The COVID-19 pandemic and the US-China strategic confrontation

Dr. Renato de Castro, Trustee and Program Convenor, Stratbase ADR Institute

Prior to the global outbreak of COVID-19, US-China relations had been in a state of dramatic change. At the onset of his term, President Donald Trump had described China and Russia as “rival powers” — that seek to challenge American influence, values, and wealth. Between the two regional powers, American policymakers gave more attention to China since they have recognized that it is a powerful and wealthy country that is also attempting to reshape the regional order in the direction favorable to its interests. From Washington’s perspective, China is considered a revisionist power that seeks to reorder the region to its advantage by leveraging on modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce other nations.

In late 2017, Mr. Trump made the strategic competition with China the centerpiece of American foreign policy. This competition is characterized by the US’ forceful pushback and initiatives against what the administration claimed as unfair Chinese trade practices, cyber-espionage, unlawful maritime expansion, military intimidation of American allies and security partners in East Asia, and global propaganda campaigns directed against the Western Alliance.

This commentary is derived from a Special Study commissioned from me by the ADR Institute in August 2020 entitled “The Challenge of Managing 21st Century Pandemics amidst the US-China Strategic Competition.”

The Trump administration’s policy toward China is based on a “principal realism” approach that emphasizes Washington’s willingness to cooperate with Beijing wherever possible but more openly complains about Chinese behavior, most specifically in the South China Sea, which “calls into question China’s broader goals.” The COVID-19 pandemic, however, changed the dynamics of US-China strategic competition as the two great powers are currently locked in an antagonistic relationship that could trigger a major conflict in the 21st century.

After successfully containing the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic in its territory in March 2020, China launched a major diplomatic and humanitarian offensive aimed at assisting countries that are struggling against the raging pandemic. It deployed medical experts, and delivered rapid diagnostic testing kits and protective medical gear to the Philippines, Serbia, Spain, Iran, and Italy. From East Asia to the Middle East, China provided or offered humanitarian and medical assistance in the form of medical expertise and equipment. China’s success in containing the spread of the epidemic in the country, and its efforts in extending medical assistance to the global community emboldened Chinese officials and diplomats to conduct a propaganda campaign against the US and its Western European allies.

On March 13, a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson accused the US of spreading the virus to Wuhan City which became the center of the country’s coronavirus epidemic. In his Twitter account, Chinese Foreign Minister Spokesperson Zhao Lijiang claimed that the US Army brought the virus to China. Relying on a statement by the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during a congressional hearing, Mr. Zhao inferred that the infection actually began in the US and that American military personnel brought the virus to China during their participation in the 2019 Military World Games that was held in Wuhan in October. Interestingly, after criticizing American officials for politicizing the pandemic, Chinese officials and news outlets flaunted the unfounded theory that COVID-19 is actually an American disease that might have been introduced by members of the United States Army.

In his March 23 speech in the White House, President Trump accused Beijing of concealing the outbreak first detected in Wuhan, which has become a pandemic that paralyzed the US health system. Officials in the administration denounced China’s resistance to sharing data about the virus and warned that China has the power to interfere with medical supply chains into the US. The administration also entertained the clamor of several American commentators and legislators who were calling for American businesses to produce vital medicines and equipment domestically to reduce US dependence on Chinese manufacturers and importers. It also raised questions on the degree of decoupling between the US and its allies, and the need to undertake measures vis-a-vis the Chinese economy by diversifying their supply chain and being less dependent on manufacturing industries based in China. Finally, key cabinet members called for a more confrontation posture toward China as they warned that a fast-growing China, under Mr. Xi’s increasingly authoritarian rule, seeks military, economic, and technological domination overthe US and its allies.

This has generated heightened frictions and across-the-board confrontations in the following realms: a.) military and security matters; b.) ideological and political issues; c.) commercial, technological, and even medical fields; d.) economic and diplomatic influence in the Indo-Pacific region; and e.) in four geostrategic powder kegs — Taiwan Straits, South and East China Sea, and the Korean Peninsula. In all these domains, the US-China strategic confrontation has become pervasive and volatile in a maritime realm that is at the Philippines’ doorstep — the South China Sea.

This article was originally published in BusinessWorld.

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