The Trump administration is embarking on a strategy of depicting China as a danger to the world by using the coronavirus pandemic as a backdrop for its argument.
With India expected to gain a leadership role within the World Health Organization (WHO) later this month, there are signs that battle lines over China’s response to the coronavirus are being drawn within the organisation.
A New Delhi official at the WHO, in a nod to the Trump administration, said, “India is on the side of transparency and accountability in the Covid-19 outbreak.”
Trump has accused the WHO of "severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus," and said the US would end its annual contribution, which was $418 million in 2018, to the organisation.
The Trump administration is attempting to shine a spotlight on Beijing in a bid to frame the virus as something "Made in China."
With the US heading into an election year and the country experiencing its worst unemployment figures in decades with more than 21 million people losing their jobs, Trump’s presidential survival is at stake.
More recently, Australia has joined the US in asking for a global inquiry in the origins of the coronavirus. The move has angered China, which sees it as a ploy to undermine the country.
Barry O’Farrell, the high commissioner-designate of Australia to India, during a speech at the National Defence College in April said, “If the pandemic is to have any influence on Australia’s strategy, it will be to accelerate the very trends that brought Australia and India so close together … I believe this crisis will bring Australia and India even closer together as two Indian Ocean democracies with complementary value.”
Signs that China could attempt to gain political capital from the coronavirus outbreak are being met with resistance.
A conspiracy theory peddled by the Trump administration is that the coronavirus emerged from a lab in Wuhan, the city where the virus was first detected.
Trump’s assertions, however, have been rejected by his own intelligence agencies and the scientific community who have said the genetic code of the virus is more likely to be organic than man-made.
That, however, hasn’t stopped Trump from expressing doubt, saying that “a lot of people” were looking at the possibility that a Chinese lab was responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic.
China’s initial efforts to curtail information leaks regarding the virus have been criticised and have created a cloud of distrust around Beijing’s intentions about what it knew about the virus and when. China claims they have been transparent.
New front against China?
The escalating war of words between China and the US is also becoming a battle about the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
An internal CCP report seen by Reuters concluded that global anti-China sentiment is at its highest since the 1989 Tiananmen Square Incident.
A wave of anti-Chinese sentiment, led by the US, could have a significant impact on the world's second-largest economy and its international standing.
The report is also an indication of how seriously China is taking the potential backlash and the implications it could have for stability within the country.
In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, Trump administration officials are said to be working on strategies to shift supply chains away from China in a bid to tackle the country's economic clout.
“We’ve been working on (reducing the reliance of our supply chains in China) over the last few years but we are now turbo-charging that initiative,” Keith Krach, undersecretary for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment at the State Department told Reuters.
The United States is pushing to create an alliance of “trusted partners” dubbed the “Economic Prosperity Network,” in which companies and civil society groups could work together under a set of standards on everything from digital business, energy and infrastructure to research, trade, education and commerce.
Other policies to entice companies away from China are tax incentives and subsidies to companies relocating away from the manufacturing powerhouse.
Such policies may very well be seen by China as a form of economic warfare meant to destabilise the country.
The Trump administration seems to also be rolling out a strategy in which the CCP is portrayed as no longer capable of leading China.
A speech delivered by the US Deputy National Security Adviser Matthew Pottinger commemorating the 101-year anniversary of China’s May the Fourth movement — a student-led populist uprising in the aftermath of the First World War — seemed to implicitly suggest that the Chinese people could once again rebel against their government.
“When small acts of bravery are stamped out by governments, big acts of bravery follow,” said Pottinger.
Pottinger asked, “whether China today would benefit from a little less nationalism and a little more populism.”
“Democratic populism is less about left versus right than top versus bottom. It’s about reminding a few that they need the consent of many to govern. When a privileged few grow too remote and self-interested, populism is what pulls them back or pitches them overboard,” he added.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was even more inflammatory by suggesting in a tweet that “China has a history of infecting the world and they have a history of running substandard laboratories.”
Seen cumulatively, steps taken by the US are increasingly about setting the post-coronavirus political landscape to ensure that Chinese power is contained while attempting to shore up allies as the brinkmanship between the two countries reaches new heights.