By Claude Smadja*
One could assume that any rational thinking leader would consider it the worst time to create or inflame severe geopolitical frictions: The unprecedented global challenge created by the Covid 19 pandemic and its disastrous economic and social consequences for all countries would be the best incentive to ease tension, at least momentarily, to help expand international collaboration and the coordination of efforts to tame the pandemic. This would apply to rational thinking leaders. Definitely not to Donald Trump for whom any consideration of the national interest comes second to his exclusive priority of doing anything – anything – he sees as helping him avoid losing the presidency next November.
So, as the toll of the pandemic in America keeps growing beyond the symbolic benchmark of one hundred thousand deaths, the US president has concluded that the scapegoating of China was the best way to distract attention from his inept attitude towards the pandemic and the incoherence and incompetence of his policies – for which the human and economic cost keeps growing by the day.
This strategy has assumed different forms: There have been the baseless allegations that the Covid 19 virus was engineered in a laboratory in Wuhan – allegations dismissed by Mr. Trump’s own intelligence agency and the Five Eyes, the intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. Then there has been baseless accusations that China was stealing US research on a Covid 19 vaccine; more importantly Washington has come up with new sanctions against Huawei, with the planned banning of the use of American equipment for the manufacturing by any company of semi-conductors chips used by Huawei – going for the jugular of a company which is an icon and a symbol of Beijing’s technological ambitions. And other anti-Chinese companies measures are in the pipeline, according to the Washington grapevine.
President Trump assumes he is playing on a safe domestic ground given the strident anti-China mood prevailing in the US political circles, which will get even more pronounced after the passing by China’s National People’s Congress of the Hong Kong national security law. He can bet that Joe Biden, his Democrat Party rival in the race for the White House, will feel compelled to show his credentials as a leader ready to stand firm against China in a kind of outbidding contest of anti-China machismo that he may well risk losing given the fact that Mr. Biden is a decent person and that Donald Trump has abundantly shown that no insulting tweet or false accusation against political rivals if off-limit for him.
This is where the egoistical objectives of the US president not only go against US long-term national interests but also create very dangerous geopolitical risks. That China may have been late in fully informing on the outbreak of the Covid crisis is most certainly the case. It is also clear , as manifested by social media messages, that segments of the Chinese people are angry against the initial delays in containing the spread of the epidemic. But the widespread perception in China is now that the regime has been quite efficient in taming the pandemic. People compare the results in the mainland, where the situation gets steadily back to normal, with what is happening in the US or the UK where governments are still unable to stabilize the death count. As one of my Chinese interlocutors was noting, “If even if you consider that the actual number of deaths is, say, twenty times the official number of four thousand six hundred something – which is quite an exaggerated assumption – this would be less than the one hundred thousand deaths already in the US, while the American population is less than a quarter of the Chinese one”.
Whatever the misgivings or criticisms against the policies of the leadership in addressing the pandemic whoever in Washington – or elsewhere – thinks that the leadership, and especially President Xi Jinping’s authority, have been weakened by the crisis is confusing wishful thinking with political analysis. Washington, and the rest of the world, will have to continue dealing with a China which will recover from the economic and human damage generated by Covid 19 – and this before the US where there is no end in sight for the death count; a China which will eventually find ways to overcome the containment policy that this administration is trying to enforce, and which will continue asserting its goal of achieving equal footing with the US.
So, instead of an approach mixing and alternating cooperation, firmness and competition, depending on the domains and on the moment, and which would require diplomatic skills completely inexistent in the Trump administration, the White House policies towards Beijing are making of China an enemy. This is not only a conceptual and political failure of huge dimensions. More importantly it is a situation from which the US cannot expect to emerge as a winner because this is not a re-run of the cold war of yesteryear. China is much, much more than the Soviet Union ever was; and the US position in the world is definitely not what it used to be and will not revert to the absolute prominence it once enjoyed.
Even worse, America is isolated as Donald Trump can forget rallying European and Asian countries in his anti-China crusade. There is no credibility left in European or many Asian capitals for this administration, and no shred of confidence in its reliability. European and Asian leaders know also fully well that whatever their concerns about some of Beijing policies they cannot “bypass” China. They have to deal with an essential economic, technological and geopolitical player – – and this will be even more so in the future. Even as they need to assert their interests in front of some Beijing policies, there is no place in their thinking for containment or “de-coupling” or scapegoating.
It is a sad irony that Washington is now a center of geopolitical risk in the world. Whoever succeeds Donald Trump – whenever this happens – will have to travel a long and difficult road to restore America’s prestige and credibility.
*Claude Smadja is President of Smadja & Smadja, a Strategic Advisory Firm @ClaudeSmadja