Pandemic Politics and the China-US Conflict
Author: Frank N. Pieke
As the corona pandemic in the developed countries in Europe, North America and East Asia is slowly beginning to abate, governments and publics have started to emerge from the war-like siege mentality that, for a brief few weeks, had drawn people into solidary communities of common destiny. Pandemic politics had created a state of exception that reinforced the nation as the bedrock of our sense of belonging, allowed the state to assert the scope of its power and legitimacy, and weakened democratic rights and legal processes.
As a global “total event”, the pandemic has become a looking glass through which all kinds of issues are suddenly seen in different shapes and colours. The pandemic has revealed the weaknesses and strengths of societies, serving as a global diagnostics whose lessons we are only beginning to learn.
In the arena of international politics, the pandemic forces nations to take a hard, fresh look at their enemies and friends, and it is unlikely that they will ever look the same again. The world became aware of the coronavirus outbreak in China at an awkward time. In 2019, the conflict between China and the US had become global, sucking countries across the world into its vortex. While many nations continued to prefer some form of hedging of American security and Chinese economic opportunities, the conscious weaponization of US-China relations made this increasingly difficult, especially in parts of the world like Europe that were heavily dependent on both.1
On 15 January 2020, China and the US signed an agreement that was heralded as a crucial step toward the resolution of their disagreements over the economy and trade. Although underwhelming in real terms and by no means the final solution for the long-standing conflict between the two countries, the agreement made it inopportune for the US administration to rake China over the coals over its initial lack of transparency about the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan and the measures taken to contain it that were then just beginning to hit the headlines.
Meanwhile, the media inside (until a sudden crackdown at the end of January) and outside China reported on the initial lack of response in Wuhan, the authorities’ suppression of evidence and researchers, followed by a harsh lockdown in the city. Yet a concerted American political response failed to materialize, with Trump emphasizing the cooperation and coordination with China and limiting himself for several weeks in February to some offhand references to the “Chinese virus.”
This changed as the corona crisis in western Europe and North America by mid-March threatened to spiral out of control. The US government started the blame game by suggesting that the virus might have escaped from a Chinese lab, a narrative it has continued to develop since despite the lack of any evidence.2 China, in turn, retaliated with the equally spurious claim that the US might have been the source of the virus. Embarking on a campaign of goodwill diplomacy, China sent medical teams, facemasks (the rapidly rising emblem of both effective governance and civil responsibility) and other protective gear to countries struggling with the pandemic, especially those that were members of its Belt and Road Initiative.3
The US administration, followed by the EU, a few individual western European countries and Australia, responded by framing both the initial mishandling of the corona virus outbreak and the subsequent harsh lockdown measures as symptomatic of China’s authoritarianism and failing political system and called for an international inquiry. A little later, the US administration escalated the confrontation with China with an open attack on the World Health Organization (WHO), condemning it as too close to China and halting funding. Predictably, China lost little time in allocating additional funds to the WHO to make up the difference.
I would argue that we are witnessing more than a return to the familiar pattern of weaponization of issues in the US-China conflict, in order to draw third countries into one’s own camp. The corona crisis raises existing problems, conflicts and inequalities to a new, existential level. The strengths and weaknesses of different political systems have become even more clear to see.
Initially, Trump (in March) and Xi (in February) had to deal with substantially the same problem: the fallout of ignoring or downplaying the initial outbreak of the virus, leaving state (in the US) or provincial (in China) authorities to deal with the crisis. Whereas Xi took the political gamble of taking control of crisis management personally, Trump continued to fumble. He searched for scapegoats domestically and abroad, flippantly suggested miracle cures, and gave the impression of being more concerned to pander to his libertarian and alt-right core constituency to ensure his re-election in November than to display decisive national (let alone international) leadership.
The upshot is that China seems likely to emerge from this crisis much stronger than the US. This is more than just a matter of timing or the number of victims or the economic damage in each country. Trump’s America First approach to the crisis has alienated US allies, especially those in Europe, impressing upon them more than ever the need for a substantial and real strategic autonomy from Washington.
The inclusion of China in NATO’s strategy in December 2019 had constituted a major American success, particularly if this could be linked up with the reinvigorated U.S.-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or the Quad: the US, Japan, Australia and India) in the Indo-Pacific, creating a military and strategic cordon sanitaire of democracies to keep China’s global ambitions in check. Americans have yearned for this for years, but Trump’s singular lack of international leadership in the corona crisis undermines this strategy just when it is beginning to show the first signs of success.
However, it is unlikely that China will be able fully to capitalize on the mistakes of its rival. The corona crisis has fed negative and threatening narratives about China, making it difficult for the Chinese authorities to present their handling of the crisis in a positive light. Because the virus originated in China, the easy tropes of authoritarian repression merged seamlessly with the nineteenth-century image of the Yellow Peril that cast a decaying China as the source of epidemic diseases like the plague or influenza. But old stereotypes are only part of the story. As Christos Lynteris pointed out in a prescient article4, the 2003 SARS epidemic wrote the playbook for the perception of the next pandemic. The human race is “just one mutation away” from extinction, as a result of rampant globalization and the new, incomplete and unpredictable modernities that emerged after the end of the Cold War, first and foremost in China, whose communist dictatorship makes its modernity even more dangerous, inscrutable and unpredictable.
Wuhan’s “wet market” is associated with about half of the early cases in December 2019, although phylogenetic research has shown that it was not the place where the virus jumped the species barrier (possibly through the mediation of one of anthropology’s favourite animals, the pangolin) as the Chinese authorities claim.5 Dirty, contagious and regulated under opaque communist rule, this is the market par excellence where China’s new rich source the exotic animals that whet their decadent appetites. In short, the wet market is a convenient metonym for everything reprehensible in imaginations of both traditional and contemporary China. Spawned right there, at the intersection of the traditional and the newly modern, the corona virus is not only “matter out of place” in the sense of Mary Douglas, but also matter that knows no boundaries, to be feared as much as for what it tells us about the world that has emerged in the twenty-first century as about China itself.
1 Frank N. Pieke, China through European Eyes. New Delhi: Institute for Chinese Studies occasional paper (2020), online at https://www.icsin.org/publications/china-through-european-eyes.
2 Geoff Brumfiel and Emily Kwong, “Virus Researchers Cast Doubt On Theory Of Coronavirus Lab Accident”, National Public Radio (NPR), 25 April 2020, online at https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/04/23/841729646/virus-researchers-cast-doubt-on-theory-of-coronavirus-lab-accident.
3 Holly Chik, “Coronavirus: China Wants to Lead the Fight against Covid-19, But Can It Overcome the Mistrust?” South China Morning Post 26 April 2020, online at https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3081543/coronavirus-china-wants-lead-fight-against-covid-19-can it?utm_medium=email&utm_source=mailchimp&utm_campaign=enlz-china_coronavirus&utm_content=20200426&MCUID=8288386e1b&MCCampaignID=236cccd80e&MCAccountID=3775521f5f542047246d9c827&tc=1
4 Christos Lynteris, “Yellow Peril Epidemics: The Political Ontology of Degeneration and Emergence”, in Franck Billé and Sören Urbansky, eds, Yellow Perils: China Narratives in the Contemporary World. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2018, pp. 35-59.
5 See Alessia Lai, Annalisa Bergna et al. “Early Phylogenetic Estimate of the Effective Reproduction Number of SARS‐CoV‐2.” Journal of Medical Virology 92: 675-679 (2020), https://doi.org/10.1002/jmv.25723.