When an Ebola epidemic erupted in West Africa, in 2014, the United States and China, the world’s two largest economic powers, responded in starkly different fashions. The Obama Administration dispatched the 101st Airborne and other troops to build treatment hospitals, and donated more than half of the $3.9 billion in relief funds collected from governments worldwide. Within six months, the outbreak was under control, and the U.S.-led effort was hailed as a template for handling future epidemics.
Chinese mining and construction firms had big businesses in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, but Beijing struggled to mount a humanitarian response. Between August and October of that year, nearly ten thousand Chinese nationals fled those countries in a panic. China, unaccustomed to such missions, sent medical teams and supplies, but, over all, it contributed less than four per cent of the relief funds.
Six years later, however, neither nation can claim to have led the way in managing the COVID-19 pandemic, which has so far killed more than a quarter of a million people around the world. The efforts of both have been marred by denial, coverup, and self-deception. President Donald Trump’s trade war and President Xi Jinping’s hostility to Western influence had already frayed the countries’ relationship to its most fragile point in decades. Now, in a bid to deflect criticism, they are turning against each other in perilous ways.
For President Xi, containing the disease, which first emerged in Hubei Province four months ago, has been a race against both a public-health and a political calamity. After initially silencing doctors who reported the virus, Beijing gained control of the outbreak by locking down Hubei, testing millions of people, and quarantining suspected cases, even if it required forcibly removing residents from their homes. By mid-March, China was reporting nearly no new cases, a claim that outside experts considered doubtful but in the neighborhood of truth.
Shaping the narrative of China’s role in the pandemic will be more difficult. In April, the Associated Press obtained government documents showing that leaders in Beijing knew the potential scale of the threat by January 14th, but Xi waited six days before warning the public—a catastrophic interlude of dinners, train rides, and handshakes that helped unleash the pandemic. The government staged a public-relations offensive, touting China’s exports of medical gear to other nations—a tactic dubbed “mask diplomacy.” It also suggested, with no evidence, that the source of the virus was a delegation from the United States that had participated in the Military World Games in Wuhan in October. The offensive backfired: buyers complained of faulty or undelivered shipments, and U.S. officials accused China of using social media to promote divisive and false information.
The Trump Administration, for its part, has cut off funds to the World Health Organization and declined to join the European-led fund for vaccine research. Trump’s delusions—that the virus would vanish in a “miracle,” that an antimalarial drug would shortcut science, that ingesting disinfectant could help—have further reduced the Administration’s reputation to a baleful farce. Last week, Kevin Rudd, the former Prime Minister of Australia, wrote in Foreign Affairs that the Administration had “left an indelible impression around the world of a country incapable of handling its own crises, let alone anybody else’s.” In Rudd’s view, the “uncomfortable truth is that China and the United States are both likely to emerge from this crisis significantly diminished.”
The Administration could credibly have criticized China’s early mishandling of the virus, and its efforts to control international scrutiny of the virus’s origins. Instead, the White House seized on a blame-Beijing strategy to undermine China’s growing global power and shore up Trump’s bid for reëlection. (An ad from a pro-Trump super pac says, “To stop China, you have to stop Joe Biden.”) Unnamed Administration officials floated revenge fantasies to reporters, such as abandoning U.S. debt obligations to China, an act that, investors noted, would gut America’s financial credibility. As Adam Posen, the president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told the Washington Post, “In economic terms, this is worse than telling people to drink bleach.”
In the riskiest line of attack, members of the Administration, conservative lawmakers, including Senator Tom Cotton, and Fox News have promoted an unverified theory that the coronavirus may have originated in an accidental leak from a Chinese virology lab. On April 30th, Trump said that he had seen convincing evidence of this, but gave no details. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo followed up three days later, claiming simply that there was “enormous evidence” to support the theory. More credible voices—including those of Anthony Fauci, the government’s top expert on infectious diseases, and General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—have declined to endorse that view.
Yet Trump and Pompeo’s rhetoric has some in the intelligence community concerned that the Administration may try to push on the origins of the virus much the way that, in 2002, Vice-President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff, Scooter Libby, pressured intelligence agencies to provide material that might support the theory that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Chris Johnson, a former China analyst at the C.I.A. who now heads the China Strategies Group, said, “If we have a smoking gun, the Administration would have leaked it. There are specters of Libby and Cheney, and it worries me.”
More worrying, perhaps, this month in Beijing the Ministry of State Security presented to Xi and other leaders an assessment that reportedly describes the current hostilities as creating the most inhospitable diplomatic environment since the Tiananmen Square massacre. According to Reuters, some members of China’s intelligence community regard the assessment as a Chinese version of the Novikov Telegram, a 1946 dispatch that the Soviet Ambassador to Washington, Nikolai Novikov, sent to Moscow, forecasting the advent of the Cold War.
To John Gaddis, the dean of Cold War historians, America’s advantage over the Soviet Union hinged less on aggression than on competent governance. “The country can be no stronger in the world than it is at home,” he said. “This was the basis for projecting power onto the world scene. We’ve lost that at home right now.” If the Trump Administration uses the coronavirus to heighten its conflict with China, it will not only have ignored a basic lesson of U.S. history; it will expose America to yet another crisis for which it is plainly unprepared. ♦