Fanning the flames
Donald Trump is using Covid-19 to ratchet up the new cold war against China, writes Eddie Ford
In recent days there has been a significant increase of anti-Chinese rhetoric over Covid-19 in certain quarters. So we had the US-instigated demands for an international “independent investigation” into China’s handling of the pandemic - fingers pointing at wet markets and laboratories. The latest allegation is that Beijing is withholding the virus samples needed for vaccine research.
Going further, a joint statement last week from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security accused Chinese-backed hackers of actively trying to steal domestic vaccine research and “illicitly obtain valuable intellectual property and public health data”. Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, issued a statement saying the hacking was an extension of China’s “counterproductive actions” throughout the pandemic. Whilst the US and its allies, if we are to believe Pompeo, are “coordinating a collective, transparent response to save lives”, China, on the other hand, “continues to silence scientists, journalists and citizens, and to spread disinformation, which has exacerbated the dangers of this health crisis”. Only a few weeks ago, both Pompeo and Donald Trump were openly saying, that there is “enormous evidence” (not that they have produced any) that the virus - whether accidentally or deliberately - started in a Wuhan lab. But, of course, that was not spreading “disinformation” - rather, a ‘legitimate concern’. It makes you think back to the days when Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction ready to fire off within 45 minutes, doesn’t it?
Then there is Donald Trump’s ongoing war against the World Health Organisation as a “puppet” of China - his new obsession that further fans the flames of conflict. Unless the global health body commits to reform, said the president on May 18, the US would within 30 days permanently freeze funding and possibly quit the organisation. According to Trump, WHO was “helping” Beijing hide the truth about the outbreak of the virus - it had “consistently ignored credible reports” of the virus spreading in Wuhan in December and failed to investigate other “credible reports” that “conflicted directly with the Chinese government’s official accounts”. The Trump administration has also reacted badly to president Xi’s announcement that China would donate $2 billion over two years to WHO. A spokesperson for the National Security Council claimed that Beijing was using the money to “distract” attention away from the calls for Chinese “accountability” over its failure to “tell the truth” and “warn the world of what was coming” - it is all their fault. In typical Trumpian fashion, he hammered the director general of WHO, Tedros Adhanom, for praising Chinese “transparency” in January. Trump must have forgotten that he himself publicly lauded Beijing’s approach earlier in the year - before sharply pivoting towards attacks on China, as the death toll mounted in the US.
Now he is speculating about cutting ties with China altogether over Covid-19 - though what that means exactly, as always with the US president - is totally unclear. In an interview with the Fox Business television (which should give you an early warning), Trump said he has no interest in speaking to president Xi at present due to his disappointment with China’s “failure” to contain the virus - “they should have never let this happen”. Trump added that “there are many things we could do” - in fact “we could cut off the whole relationship”. In that way, he calculated, “you’d save $500 billion” by erasing the bilateral deficit - a highly risky gamble if carried out, as other countries own big chunks of the US national debt. For example, as of February this year, Japan owned $1.27 trillion, compared to China’s $1.09 trillion.1 Anyhow, Trump also castigated the “stupid supply chains” all over the world. Rather, he thought, “we should have them all in the United States” - one big family. Tell that to Apple and other companies - profits might be put in jeopardy if they had to start paying American, not Chinese or Vietnamese, rates of pay.
In response, the Chinese state-run Global Times said the idea of cutting off ties was “lunacy”, but “should not come as a surprise for those who remember when Trump speculated if disinfectants could be used on humans” to wipe out the coronavirus”. It described Trump’s belligerence as a “clear by-product” of “the proverbial anxiety that the US has suffered from since China began its global ascension”. Indeed, the newspaper continued, current American conduct is a “combination of envy and panic on behalf of Washington elites who recognise the substantial gap between the US and China in how both countries responded to the pandemic”. It is difficult to disagree with the substance of the argument.
Donald Trump’s talk of severing ties with China is clearly a defensive move after the disastrous handling of the pandemic in the US. Behind it, however, there is a bigger picture of US-China rivalry - with the White House aiming for concerted imperial pushback against China’s “global ascension”. Hence the deluge of blame directed against Beijing.
Of course, no-one denies that the outbreak began in China, even if some of its officials like to maintain that the virus may have originated elsewhere and that they were simply the first to detect it. We are still not entirely sure what mutated from what exactly, or what particular course the virus took. But all the serious evidence to date heavily suggests that Covid-19 was transmitted from bats to an unidentified intermediary species before infecting humans - whether in a Wuhan wet market or some other location. A study published in the journal Nature found that the new coronavirus is more than 96% genetically identical to a bat virus from the Yunnan province in southern China and shares almost 80% of its genetic sequence with SARS.
Not that any of that prevents endless stories about Wuhan labs, bioweapons and all manner of other nonsense in tabloids like The Sun, Daily Express and Fox News. This is all happening in the context of Donald Trump and the Republican Party in general - not to mention armed members of the far right - clamouring for the end of lockdown in the US, despite projections about the total number of Covid deaths reaching 100,000 by June 1. Better dead than red. The expectation is that where the pandemic has been particularly severe, especially in cities like New York, infection rates will continue to be high - as will deaths.
Trump, almost sadly, is at the same time desperately attempting to invent ‘Obamagate’ as a vast, nebulous, unidentifiable conspiracy, which views the former president as an evil, Kenyan-born, Muslim-Marxist love child of Saddam Hussein and George Soros and seems to involve the belief that Barack Obama was told or aware of - perhaps initiated - a plot among US intelligence officials to cripple the Trump presidency in its early stages. Inevitably, this constantly moving conspiracy is morphing into the idea that the Obama administration should be held responsible for not developing a vaccine against a virus that did not exist at the time. There is no hiding the denialism of Trump and his wretched government of liars and lunatics.
Perfectly illustrating the current anti-Chinese mood, which is becoming alarming, was a Financial Times article headlined: “US elite forces ill-equipped for cold war with China” (May 16). This was about a recent online “industry conference” involving Special Operations forces that number 70,000 and cost $13 billion a year. At the conference general Richard Clarke - head of the special operations command (Socom) - said the US needed to develop new capabilities to “compete and win” against China. Socom must develop cyber skills, he added, and focus on influencing campaigns rather than “the kill-capture missions” that characterised his own time in Afghanistan. Chris Brose, chief strategy officer at Anduril - a start-up defence technology company in the lucrative business of supplying Special Ops - was worried that there could be hundreds and thousands of engagements every single day in a fight against China: “We are just not fast enough, dynamic enough or scalable enough to handle that challenge” - especially as satellites could be blinded or shot out of orbit. Then again, Brose did think that the battle with Beijing would probably fall far short of all-out war: “It’s going to be kicking each other under the table”, he said, citing reconnaissance, influence operations and sabotage.
As we saw from the conference, Special Ops are looking for a new role - some military analysts argue they should expand the psychological side of operations, while others urge speedier development of new stealth weapons and cutting-edge technology. But the fact that this is framed in a conflict with China is a tell-tale sign of where things are going, Donald Trump wanting to step up this new cold war against China - he has described Covid-19 as an attack on America that is “worse than Pearl Harbour” and “worse than the World Trade Center”.2
Having said that, it is right to ask if it is possible for the US and China to decouple, given the realities of global interconnectedness and the capitalist economy. After all, it was the US that coupled to China in the first place with the deliberate intention of integrating it into the world market, with a trillion dollars of investments flowing into the country. That is something Washington never did with the Soviet Union - it wanted to isolate it. The sheer quantity of stuff made in China today is mind-boggling. Nor is it just simple products like plastic buckets or even basic electronic gadgetry: nowadays, as can be seen with the Huawei giant, it is the source of sophisticated technology too. However, also note, Huawei is “now like a bullet-ridden plane” after being hit by a series of ever more vindictive US sanctions. Its rotating chair, Guo Ping, talks of navigating a course for survival. That tells us something about the relative strengths of China and the US.