Coronavirus pandemic pushes U.S. and China closer to cold war

A volunteer takes the temperature of a scooter driver in Hangzhou, China.
A volunteer takes the temperature of a scooter driver in Hangzhou, China, in early February.

The COVID-19 pandemic, in an unexpected but potentially fateful twist, has moved the United States and China a big step closer to a new cold war.

It has strengthened hard-liners in both countries, and political pressures stemming from the pandemic are making it harder for leaders to back away from escalation.

For two months, as the virus killed thousands and wreaked economic havoc around the world, officials of the two superpowers have heaped blame on each other to divert attention from the pain of the crisis and from their own missteps.


President Trump has frequently referred to the novel coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus,” for the city that was the original epicenter of the outbreak.

Administration officials have quietly pressed for international censure of China’s culpability in the health crisis. And they have seized on the medical emergency to attack the network of manufacturing and other economic ties that have grown between the two countries over the last 40 years.

Beijing, through its state-owned media and political operatives, has slammed the “racist and xenophobic” statements and actions of America’s “irresponsible and incompetent” political elites.

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It has gone so far as to make the unsubstantiated allegation that the U.S. military started the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the tariffs that Trump imposed on billions of dollars in goods from China — and the counter-tariffs from Beijing — remain in place, adding to the cost of trade at a time when many businesses are struggling to stay afloat.

The punitive duties also have affected badly needed protective medical gear such as masks, gloves and goggles, many of which are made in China.


“It was revealing of just how hostile U.S.-China relations have become that they couldn’t even bring themselves to just kind of hold their noses and reach out to one another to coordinate their efforts very well,” said Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at UC San Diego.

Shirk and other China specialists haven’t given up on the relationship. She and dozens of other China experts and former politicians and diplomats across the political spectrum released a joint statement this month calling for renewed efforts to cooperate.

They urged Washington to find “the resolve to work together to contain and defeat the virus at home and abroad.”

“China’s factories can make the protective gear and medicines needed to fight the virus; its medical personnel can share their valuable clinical experience in treating it; and its scientists can work with ours to develop the vaccine urgently needed to vanquish it,” the statement said.

Whether either side is prepared to back away from confrontation remains in doubt. Both Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping have pressing political reasons to keep playing hardball.

As the U.S. death toll mounts and the economic pain hits more Americans, the pressure on Trump has increased.

“In the case where we’re dealing with a global and domestic recession, it will undoubtedly seed voices of populism and nationalism and xenophobia,” said Jude Blanchette, the Freeman chair in China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“And they will be looking for vengeance and for someone to blame,” he warned.

There is evidence that Trump’s anti-China message is finding bipartisan acceptance in Congress and in corporate America, which has grown increasingly unhappy with a relationship with China that it had long sought to strengthen and expand.

And with November’s election on the horizon and the economic gains he’d planned on taking credit for wiped out, Trump is likely to intensify his attacks on China and to frame any criticism of his administration by the media or Democratic opponents as being pro-China. “One way we still win this election is by turning it into a referendum on China,” said one Trump campaign advisor, speaking on condition of anonymity.


Also contributing to the growing disenchantment with China have been Beijing’s continued crackdowns on dissent and human rights, its aggressive military moves in the South China Sea and other factors.

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But the human and economic toll of the coronavirus has introduced a white-hot element into the dynamic between the two countries.

On the Chinese side, the U.S. criticism of the nation — and the economic pain inflicted by the tariffs — has stirred waves of nationalistic resentment.

Public anger, and the Chinese Communist Party’s massive response to fight the epidemic, has strengthened Xi’s grip on power and made it easier for him to pursue a crackdown on dissent.

Many in China chafe at Trump’s effort to blame them for the pandemic as both unfair and factually wrong. They see China, with its isolation of Hubei province and other hot spots, as a model for how to contain and conquer the disease. Many also see China as having reached out to help other countries as its own crisis has abated.

There’s a narrative widely accepted within China that the country has been able to bring the virus under control and “that China is — if not the savior of the world — at least sort of doing more than its fair share to help the rest of the world,” said David Bachman, a China specialist at the University of Washington in Seattle.


And public resentment in both countries is likely to be intensified by the rising economic cost of the pandemic.

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Both economies are expected to see their sharpest drops in decades, with millions of people thrown out of work, businesses crippled or destroyed, and political leaders facing a unique crisis in which conventional stimulus and other time-honored economic policies seem ineffective.

As the economic pain spreads, analysts say it will probably make compromise more difficult even if deescalation would benefit both sides.

“I don’t think there’s any way in hell things get better from here,” Blanchette said. “An increasingly authoritarian China, mixed with a global growth downturn, mixed with a domestic recession, mixed with a populist president, mixed with an election year, equals an increasingly factious discourse on China.”

In the months ahead, China’s economy is expected to suffer its slowest growth in more than 40 years, and could even turn negative for the first time since the mid-1970s.

That could threaten political stability if the Communist Party fails to make good on its compact with the masses to keep improving their economic well-being in exchange for compliance with an authoritarian and often repressive system.


But there are signs that China’s economy may fare better than many in the West are projecting. Factories have largely resumed operations, with electric power usage returning to 95% of what it was this time a year ago, said Nicholas Lardy, a China economy expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

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Trade will undoubtedly suffer with slumping demand from recessions in Europe and America, but Chinese exports exert only half the weight they did on the U.S. economy in the 2008 financial crisis. What’s more, Beijing hasn’t felt the need to spur growth with massive credit or provide anything close to the $2-trillion relief package that the U.S. passed last month.

If the Chinese thought they were heading for a major downturn, Lardy said, Beijing would have injected a lot more stimulus than it has. “I think that’s qualitatively probably the single most important indicator. It’s the dog that didn’t bark.”

For Trump, the antagonism with China has centered on trade. He has led a tit-for-tat tariff war with China, eroding what for many years had been seen as the ballast in the relationship.

In January, there was a glimmer of hope that tensions might ease: The two sides struck a large trade deal in which the Chinese promised to buy billions of dollars more in American farm products and other goods.

But “the trade deal signed in January is already dead in the water,” said Bachman. “There’s no possible way that the targets now are going to be met. And so that’s going to be a source of dissatisfaction on the U.S. side.”


What’s more, the pandemic exposed America’s heavy dependence on China for critical medical supplies and drugs, as well as many other manufactured products.

The outbreak fractured supply chains now dominated by China, prompting more U.S. firms to make plans to relocate operations and rearrange global business relationships.

The disruptions came at a time when corporate America was already growing disillusioned with the old relationship.

Beijing’s persistent refusal to prevent its companies from appropriating the intellectual property and know-how of U.S. firms was high on a lengthening list of complaints.

Whatever the outcome of the coronavirus crisis, it’s almost certain to accelerate long-term changes in the economic relationship between the two countries.

The pandemic “has demonstrated the impossibility of the U.S. and China being coupled closely together,” said Clyde Prestowitz, a top trade negotiator in the Reagan administration. “The notion that free trade and globalization are going to tame China and make it more democratic, etc., I think this has shown that’s bull.”


Deborah Seligsohn, a former economic officer and later science and health counselor for the U.S. State Department in China, lamented the fact that Trump officials had ordered most of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention staff out of China.

But even so, she said, there’s been enough goodwill among working-level officials in both countries that the Chinese CDC contacted the American CDC in early January about the coronavirus outbreak.

The warnings were alarming enough and extensive enough that the U.S. could have responded more effectively and quickly, she said.

“The more we can come up with ways to work together with goodwill in the public health crisis, the more we will be able to move forward and, in a way, to rebuild the global economy,” said Seligsohn, who teaches at Villanova University.

“We know from 1997 [the Asian financial crisis] and from 2008 that the economy will bounce back better if we are ensuring that we are all flourishing.

“I think there’s an opportunity right now to tone down the rhetoric, to think about the global health crisis as one of cooperation, and to create the basis when we all try to get back to business.”


Times staff writer Eli Stokols contributed to this report.