The Covid-19 pandemic has aggravated the already sinking US-China relationship attributed to the two countries’ trade, technology and geopolitical wars.
The US is increasingly blaming China for the spread of the coronavirus, the damage it has done to the economy and the large number of deaths. Top American officials, including President Donald Trump, explicitly suggested that it was China’s fault for not telling the world of the virus’ severity, submitting “misinformation” and covering up the outbreak.
What’s more, US Senator Tom Cotton started the conspiracy theory that Covid-19 was manufactured in a lab near Wuhan, which might have been intentionally released to infect the general Chinese and world populations.
However, Chinese diplomat Zhao Lijian picked up on US journalist George Webb’s claim that the virus that causes Covid-19 might have been imported from the US by a military reservist during the Military World Games held in that Chinese city in October 2019.
Webb theorized that a reservist, Maatje Benassi, could have been infected with the virus, which allegedly leaked out of a biological-weapons lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland, before it was shut down by the the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in July 2019.
The blame game appeared to be heating up, with both sides demanding investigations on whether the charges or conspiracy theories were true. Trump in some of his almost daily briefings on Covid-19 vowed to investigate the Wuhan Institute of Virology, from which US intelligence “sources” speculated the virus was released intentionally or accidentally.
Zhao and increasing numbers of Chinese officials and citizens demanded investigations into the health records of Benassi and other US military athletes at the Games reported to have had flu-like symptoms and those who died in the US between August and December 2019, just to mention two of the many questions the US needed to answer.
For its part, China accused the US (and the West in general) of squandering a two-month opportunity to act on its January 3 release of information that Covid-19 would spread rapidly.
The latest revelation was that Covid-19-related deaths occurred in the US in early February if not earlier, weeks or months before the first reported death in March. Some of the thousands of deaths initially reported to have been due to influenza or pneumonia were actually caused by the coronavirus, as post-mortem analysis by the CDC showed.
What’s more, a study by the Louis Pasteur Institute in France found that Covid-19 might have been circulating among the French population before the first Wuhan cases were registered and the arrival of people from China and Italy.
In light of the above scientific studies, one could argue that although the first outbreak of Covid-19 was reported in Wuhan, that does not mean that the city was the source of the virus. Indeed, using the same logic as some US officials and pundits, one could easily stipulate that the coronavirus’ origin might have been the US, Australia, France or all three countries and more.
What’s more, no scientific or other organizations, including the US intelligence communities, have found that the virus was man-made or engineered in the Wuhan lab. So just because people like US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says there is evidence that the virus was produced in that lab does not mean it is true.
With regard to China withholding information from the US, the charge is highly debatable. According to the US government, Beijing did inform the World Health Organization, the US and the rest of the world on January 3, only two weeks after the first outbreak surfaced in Wuhan in late December. In fact, the US intelligence community informed its government of the danger of Covid-19 in November of 2019.
Thus accusations that Beijing did not inform Washington, or claims that the US did not know anything about Covid-19 early on, are hard to believe.
In any event, it seemed that whether or not the information was delayed, it did not really matter, because Trump (and perhaps other Western leaders as well) brushed China’s warning off, saying that the coronavirus was no more dangerous than the common flu and would blow over soon.
So Trump and other Western leaders not only did nothing, but tried to convince themselves that Covid-19 was an “Asian virus” and thus a problem that would not spread to the West.
However, the Trump administration, some Republican lawmakers and media outlets just ignored the scientific findings and continued if not intensified the “blame China” narrative. Fox News regularly and frequently propagated in its reports and talk shows that the virus originated in China.
One of its anchors, Lou Dobbs, even called on the US government to declare war on China for “deliberately” weaponizing biological warfare against the US and the world. The State of Missouri and other US organizations have filed lawsuits in American courts against China for reparations.
Trump himself said recently that he had “high confidence” that the virus was produced in the Wuhan lab, pressuring his intelligence community to find “evidence” that he was right.
With Pompeo claiming he has “enormous evidence” that China produced the virus in the Wuhan lab and saying President Xi Jinping knew about it, the Trump administration seems to be repeating the “Iraq game,” in which the US intelligence community found evidence that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein possessed “weapons of mass destruction.” But Americans and the world were misled and “the rest is history.”
US intelligence will probably find “credible evidence” that the Wuhan lab did produce the virus because Trump is desperately in need of something to shore up his re-election chances, because the economy is tanking from his misguided trade war against China and the shutting down of the economy by Covid-19.
The International Monetary Fund has projected that the US economy will contract by 4.9% in 2020. No US president has ever received a second term in a recession or tanking economy.
Therefore, it might not be a surprise if the US intelligence community does find “evidence” to support Trump’s claim. But on the question of whether Trump will use that “evidence” to sanction or even invade China, as George W Bush did in Iraq, the answer is probably not. China is not Iraq; it has enough economic and military power to hit back.
What’s more, Boris Johnson might not be as accommodating as Tony Blair was, in light of the current UK prime minister’s defiance against US pressure not to use Huawei in Britain’s rollout of fifth-generation (5G) telecom technology.
Furthermore, China might not sit idly by – it will likely push its own “conspiracy theory” that Covid-19 might have originated in the US. It might insist that the US open up Fort Detrick for investigations into its biological-warfare experiments and safety records.
The July 2019 shutdown over safety concerns about the lab’s disposal methods, as reported by The New York Times, was not the first. The Baltimore Sun reported on July 24, 2004, that the lab was shut down in that and earlier years for tardy handling of biological weapons and their disposals. Fort Detrick has a history of safety issues, thus strengthening China’s claim.
China might also demand that the US hand over the medical records of the military personnel who participated in the World Military Games held in Wuhan between October 19 and 29, 2019. The Chinese government might wonder if it was a “coincidence” that the first outbreak of Covid-19 emerged in Wuhan. China has thousands of wet markets nationwide, but no similar virus has surfaced in any other Chinese city or town.
Besides, China had been trading, eating, and using wild animals for medicinal purposes for centuries but had not produced a virus as deadly as Covid-19. The 2003 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak, said to have been caused by animal-to-human transmission, was largely confined in China, lasted less than six months, infected around 8,000 and killed fewer than 800, according to Chinese statistics and confirmed by the US CDC.
Last but not least, China might insist that the US to conduct more posthumous analyses of people who supposedly died from the flu or pneumonia in the latter part of 2019.
But the US seems hell-bent on blaming China for Covid-19, the damage it has caused and other economic woes because 2020 is an election year. Trump and other US politicians have discovered that blaming China is not only a vote generator, but also deflects attention away from their failed policies and systematic weaknesses (such as a broken-down health-care system). So there is an incentive for both US political parties playing the “China card,” each trying to “out-tough” the other in dealing with the Asian giant.
In addition, the US is in the midst of trade and technology wars with China and stepping up “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPs) in the South and East China Seas. On the technology war, the US further restricts American companies from selling dual-use civilian-military technology products to China, the purpose of which is to kill Chinese companies like Huawei.
Meanwhile on US FONOPs, the Chinese military has hardened it position, ramping up its efforts to drive US warships out of its claimed territory.
The problem with advancing or promoting the blame game and intensifying trade and geopolitical wars, however, is that these are lose-lose propositions that risk global economic and geopolitical security without getting anything out of it. The spread of Covid-19 is already pushing global economies into recession, closing numerous businesses and driving hundreds of millions of people around the world out of work.
The biggest losers might be the US and China. Being the world’s two largest economies, traders and investors, economic declines in China and the US will disrupt the global supply chain, thereby pulling the rest of the world into an economic quagmire.
Worse, the Covid-19 blame game and the trade/technology wars could risk geopolitical fallout, turning them into a “hot war” and full-blown economic conflicts, both of which would incur insurmountable damage in terms of human lives and property on both sides of the Pacific.
The sad part is that such huge losses are unnecessary. No country would deliberately release a virus that could kill large numbers of its or other peoples. As the editor-in-chief of the British medical journal Lancet, Richard Horton, has indicated, China did not want the virus and it did warn the world in early January. Virus breakouts or pandemics have happened in the past and will likely surface again in the future.
Moreover, no one blamed the US for the Spanish flu, the first case of which emerged in a US military base in March 1918, according to the US-based History Channel. American soldiers were said to have carried the virus over to Europe. From there the deadly flu spread across the globe, killing between 50 million and 100 million people.
Blaming each other for causing Covid-19 will not bring back the dead nor will it compensate the plaintiffs suing China (or the US), but will only worsen the economic, geopolitical and social damages that the pandemic has already caused.
Horton and other rational minds are right, the world should cooperate with China to stop the pandemic and promote economic recovery. The virus has killed too many people and pushed millions more into economic misery. The last thing the world needs are full-blown economic, technology and military wars.
Ken Moak taught economic theory, public policy and globalization at university level for 33 years. He co-authored a book titled China’s Economic Rise and Its Global Impact in 2015. His second book, Developed Nations and the Economic Impact of Globalization, was published by Palgrave McMillan Springer.