The high-temperature argument over blame for the coronavirus is rapidly pushing the United States and China into a potentially dangerous new Cold War.
US president Donald Trump and other administration officials claim that the virus, which many scientists say originally came from a bat, emerged from a Chinese government laboratory in Wuhan.
They have offered no evidence, and both Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s top immunologist, say they’ve seen none.
Cold Wars are dangerous. In the last one, the United States and the Soviet Union came close to nuclear war at least three times
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has gone further. He says the episode, including Beijing’s alleged efforts to conceal the initial outbreak in Wuhan, shows that China’s communist government is inherently malign.
Pompeo said Trump is correcting “40 years of appeasement of China,” a period that includes every president since Jimmy Carter.
A tough line
Matthew Pottinger, the second-ranking official on Trump’s National Security Council staff, made a similar argument more subtly.
Pottinger said China deserves a government more responsive to its citizens and warned that continued repression could spark rebellion. He also borrowed an aphorism from Spider-Man: “With great power comes great responsibility — and I don’t think China has met that test.”
In this crisis, China has sounded more like an adversary than a competitor — making unsubstantiated claims that a visiting US soldier may have brought the coronavirus to Wuhan, and returning Pompeo’s insults in kind.
“If the dishonest behaviour of evil politicians like Pompeo continues, ‘Make America Great Again’ could become merely a joke,” newscaster Li Zimeng said on Beijing’s main government-owned television network last week.
That’s what makes this a new version of the Cold War, the 40-year-long struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. Each side sounds bent on bringing down the other’s political system.
“China is very different from the Soviet Union, but this is beginning to look like the same kind of ideological competition,” Bonnie Glaser, a China scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, told me. “Officials in the Trump administration are drawing an explicit distinction between the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese people, and that’s new.”
Unusual for White House
It’s also unusual for this White House, which generally doesn’t criticise authoritarian governments unless they’re on its enemies list. Until now, that meant Iran, Venezuela and Cuba, but not China.
It’s not clear if Trump is as angry as his hawkish aides. Only a few months ago, he was full of praise for Xi, who had just signed an agreement to buy $200 billion worth of US goods.
“He’s for China, I’m for the US, but other than that, we love each other,” Trump said.
In an event at the Lincoln Memorial, the US president sounded relatively mild. “My opinion is they made a mistake,” he said. “They tried to cover it.”
That wasn’t quite Cold War stuff — more like an effort to convince voters that China deserves the blame for the pandemic, and please ignore the chaos in the Trump administration.
Trump’s reelection campaign has tried to weaponize the issue against Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, accusing him of being “soft on China” — a phrase last heard in, yes, the Cold War.
It’s a silly charge, because Trump himself has been so publicly committed to his bromance with Xi.
It’s also silly because Biden has a history of scepticism toward China, dating back to his days in the Senate — qualifying him as a relative hawk among Democrats.
That won’t stop the Trump campaign from trying. But for every old film clip of Biden exchanging toasts with a Chinese leader, there’s a similar video of Trump.
More serious is the question of how far this new Cold War will go — and whether it’s happening only because Trump needs a campaign issue more promising than the plummeting economy.
Cold Wars are dangerous. In the last one, the United States and the Soviet Union came close to nuclear war at least three times.
“Ideological competition ... makes it much more difficult to cooperate,” James Steinberg, who was deputy director of the National Security Council under President Clinton, warned at the University of Virginia event. “It tends to build a greater sense that our success depends on the other side’s failure — that we would be better off if China didn’t succeed.”
The paradox of US-China relations is that the world’s two biggest powers need to coexist, and even cooperate when they can, while they compete and collide.
It’s messy, complicated and hard. But it gets even harder when both sides commit themselves to unrelenting confrontation.
A decision that weighty deserves more deliberation, and not in the heat of a pandemic or a presidential campaign. A great nation’s foreign policy shouldn’t be made on the basis of bat droppings.
Doyle McManus is a noted American journalist and political columnist