor of Political Science, and Director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China.

The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated a trend toward worsening rivalry in U.S.-China relations that began during the Obama administration and has accelerated since Trump became president. The change reflects several factors, including  long-term shifts in relative power in China’s favor, long-simmering bilateral economic frictions that have expanded into sectors important to the United States and that erupted into a “trade-plus” war in the later 2010s, and sharpening ideational competition exacerbated by recently-heightened nationalism on both sides.  The most extreme coronavirus-related moments, so far, have included a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman’s suggestion that the U.S. military brought the virus to China and Secretary of State Pompeo’s claim of “enormous evidence” that the novel coronavirus came from a Wuhan lab.  Such reckless—and recently unthinkable—rhetorical excesses are part of a battle between the Trump administration and the Xi Jinping leadership over two narratives about the coronavirus that is, in turn, part of a wider conflict between the two great powers. 

One contest to control the narrative focuses on competence.  At home and abroad, the Chinese regime has portrayed itself as responding decisively and effectively to the sudden emergence of a deadly and highly communicable disease.  Locking down Wuhan and other hotspots, deploying thousands of medical personnel to hard-hit areas, and quarantining and tracing contacts with China’s formidable surveillance state and its combination of  high-tech tools and old-school, labor-intensive means are credited with taming the outbreak relatively rapidly (at least in the initial round).  Some in China and elsewhere contrast these accomplishments with a feckless U.S. approach, marred by slow responses despite ample warning, woefully inadequate supplies of personal protective equipment and testing and tracing capacity, and efforts to deflect blame to China.

In contrast, the Trump administration has claimed great, and underappreciated, success, despite the world’s highest, and still-mounting, confirmed infections and deaths.  Backed by congressional allies, it has ramped up efforts to blame the U.S. epidemic on China’s incompetence (and worse), asserting that Chinese authorities bungled the initial response, sought to cover up dangers of the disease and their own errors, and thereby put the world at risk.

The other battle of narratives concerns international public goods.  Assisted by  Trump’s early praise for Xi’s handling of COVID-19 and the WHO’s characterization of China’s response, China has depicted itself as a responsible and generous actor, providing desperately needed expertise and protective and testing equipment.  Critics, including the Trump administration, have countered this benevolent portrayal, pointing to China’s early concealment, initial limitations on exports of PPE, provision of defective supplies, and stonewalling a full international investigation of the pandemic’s origin.  As it has throughout the Trump era, Washington has abandoned its traditional role of supporting key international institutions and cooperation, instead lambasting and defunding the WHO, touting travel bans as effective responses, hamstringing multilateral cooperation, and demanding that China pay reparations or face bilateral sanctions.

The U.S.-China conflict over COVID-19 narratives, thus, reflects and may reinforce elements of a possibly emerging U.S.-China cold war, but one in which both sides look to the world too much like the Soviet Union—authoritarian (China) or dysfunctional (the U.S.) at home, and unhelpful or disruptive abroad.  Both major powers seem to compare unfavorably to smaller polities—including Taiwan, among others—that have emerged as success stories, responding far more effectively and rapidly than the U.S., containing the coronavirus with methods far less draconian than China’s, and punching above their weight in offering international assistance.  The worsening U.S.-China rivalry dims even these bright spots, with Beijing maintaining its potentially global health-risking stance against Taiwan’s full engagement with the UN-affiliated WHO, and the Trump administration’s pandemic-spurred support for restoring and Taiwan’s access interpreted, and perhaps intended, as one among many moves to goad Beijing, rather than to protect global public health.

The views expressed in Penn on the World after COVID-19 posts are solely the author’s and not those of Penn, Penn Global or Perry World House.