COMMENTARY: A Bridge Not Taken

Pandemic presented a chance for the U.S. and China to come together and lead the global battle against coronavirus. Instead it has hastened the split.

Author: Mark Melnicoe   

After some initial hope that the coronavirus might spur needed cooperation between the U.S. and China, it is now apparent that the global pandemic is hastening the fallout between the world's two most important countries.

Call it an economic decoupling, a slow-motion divorce, a clash of civilizations. It's happening at an accelerating pace, and it's hard to see it reversing. As cases and deaths mount around the world, the war of words and the blame game keep pace.

Both governments botched their responses at the start, but the Chinese leadership grasped the significance of the outbreak in time to recover and limit the carnage among its 1.4 billion people. Few believe Beijing's official count of under 84,000 cases and fewer than 5,000 deaths, but it's clear the national shutdown was effective and China's economy is crawling back.

On this side of the Pacific, not so much. President Trump and his underlings continue to underplay the disease's threat, resulting in more disease as we hurtle toward millions of likely cases and tens of thousands of fatalities. Hence, Trump's anti-China rhetoric heats up amid a propaganda war between the two countries.

Among the most vicious of the charges and countercharges in that war of words has to do with the origin of the coronavirus. The American side increasingly is pushing the idea that the virus may have leaked out of a research lab in Wuhan, where it was first discovered. This comes despite top U.S. officials and scientists saying the evidence points to a natural origin.

No slouch in the propaganda department, China's leaders for a while pushed the narrative that U.S. servicemen in Wuhan for a sports competition last fall spread the virus into the country. There is zero evidence of this. They also point, correctly, to the inept American response overall, especially the lack of testing so that we get a true picture of the viral spread.

Now we hear from the New York Times this week that the Chinese are behind fake text messages and social media posts alleging that Trump is about to lock down the country and place troops in the streets. This comes as Trump more and more loudly blasts China for its "very bad" and "dishonest" handling of the virus and blames it for many deaths.

And so it goes. Perhaps this was all inevitable. A decade of simmering tensions has included strife over power and territory in the South China Sea and Taiwan, China's human rights record in Xinjiang and now Hong Kong, and of course the trade and technology war that Trump launched almost immediately upon entering office in 2017.

Now seems a make-or-break time, and it looks much more like break. In past crises, the U.S. would rise to the occasion.

"Traditionally in such circumstances, the United States would step forward to offer leadership, using its unique convening power and its unmatched economic, political and military might to mobilize resources and spur international efforts in a common direction," the influential Brookings Institution wrote this month. "Such was the case following the Southeast Asian tsunami, the global financial crisis and the outbreak of Ebola in East Africa. The United States has generally viewed it as a positive-sum game to navigate these global challenges with China. That is no longer the case."

The Hill, a news portal that covers Congress and the White House, put out a call for cooperation.

"Policymakers must think clearly about developing a range of options that would help defuse current tensions and restore a more productive relationship at a time when so much is at stake," it said.

It called for "heightened collaboration between experts from the Centers for Disease Control, the military and other U.S. government agencies with Chinese counterparts to share data, best practices and recommendations about treatment and prevention protocols or mitigation measures about COVID-19."

That idea seems almost quaint at this point. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping are fiercely nationalistic leaders, and while Xi at least talks about international cooperation, Trump is a strong unilateralist. He thinks the U.S. is better off going it alone, even amid global problems. Just look at climate change, which he denies is even a problem.

Two-thirds of Americans now view China unfavorably, up from 47 percent two years ago, according to a new survey released this week by the respected Pew Research Center.  And while Americans have increasingly seen China negatively since about 2013, things have really gone off the rails just in the past two years amid the trade war. During that time, the number of Americans with "very unfavorable" views of China has doubled, from 15 percent to 33 percent.

Surveys in China show that public opinion about the United States also has gone much more to the dark side in the last few years, as Xi ramps up the anti-foreigner media machine that the Communist Party controls.

In the U.S., it's true for people of all political stripes, although Republicans tend to be more critical of China than Democrats, surveys consistently show. Still, China bashing has been a political winner in the U.S. for quite a while. The Middle Kingdom is a convenient scapegoat for America's deteriorating economy and position in the world. If China is rising, the thinking goes, we must be falling as a result of Chinese policies and actions. Trump's rhetoric, much of it false, amplifies that idea constantly.

As someone who spent four years living and working in China while making friends with and striving to understand its people and culture, this is very painful and personal to me. I'm no fan of Xi - no journalist can tolerate the guy who has brought industrial-strength repression of the media and of outside ideas to China. I've seen how public opinion is shaped under his regime.

But I also know that hearts and minds in China want to like and admire the United States, a beacon to the world for more than a century. Many of my friends there wonder what has happened to this country since Trump's election. I'm with them on that.  

What does all this mean? A lot of trouble ahead. The U.S.-China separation carries serious implications for the global economy and security. A new Cold War? The specter looms.