WE MUST MONITOR HOW CORONAVIRUS AFFECTS US-CHINA RELATIONS
The Global Times, an English-language organ of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), carried an editorial entitled “COVID-19 Blunders Signal End of ‘American Century’” in its March 31 edition. Its author is Wang Wen, an expert on international relations and Executive Dean of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.
Wang stated essentially as follows:
“For most people, it’s unfathomable that the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic is the first global event that hasn’t been led by the US since 1941. During this current global fight against an invisible enemy, the US is hardly able to protect itself…The Trump administration was ineptly over-confident. It lies about the pandemic…and is now trying to blame other countries. It is sad that ‘the self-proclaimed leader of the world’ (not only) has been unable to help other nations (out of this universal mishap) and ‘not one country has rushed” to help it with medical supplies and donations (out of the worsening plight of its own). It is probably indisputable that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought an end to the ‘American Century.’”
That a Chinese government mouthpiece ran this column presumably means President Xi Jinping feels the same way.
Wang also made a point of observing:
“Obviously, China is seen as the ‘competitor’ that concerns the declining US empire most.”
This is exactly how most Chinese view America today. In his book China 2049, Michael Pillsbury, Director of the Center on Chinese Strategy, Hudson Institute, explained that the US backed the growth of China into a modern state fundamentally through its own goodwill. In point of fact, the US had pursued a policy to trust and value China over Japan. The US firmly believed, until just a few years ago, that the authoritarian state would be enticed to become open and democratic once it achieved a certain level of affluence. In sharp contrast to China which has constantly regarded the US as its archrival, Washington remained optimistic about its future ties with Beijing.
The Global Times, inaugurated in 1993, has carried other articles similarly hostile to the US. For instance, it ran a feature entitled “China Should Hit Back Smartly at US”in its May 12 edition last year amid the fierce tariff war between the world’s two biggest economies. The article quotes Gao Lingwen, a senior research fellow at the Institute of World Economics and Politics with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, as proposing: “China does not need to match the Trump administration’s tariff war in terms of scale and tariff percentage. Instead, China could shift its focus from hitting Trump’s voter base to attacking the supply chains of carefully selected industrial sectors that could cause systemic damage to the US economy.” Gao made the remarks during a seminar at the National Academy of Development and Strategy at Renmin University of China. His statements have in effect come true recently, as the onslaught of the Wuhan virus laid bare the serious problems with America’s reliance on supply chains based in China.
Fight over Facemasks
China’s offensives take on many forms. In a cunning show of goodwill diplomacy, it has recently been lavishing medical supplies, such as facemasks and ventilators, on the US and various European nations, all of whom are faced with serious political difficulties resulting from the Wuhan virus.
Earlier, amid a mounting battle for facemasks among the US and European nations, China pledged medical assistance to more than 100 nations as the “big nation that has smartly triumphed over the coronavirus.” On April 5, one million facemasks, 100,000 KN95 masks, and 1,000 ventilators were delivered to New York state. As Governor Andrew Cuomo thanked China profusely, CNN’s analyst Samantha Vinograd lamented: “American lives are in China’s hands.”
The fate of Trump in the runup to the November election also appears to be in China’s hands. Obviously, he took the deadly virus lightly at first. Given the world’s worst coronavirus tragedy unfolding in the US now, Trump is committed to making two things come true as soon as possible to secure his reelection: 1) win the war against the virus, and 2) resuscitate the US economy, especially for farmers and workers who predominantly constitute his support base. China clearly did not let that opportunity slide by.
There are signs that Trump’s hardline posture toward China abruptly turned conciliatory following his March 7 telephone conversation with Xi Jinping, which is believed to have materialized upon Washington’s request.
Quite obvious to everyone is the changed tone of Trump’s remarks regarding COVID-19 novel coronavirus. Trump had earlier insisted on referring to it as the “Chinese virus.” Following his phone conversation with Xi, he switched to the “coronavirus.”
During the phone conversation, apparently timed after the US passed China in the number of reported coronavirus cases, Xi stressed the need for cooperation between the two superpowers, offering to unstintingly provide information and assistance. Right after the phone chat, Trump tweeted: “We are working closely together. Much respect!” At this juncture, we must be aware of the possibility of Trump using even the Chinese power to spur his reelection.
Two contrasting forces have existed in the US in shaping its China policy: 1) “hard-liners” who see China as a security risk and advocate no compromise, and 2) “soft-liners” calling for a conciliatory approach, eager to see the economic ties between the two countries managed smoothly. I have described the second group as “soft-liners,” but while trying to seek common ground with China, they haven’t forsaken free trade as the backbone of US trade policy.
Roughly speaking, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, Trump’s top trade advisor Peter Navarro, and Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger are among leading members of the “hard-liners,” while the likes of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Director of the National Economic Council Larry Kudlow, and Jared Kushner belong to the “soft-liners.”
Scenario of America’s Possible Setback
Fierce infighting within the White House has significantly influenced how the US has coped with the virus. Obtaining information on the Chinese-originated virus towards the end of last December, Pottinger proposed that travel from China to the US be banned immediately. Concerned about the adverse economic effects of such measures expressed by Mnuchin and Kudlow, however, the US government failed to take action, according to Reuters.
Numbers released by the White House show that an estimated weekly total of 14,000 Chinese continued to pour into the US in the meantime, spreading the virus.
As Washington and Beijing bitterly clashed over the origin of the virus, the “hard-liners” are said to have taken charge of Trump’s China policy, while Mnuchin and Kudlow were preoccupied with preparing domestic economic countermeasures.
Meanwhile, Kushner managed to negotiate with China for a large-scale shipment of medical supplies to the US, which led to the Trump-Xi telephone conversation. Experts see the tide turning.
Trump’s view on China can be said to be essentially more tactical than strategic. He is mainly interested in getting China to significantly increase imports from the US, especially agricultural products. (During the current crisis, Trump is said to have checked the volume of China’s imports of US corn and wheat every weak.) The top priority for Trump remains garnering practical gains in America’s trade relationship with China. If, however, the US chooses to pursue a conciliatory line with China in its zeal to go after immediate gains, that could mean a sorry setback for America against China and a real nightmare for Japan.
The mindset of Mnuchin and Kudlow is that the fundamental principles of fair trade must be honored under all circumstances and that China’s theft of intellectual property, coercive transfer of state-of-the-art technology, and preferential treatment of state-owned enterprises cannot be tolerated. What will Trump’s ultimate choice be among a variety of ideas proposed by those within his administration? Nobody can foretell. US-China relations will determine the shape of the new global order and any possibility of Trump faltering is the biggest concern for Japan. (The End)
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 897 in the April 16, 2020 issue of The Weekly Shincho)