Mar 21, 2020 - Health

U.S.-China tensions hit a dangerous new high

Illustration of dragon and eagle
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The coronavirus crisis has sent U.S.-China relations spiraling, alarming analysts who say the two countries are at their most dangerous point in decades.

Why it matters: Instead of working together to fight the global pandemic, the world's two largest economies are engaging in risky escalation.

What's happening: A high-level blame game between Washington and Beijing has brought simmering hostilities and mistrust to the surface.

  • Seeking to deflect blame for a pandemic that originated within its borders, some Chinese officials and propaganda outlets are pushing a conspiracy theory that the U.S. military planted the virus in Wuhan — a disinformation strategy not seen at this intensity since the early days of the Cold War.
  • Some U.S. officials, including President Trump, have responded by dubbing the coronavirus a "Chinese" virus, which goes against World Health Organization naming conventions.
  • A tit-for-tat escalation in media expulsions has seen two historically unprecedented measures: the U.S. effectively expelled about 60 Chinese state media workers, and this week, Beijing announced that U.S. journalists at three flagship U.S. publications would have to leave.

The big picture: The deterioration in bilateral relations may have been sparked by the pandemic, but its roots are in longer-term trends.

  • China now has the power and the confidence to challenge the U.S., and Western institutions and values more generally, across many fronts.
  • Under Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping, China has taken a hard turn toward dogma and authoritarianism.
  • Under Trump, U.S. diplomacy, which might otherwise help arrest the bilateral free fall, has been largely sidelined and replaced with direct statements from the White House.

What they're saying: "Washington and Beijing are seeing their power gap shrink and their ideological gap grow, which in turn is amplifying bilateral tensions and undercutting cooperation on the coronavirus," said Rush Doshi, director of the China Strategy Initiative at the Brookings Institution.

  • "China’s Foreign Ministry is spreading conspiracy theories, its diplomats now regularly attack the United States, and Beijing is now expelling unprecedented numbers of U.S. journalists," said Doshi. "In these respects, this feels less like reformist China and more like Maoist China."

What's at stake: A military accident or strategic miscalculation could quickly spark a conflagration.

  • An accidental in-flight collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese military jet in April 2001 set bilateral relations on edge, but the conflict was eventually resolved through painstaking diplomatic efforts on both sides.
  • If such an accident happened right now, "the political crisis could escalate very quickly. Both sides would use such a crisis to rally their own people in support of their own position and to protect their own interests," said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

A senior U.S. administration official told Axios the U.S. wants "constructive, results-oriented engagement" with China, but said Beijing was deploying state propaganda and conspiracy theories to deflect blame.

  • "The United States calls upon the Communist Party of China to opt for greater transparency and partner constructively in the global effort to fight a common threat," said the official.
  • "We call on the U.S. to stop finger pointing at China," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said on March 17. "The utmost priority is for the international community to cooperate on fighting the virus."

What to watch: The Chinese government is now sending medical equipment and advisory teams to countries around the world. The U.S., on the other hand, has made few attempts to lead a global response. If the trend continues, it could mark a major victory in China's bid to be seen as a global leader that can rival the United States.

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