By Shilin Xia and Shaobin Zheng
As US coronavirus infection and deaths approach 1.89 million and 109,000, President Trump’s reaction stubbornly remains the same: tweeting “Chinese Virus,” impugning China and the World Health Organization, and golfing. Instead of an arena for global cooperation, the Trump administration transforms the pandemic into a political battleground where he sows divisions, stokes hatred, and exploits bias. Unfortunately, the blame game itself may be a more pernicious virus for the US global interests than the coronavirus in the long term. It is significant for President Trump to steer clear of inflammatory statements, introspect the disastrous impact of the blame game, and re-orchestrate US management of the coronavirus.
The US ability to lead and coordinate strategic allies and partners, as one major pillar of the US-led diplomatic architecture, has played an indispensable role in safeguarding the US global interests against any threats or challenges. Based on the US Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China, the Trump administration aims to reinforce “the resiliency of [American] institutions, alliances, and partnerships” against the threats China poses to the US global interests. Nonetheless, what President Trump has accomplished through his blame game is the further escalating Sino-US friction and growing disunity and uncertainty in the US-led Group of Seven.
President Trump’s blame game to divert public anger over his own missteps onto China has inevitably added further strains on the very tense Sino-US interaction, which will have a significant bearing on their future harmony and US strategic interests. Hardly can any vestigial amity and respect fail to submit to the grinding wheels of mutual resentments and distrusts propelled by President Trump’s “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” accusations. Amid the coronavirus outbreak, American positive perceptions of China declined from 44% to 26% (the lowest since 2005), while negative views increased from 47% to 66% (the highest since 2005). Similarly, Chinese positive attitudes towards the US and American democracy collapsed 20% and 15% since 2019. An unrestrained and irrecoverable Sino-US rupture, intensified by such mutual grudge, may only push both countries to the verge of diplomatic struggles, regional conflicts, or proxy fights detrimental to the US global interests and national security.
Apart from the backlash against the Sino-US relations, President Trump’s denunciation of the WHO’s mishandling of the coronavirus further casts a shadow on American ability to administer global institutions and coordinate essential allies. Rather than capitalize the global chaos to expand and consolidate American international leadership, President Trump sows seeds of distrust and concern within the US-led G7 by threatening to halt funding to the WHO and terminating ties with it during the relentless pandemic.
But his blame game merely prompts a torrent of criticism from other leaders of the G7. For the US key allies in this global organization, like Germany, UK, and Japan, the attitudes and demands from the US are nothing short of deeply regrettable. German Chancellor Angela Merkel not only repeatedly emphasized “a strong and coordinated international” cooperation against the pandemic, but also rebuffed President Trump’s invitation to the G7 summit this year. Additional $85m has been donated to the WHO by the UK despite American breakup with the institution. In addition, Japanese public confidence in the US president has dwindled from 78% under the Obama administration to 36% under Trump. Excoriating the WHO, as the responses of American strategic partners demonstrate, presents the US in front of its global allies as an unreliable and incompetent leader who eschews the institutions it champions and fails to guide and cooperate with its partners during the public health emergency.
What further aggravates such global circumstance, where American leadership is under increasing doubts and critique from the US key allies, is an unremitting Chinese desire for stepping into the political vacuum and touting its success in containing the pandemic and coordinating other countries. Since the pandemic chaos engulfs Europe, Chinese medical assistance and necessities supplies for the EU, Italy, France, etc are laying diplomatic tracks on which the future Sino-European solidarity can travel. President Trump’s blame game policy may ironically assist China in precipitating the fundamental disorganization of the US-led diplomatic architecture across the world through alienating US major allies and undermining US-backed global institutions.
As the coronavirus is wreaking havoc on more countries and regions, what is required are international joint efforts to limit the pandemic ravages. Not merely will the US-led united front once again demonstrate the US as a beacon of Western democracy and civilization, but it can reunite and cement American alliance and partnership. President Trump’s blame game policy, however, steers the US towards the wrong direction that exacerbates the already fraying Sino-US relationship, antagonizes US crucial allies, and cripples the US-led global institutions. Water can flow, but it can also crash. Identically, the controversial rhetoric can earn back political interests, but it can also backfire.
Shilin Xia, independent researcher specializing in Sino-US International and Public Affairs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Shaobin Zheng, independent researcher concentrating on Sino-US relations and China Mainland-Taiwan studies. He can be reached at email@example.com.