A China-U.S. Cold War?
China’s problems are mounting. As Beijing works frantically to cover up its responsibility for the global pandemic, Western intelligence is trying to find out exactly how the outbreak began and how much China’s leaders knew. It is already clear that China’s secrecy and deception imposed huge costs in lives and livelihoods around the world. Their regime will pay a heavy price as world politics is reshaped to see China as a dangerous adversary, not a benign partner.
U.S. intelligence agencies, working with epidemiologists, believe that the new virus first detected in Wuhan was a natural strain, not a man-made bioweapon. What they still don’t know is whether it spread from a wild bat or, as they increasingly believe, from poor containment at a virology lab. They still don’t know the identity of “patient zero.” They still haven’t been able to visit the region, the lab, or its researchers. They still haven’t been able to review essential medical data, much of it now deliberately destroyed. Chinese researchers and early patients have disappeared and may be dead. Official tallies of the dead and infected are obvious fakes. It’s a grim picture. The orchestrated coverup by the Chinese Communist Party cannot obscure it.
Despite this bodyguard of lies, Western intelligence agencies are confident the CCP’s top officials knew in December that the virus was highly contagious. Internal communications reveal party officials discussing the problem in mid-January, even as they told the world the opposite.
Their deception mattered since Western health officials had no idea the virus spread so rapidly -- or that their nations were unwittingly importing it. In late January and early February, most Western specialists still believed the outbreak could be contained, much as SARS had been. In early March, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top expert on infectious diseases, said he believed it was fine for younger, healthier people to travel on cruise ships. It wasn’t. The Chinese knew, but he didn’t.
China’s leaders not only knew how contagious the virus was, they acted on that inside information. In December, they stopped all internal flights from Wuhan to protect Shanghai, Beijing, and other population centers. Yet they allowed international flights to continue. Flights from Wuhan to Madrid. Wuhan to Rome. Wuhan to Seattle. Wuhan to Los Angeles. Why? Probably to hide the health crisis from global scrutiny. Meanwhile, they began secretly scooping up the world’s supply of N95 masks and personal protective equipment. For years, China had been a major exporter of those products. Now, surreptitiously, they were becoming net importers. They used some of the purchases at home and then, when the pandemic hit other nations, began re-exporting them at sharply inflated prices. Since then, China has ramped up its own production for foreign sales, although many buyers have found the rapidly produced medical products, from masks to ventilators, are defective and worthless.
Whatever Wuhan officials knew in late November, they surely knew the truth a few weeks later and so did their bosses in Beijing. They knew health care workers were falling ill from contact with patients, and they knew some infected patients had no contact with the “wet market” or the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The only way they could have contracted the disease was from human contact.
That knowledge was critical. What did China do with it? They arrested, tortured, and silenced anyone who might share it: doctors, researchers, and reporters. Some were coerced into renouncing their earlier warnings, forced to condemn themselves, in writing, for “spreading gossip.” Loose lips sink dictatorships.
Fortunately, there is an international organization designed specifically to investigate health emergencies like this and warn the world. Unfortunately, that institution is the World Health Organization. Its leader, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, was handpicked by Beijing, and the CCP got exactly what it wanted: a toady. When the WHO first learned of the viral outbreak in Wuhan, it should have investigated immediately and sounded the alarm. It didn’t. Instead, the WHO rubber-stamped China’s deceptions, refused to disseminate timely information from Taiwan, and, knowingly or not, spread misinformation to the world.
These were deadly blunders, and the Trump administration has rightly condemned the WHO for them. As the organization’s largest donor, America has leverage, and President Trump is using it. He has suspended contributions until his administration completes an investigation, first of this failure and then of the WHO’s overall performance. Trump will undoubtedly demand a thorough housecleaning before sending any more money, probably at a much-reduced level.
China’s campaign of deception is not in the rearview mirror. It is ongoing. For one thing, the government is believed to be significantly downplaying the number of infections and deaths of Chinese citizens. Instead of taking responsibility, Beijing is still spinning a ludicrous tale that American soldiers are somehow responsible for the pandemic. They offer no evidence. China, they say, is the world’s savior during this crisis, its source of lifesaving medical supplies. Actually, it is the angel of death. Beijing is now so committed to this fable it is hard to see how they dig themselves out, at home or abroad.
No one can predict what price the communist regime will pay within China. We simply don’t know whether the death toll and economic disruption will foster widespread unrest — and, if they do, whether the military can smash it and the party remain united behind President Xi Jinping. The military is already cracking down on renewed protests in Hong Kong, fearing they might spread to the mainland.
Whatever Beijing’s success in controlling the home front, it cannot control the battlefields abroad. Once the immediate health crisis is over, voters and politicians will survey the wreckage and conclude that much of it could have been avoided if Chinese officials had told the truth, and told it promptly. Only then would public health authorities have known what to expect and how to react. The CCP deliberately denied the world that essential information. Equally troubling, Beijing spread the virus -- knowingly, deliberately -- by allowing regular flights to Europe and America. Those travelers caused deadly outbreaks across the continent and on America’s West Coast. From there, it spread to the East Coast as infected travelers arrived from Europe. What quickly became the worst health crisis in a century could have been avoided, or significantly minimized, if Chinese officials had simply told the truth. Americans understand that. According to recent polls, four out of five blame China for this crisis.
They want answers, and they want China held accountable. The first step, already beginning, is a much darker global view of China and its communist regime. Once seen as economic partners and occasional security rivals, they are now seen as dangerous, predatory foes.
That reassessment will fundamentally reshape world politics, and the Trump administration is leading it. It considers China the greatest military threat, far more formidable than Russia, Iran, or North Korea. Coping with that threat won’t require larger U.S. defense budgets since military funding and readiness have already been increased significantly since Trump took office. What’s new is the economic response. The Trump administration is beginning a systematic policy to reduce dependence on China. There is already a bipartisan consensus that sensitive production should be brought home, beginning with pharmaceuticals, medical supplies, telecommunications, high technology, and artificial intelligence. Other sectors deemed important for national security will soon follow.
Washington will demand similar policies from allies, especially those who share intelligence. The obvious loser will be Huawei’s 5G telecom network. The U.S. will also begin restricting Chinese ownership of strategic assets, such as ports, and will urge our allies to do the same. Even commonplace items, such as Chinese-made drones, will be questioned since they offer a hostile regime a possible window on Americans. The same is obviously true for home-security devices and networked appliances. This new “Internet of things” is becoming embedded in American lives, including those with high-level security clearances. The danger of espionage is obvious. It’s obvious, too, that Americans will want to sue China for economic damages. Some lawsuits have already been filed. To win, they need a waiver of China’s “sovereign immunity,” and some members of Congress have proposed it. What about the annual influx of Chinese students and research scientists who come to America’s top research universities? Serious questions will arise on policy after policy, all giving China broad access to America. Expect serious debate and big changes.
If China’s access is squeezed, it will respond ferociously. Beijing would demand foreign companies leave production in China if they want to sell there. It would leverage its global trade and investment ties and continue using loans to gain access to poor countries. It would ramp up cyberattacks, election interference, and industrial espionage. It is already doing so. It would tighten military relationships with regimes already confronting America: Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and Cuba. And it would seek closer relations with Pakistan, Turkey, and central Asia. The result would be an alliance system centered on Beijing, opposed to Washington, trying to neutralize Europe with economic ties.
Decoupling from China is a costly, difficult undertaking, and one sure to prompt pushback from Western corporations. Europeans, who have few strategic interests in Asia, will want to sustain their profitable stake in China. They will want to take advantage of America’s harsher policies, hoping to sell Airbus planes to replace Boeing, for example. Israel, where China has invested heavily in high technology, will face intense pressure from Washington to reduce those ties. It will follow Washington’s line, but reluctantly. Nearly all international companies will quietly resist pressure from the Trump administration. They don’t want to relinquish China’s vast, profitable market. Nor do they wish to uproot supply chains that run through factories there, although they are moving quickly to find other, less risky sources.
Finally, the Trump administration itself doesn’t want to decouple too quickly, and the president has said as much. He certainly wants China to continue making the huge purchases it promised recently. In the Phase 1 trade deal, China committed to buy $250 billion annually from the U.S., including $40 billion-$50 billion in agricultural goods. Trump would hate to see that deal collapse before November. Farmers and factories across the South and Midwest need those sales, and Trump badly needs those votes.
So far, the Democratic Party has not adopted a clear stance on China. Most prominent figures have avoided blaming Beijing since doing so might seem to absolve Trump. Foreign policy elites, such as Fareed Zakaria, take that line and defend economic interdependence. They were already appalled by Trump’s nationalism and protectionism. They continue to attack the president and downplay malfeasance by China and the WHO. A few have taken a different approach, reminding voters of Trump’s early praise for Xi. But that’s really an opportunistic attack on Trump, not a hard-line policy on China.
Most Democrats won’t run to Trump’s right on China. Rather, they will say he is too belligerent, too nationalistic, too eager to blame others for his own mistakes. As Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) put it, "The reason that we're in the crisis that we are today is not because of anything China did." Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said almost the same thing. On April 18, he tweeted that President Trump should “Stop blaming China, the WHO, or the states.”
For now, Joe Biden is playing both sides of the fence. Early on, he disparaged Trump’s Jan. 31 decision to restrict flights from China. Yet the political action committee working for Biden’s election recently aired a nasty campaign ad asserting Trump has “rolled over for the Chinese” during the pandemic. The ad also claimed that Trump “sent China our [medical] supplies,” a falsehood that even the anti-Trump media exposed. But the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee hasn’t publicly done any reevaluating of U.S.-Sino relations. Biden has long favored cooperation with Beijing and has not signaled any basic change in that position. He will probably focus less on new policies and more on Trump administration’s faults during the pandemic: poor initial testing (due to contamination at CDC labs), too few ventilators, too little personal protective equipment, misleading “happy talk” before the crisis’ scale was known, and the slow ramp-up of testing.
But all of these issues are ultimately linked to China as well, and all of them will matter in November. The overriding question is whether the administration did a good job handling the health crisis and economic reopening. Everything else pales beside it. Democrats will say the medical response was botched and the economic reopening came too soon or too late, depending on which criticism has more traction this summer. A secondary question is whether the Democratic nominee could have done any better. Beyond that, expect to see U.S. foreign policy reshaped by the deepening Sino-American conflict. Republicans normally gain when security issues are prominent and should again this time.
But the most profound questions are not partisan at all. Can Washington deter China’s expansive global role? Can these nuclear superpowers avoid direct engagement in contested areas like the South China Sea and Korean Peninsula? And are we beginning yet another “long twilight struggle,” another Cold War?