By Jonathan Power*
The world is supposed to be pulling together to defeat the Coronavirus and to some extent it is. Earlier on Russia sent special equipment to the U.S. and recently the U.S. has sent some to Russia. China has aided Italy and Africa with doctors and equipment. Tiny Cuba, with its deep pool of doctors, has also helped Africa.
Around the world there is a sense of “we are all in this together” and that this is a bigger problem than the ones the world has faced since World War II. The last two days the World Health Organization (WHO) has brought all the world’s countries together to discuss how to go forward.
Both the U.S. and China, to a degree, have messed things up. President Donald Trump has been vicious in his attacks, suggesting Chinese culpability for spreading the virus. (He’s forgotten how the U.S. incubated AIDS, an even greater killer. But China never blamed the U.S.) He started the provoking and needling weeks ago, calling the virus “a Chinese virus”.
Then when some Chinese senior officials (but not the leadership) publicly shouted back, Trump hit back, ever harder. It wasn’t Trump versus President Xi Jinping. It was Trump versus much lower down officials and some of the Chinese media. So, what good did that unnecessary spat do?
What Trump’s representatives needed to say at the World Health Organisation’s special two-day assembly that began on May 18 was, “Let’s sit down and with our best scientists discuss not who is to blame but how such diseases can be forestalled”. That is likely to bring a better result. China has now said, changing its previous position, that after the disease is overcome it will be cooperating with an international inspection carried out by the WHO to ascertain how and why what went wrong. In fact, it needs to be encouraged to open up to WHO’s experts long before that.
Meanwhile, China has been boasting about the speed at which its lockdown worked. The South Koreans are boasting how with fast-moving testing, tracing and social distancing they defeated the virus without a lockdown and Sweden is speaking of how the relaxed alternative to lockdown which it is practicing works over the long run. Hopefully, some cross-fertilization of the best ideas and practices will come out of this conference.
Trump’s antagonism towards China existed before the time of Corona. Despite his bonhomie with Xi whenever he meets him, he has gone all out with his trade war. He refuses to negotiate an extension of the nuclear weapons reduction agreement with Russia unless China (a relatively small nuclear power) is brought into the deal, which Russia interprets understandably as a go-slow tactic.
Trump plays into a very old-time visceral fear of the “yellow peril” which not so long ago was a minority feeling in America. But he has managed to whip up a broad swathe of public opinion to be anti-China. The Democrats (and much of the media) have followed him. Not just Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presidential candidate, but also Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, even though their attacks are less pointed.
This goes nowhere. What’s the point of it? In the end the U.S. will lose. China has a population 4 times as much. Before that long it will begin to match the U.S.’s income per head, at least in its eastern more developed and more populated parts. Its high technology is already ahead of the West’s in many areas. Its military budget is increasing (but not by much).
Where does this hostility come from? The late Harvard professor, Samuel Huntington, famous for his book, “The Clash of Civilizations” in which he predicted war between the Islamic world and the West wrote as well about the gulf between the U.S.-led West and Chinese civilization, which he also believed was set for a head-on violent collision.
“Americans see government as a necessary evil”, writes Graham Allison, another Harvard professor, “and believe that the state’s tendency toward tyranny and abuse of power must be feared and constrained. For the Chinese the government is a necessary good, the fundamental pillar ensuring order and preventing chaos…. China’s equivalent of ‘give me liberty or give me death’ would be ‘‘give me a harmonious community or give me death’.”
Both countries believe they are number one in the world. Both have an extreme superiority complex. Both think they are exceptional. But, unlike China, the U.S. has sought to prevent the emergence of a “peer competitor” that could challenge its own military dominance. (This is aimed against Western Europe and Russia as well as China.)
America wants to export its concepts of democracy and human rights. China, as Henry Kissinger noted, does “not export its ideas but let others come to seek them”. China thinks that the U.S. pushes for these virtues as a tactic to undermine its form of government. (Interestingly, there are human rights courses at some Chinese universities that are independent in content.)
Then there is a profound cultural difference. Americans tend to focus on the present and too easy forget the lessons of the past – as with the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Iraqi wars. The novelist Gore Vidal has noted his country should be called “The United States of Amnesia”. The Chinese are more historically minded and often think in terms of decades or generations.
China has not gone to war since 1979. For its part the U.S. has attempted regime change around the world 72 times. Nor has China funded or supported proxies or armed insurgents since the early 1980s.
According to Fareed Zakaria, “That record of non-intervention is unique among the world’s great powers. Beijing is now the second largest funder of the United Nations and its peacekeeping work. It has deployed 2,500 peacekeepers, more than all the other permanent members of the Security Council combined. This highlights the remarkable shift from a radical agenda of spreading revolution to a conservative concern for stability. It has become a guardian of the international status quo. Had someone predicted this in 1972 few would have believed it possible”.
China has come a long way since the aggressive days of Mao Zedong, whereas the U.S. appears in some ways to have gone backwards.
As for trade, the international bank, Credit Suisse, said in a 2015 that a tally of 450 non-tariff barriers against foreign goods put in place by major countries showed that the U.S. is a league of its own as number one. China is fifth in the list. In a recent survey of U.S. companies, conducted by the U.S.-China Business Council, intellectual property protection ranked sixth on a list of pressing concerns, down from number two in 2014.
That year China created its first specialized courts to handle intellectual property cases. In 2015 foreign plaintiffs brought 63 cases to the court. The court ruled for the foreign firms in all cases.
Trump’s case against China on the Coronavirus, on military posture and on trade is wildly exaggerated. It needs to stop being made. The U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo has said the West must keep China in “its proper place”. This gets us exactly nowhere.
The Coronavirus and the debate over who is right and who is wrong could become a watershed moment in the relationship between the U.S. and China. Nothing could be more counterproductive. Nothing could be more damaging to the peace of the world.
Note: Copyright Jonathan Power. Website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com. The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune.