Analysis | What’s behind Trump’s China attacks?

Amid the COVID-19 crisis, Mr. Trump has taken tensions between USA and China to new highs by endorsing the unproven lab theory and threatening China with punishments, which could have harsh economic consequences at a time when the global economy is in its deepest downturn in decades

May 04, 2020 06:06 pm | Updated 06:16 pm IST

President Donald Trump. File

President Donald Trump. File

President Donald Trump and his aides have stepped up attacks on China in recent weeks over the COVID-19 outbreak as the U.S. was struggling to contain the spread of the virus and the economic crisis it triggered.

Mr. Trump first called the novel coronavirus a “Chinese virus”, triggering angry responses from Beijing. Last month, he suggested the U.S. seek damages from China over the outbreak which began in Wuhan and spread around the world. Mr. Trump has already restricted use of Chinese electrical equipment in the U.S. grid system amid rising tensions. Some officials in the administration are prodding him to block a government pension fund from investing in Chinese companies aimed at upending capital flows into Asian giant, according to a New York Times report. Moreover, Mr. Trump and his officials have linked a virology lab in Wuhan to the virus, an allegation which the U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating.

Tensions between the two countries are not new. Ties between the two were not particularly good since Mr. Trump became President. This time, amid the pandemic crisis, Mr. Trump has taken tensions to new highs by endorsing the unproven lab theory and threatening China with punishments , which could have harsh economic consequences at a time when the global economy is in its deepest downturn in decades. Why is Mr. Trump doing this?

The new rival

Till early this year, the focus of Mr. Trump’s re-election team was the performance of the economy. The economy was growing, unemployment rate was low and the stock markets were rising. Mr. Trump had taken credit for the economic performance. But then the virus hit the U.S. Mr. Trump immediately had two problems in his hands. One, the U.S. is one of the hardest-hit countries by the outbreak. As of Monday, there were over 1.15 million COVID-19 infections in the U.S. and over 67,600 deaths. The Trump administration’s response to the crisis triggered widespread criticism in the U.S. that led to a slide in the President’s approval rating.

Two, the economy tanked amid the virus crisis. About 30 millions Americans have lost their jobs since mid-March. A Congressional Budget Office report forecasts that unemployment rate would average 14% this year — highest since the end of Second World War — and that the U.S. economy would shrink by 12% in the second quarter. In the first quarter, the economy shrank by 4.8%, the first contraction since 2014 and the deepest since the 2008 recession. Mr. Trump has effectively lost the bet on the economy in an election year. Faced with these challenges, he seems to have zeroed in on a new rival to mobilise his support base — China. "We are not happy with China," Mr. Trump told a White House briefing on April 28. "We are not happy with that whole situation because we believe it [the virus outbreak] could have been stopped at the source.”

Run against China

Late last month, right-leaning academic and columnist Walter Russell Mead wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Mr. Trump’s best re-election bet was to run against China. “With the economy in shambles and the pandemic ravaging the country, making the election a referendum on China is perhaps Mr. Trump’s only chance to extend his White House tenure past January 2021,” he wrote. China would soon become a political issue in the U.S. with both the Republican Party and President Trump turning Beijing into to an electoral issue.

A 57-page memo sent to campaign committees by the National Republican Senatorial Committee advised Republican candidates to address the pandemic by attacking China. It asked GOP leaders to tie Democrats to Beijing (Democrats are “soft on China”) and “push for sanctions on China for its role in spreading this pandemic”. Following the GOP memo, President Trump said on April 30 in an interview with Reuters that China “will do anything they can to have me lose this race”. He added that Beijing wanted his Democratic opponent Joe Biden to win the November election. The America First Action political committee that backs Mr. Trump has launched advertisements attacking “Beijing Biden”. They portray Mr. Biden as the representative of the establishment elite that is soft on China.

Great power rivalry

China has responded angrily to attacks from Mr. Trump and other top officials. "The H1N1 flu that broke out in the U.S. in 2009 [and] spread to 214 countries and regions, killing nearly 200,000 people; has anyone demanded the U.S. for compensation?" Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang asked last month. “AIDS was first discovered in the U.S. in the 1980s and spread to the world, causing great agony for the world, has anyone held the U.S. accountable?” The official Xinhua news agency released a one-minute-forty-six-second video on April 30 defending China’s handling of the pandemic and accusing the U.S. of ignoring its warnings.

With the election season hotting up in the U.S., the China-bashing in DC is expected to increase, which could further complicate the trade and economic ties between the world’s largest and second largest economies. What we are witnessing now could be a defining phase of the new great power rivalry.

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