The novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 — or the Wuhan virus, after the Chinese city from which it emerged — could not have come at a more advantageous time for China’s communist government. Not for the Chinese people, of course, thousands of whom have perished because of Beijing’s lack of transparency, disinformation and cruel refusal to cooperate with international public health organizations.
No, the advantage goes exclusively to Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), whose deceptive practices unleashed the deadly virus to the world.
To understand how Beijing benefits from the pandemic, it is necessary to review the geostrategic environment in the months just before the outbreak started.
China and the US had just completed “phase one” of a long, intense trade negotiation conducted under the mounting pressure of US President Trump’s relentless campaign of tariffs and economic restrictions. It was accompanied by a skillful deployment of strategic communications that highlighted the long history of communist China’s cheating and violations of international trade norms.
Never intended by the US president to be accomplished in phases, his goals were so sweeping and impactful that Beijing could swallow the bitter medicine only in smaller doses to avoid self-destruction. It had to tolerate the reality that the Chinese economy was slumping under US tariffs, while the US economy and stock market were booming. Other bones in Beijing’s throat were the US administration’s crackdown on ZTE and Huawei, two telecom giants that made inroads into US and European markets and posed major security concerns.
Trump recognized that he might have pushed China as far as it could go on the economic front at this time. In the interest of achieving significant, if imperfect, progress during the lead-up to the US presidential elections in November, and to keep the US stock market soaring, he overcame objections from a few economic hawks and accepted a protracted Chinese submission in the trade negotiation and some limited restraint on telecoms. For his part, Xi also faced some internal party dissent over his concessions to the US, though it did not immediately threaten his hold on power.
Meanwhile, things were also happening on a range of other contentious issues in the US-China relationship.
On Taiwan, the most prickly and potentially dangerous of these, both the US Congress and the Trump administration demonstrated a renewed, even expanded, US commitment to the security and enhanced status of democratic Taiwan. Trump, perhaps inadvertently, had presaged the new US pro-Taiwan impulse by accepting a congratulatory telephone call from President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) after his election, shocking Beijing and the US foreign policy establishment. Rejecting their concerns, the then-president-elect tossed off a dismissive remark about the sacrosanct “one China” policy. Though it was soon modulated, the signal had been sent to Beijing that it was about to confront a very different US president with a more confrontational agenda.
Once in office, the Trump administration showed its friendly attitude toward Taiwan by releasing a major arms package that the team of former US president Barack Obama had held up for years, conducted higher-level “unofficial” contacts with Taiwan, and began sending US ships and airplanes through the Taiwan Strait and encouraging US allies to do the same.
Congress took its own initiatives that equally angered Beijing, passing the Taiwan Travel Act, the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act, and other resolutions strongly emphasizing the US’ commitment to Taiwan. Beijing’s strenuous diplomatic and public relations efforts to block congressional passage and presidential approval fell on deaf ears.
Another important front in the new multidimensional US-China cold war is the South China Sea, where Beijing has asserted an outlandish claim to the entire body of international waters. It has ignored a UN tribunal ruling on the illegality of the claim and the artificial islands it built to advance it.
The US has played its traditional role since World War II, ensuring freedom of the seas by conducting freedom of navigation operations through international waters adjoining islands Beijing claims as its own. The US Navy has ignored China’s protests and defied its warnings and harassment of ships, consistent with the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy that labels China and Russia as “revisionist powers” intent on upending the international order and its governing rules and norms.
Washington has lent diplomatic and moral support to the citizens of Hong Kong, who have risen up against Beijing’s blatant reneging on its promise of greater autonomy under the “one country, two systems” formula. It has publicly condemned China’s expanding human rights violations against Uighurs, Christians, Falun Gong, and other minority or dissident groups. Trump has also called out Beijing for undermining US and UN sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear and missile programs, while temporarily excusing the violations in the context of the broader agenda.
All in all, the Trump administration has opposed China’s aggressive global overreach more directly and openly than any US administration since then US-president Richard Nixon’s 1972 opening to China, notwithstanding Trump’s lavish praise for Xi’s leadership skills and their supposed friendship.
More ominously, from Beijing’s perspective, is that Washington’s more confrontational policy toward China has been succeeding in large part. No longer does most of the world see the 21st century as destined to be led by a wealthy, powerful and authoritarian China.
US policy under the Trump administration has begun to bend the arc of history in Asia in a more rules-based and less dangerous direction. The Trump team refuses to accept Beijing’s restrictions on US press and diplomatic freedoms, and now demands reciprocity in both, depriving China of a distorted advantage it has enjoyed under prior administrations.
Xi and his colleagues see what is happening and most certainly do not approve. It will be perfectly natural for them to conclude that China’s future would be better assured by a different US administration. Beijing wants regime change in Washington.
Enter, serendipitously or otherwise, the Wuhan virus. It has rampaged into Europe and the US, and been awarded an anodyne clinical name by the China-supportive WHO. The way has been opened for Beijing to change the narrative and posture as a responsible international stakeholder, rather than an irresponsible global power-seeker.
Beijing offers ambiguous “aid” to Italy, a tragic victim of China’s incompetence and callous disregard. It denies the disease came from China, or claims if it did, it was the result of a US military plot. It watches with communist Chinese schadenfreude as the virus spreads through the US, the stock market crashes calamitously and the US economy teeters toward recession. As they are shouting from windows of quarantined apartments in Italy — supposedly without bitter irony — “Grazie, Cina.”
Xi might well have asked his colleagues: Who will rid me of this troublesome president? Suddenly, thanks to the export of China’s virus, Trump’s re-election prospects seem considerably less favorable than they did just a few months ago. A return to a more accommodating US China policy with a new president seems disturbingly more likely.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director in the office of the US secretary of defense. He is a fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies.
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