The Coronavirus Crisis and the Looming New Cold War on China
Dr. Jenny Clegg: Trump’s ‘blame China’ rhetoric is entering dangerous territory where ideology overwhelms rationality
As the coronavirus rages across the world pushing the global economy into possibly the deepest recession since the 1930s, yet another crisis is brewing between the US and China.
To divert attention from his own callous incompetence, Trump has turned on China, reprising his winning formula of “China, China, China - its all China’s fault” as the date of the November election approaches. Trump, Pompeo, Pence - they all have racialised the pandemic agenda with their insistent references to the ‘China virus’ or ‘Wuhan virus’. China, unsurprisingly, if not always appropriately, has bristled. But this is far more than a ‘war of words’.
If there is one thing the Trump administration has succeeded in doing over the last four years it is in turning US China policy around from engagement to a more active containment, bringing it to the centre of the foreign policy agenda. Shifting from the so-called ‘war on terror’ to so-called ‘great power competition’ with Russia and China, US strategists have become ever more obsessed with China as the deadliest rival for global supremacy, more formidable even than the Soviet Union ever was. For at least one former Senior Director of Strategic Planning in the Trump administration, China poses ‘the most consequential existential threat since the Nazi Party in World War 2’.
The ‘China threat’ has justified massive increases in US military expenditure, with bilateral agreement last year to pump $1.3 trillion into the development of new ‘usable’ or low yield nuclear warheads, the militarisation of space and much else besides. Shockingly, as US states are forced into a life-and-death competition for ventilators, military officials have just put in a further bid of $20bn to bolster ‘deterrence’ against China.
Trump’s ‘blame China’ rhetoric is entering dangerous territory where ideology overwhelms rationality: in the disagreements over trade, it was possible to reach some sort of an agreement, but now, when one side just calls the other a liar, there can be no basis for negotiation.
Is China to blame? Some mistakes were made at first but the Wuhan lock-down, imposed on January 23rd, proved effective. The crucial question to ask is: why were some governments, for example in East Asia, able to contain the virus quickly whilst across Europe and the US the death rate mounts by thousands upon thousands? The fact is that our governments got the priorities badly wrong, we were ‘defended’ against the wrong threats even when the NHS failed the pandemic practice run in 2016. For all the hundreds of £billions spent on ‘hard power’ in Britain, we were not kept safe. StWC and CND called this out time and again, demonstrating for ‘welfare not warfare’ and ‘NHS not Trident’.
Now an influential group of Tory Party hawks have joined the ‘blame China’ chorus. Big hitters such as Iain Duncan Smith, David Davies, the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, Foreign Affairs Committee chair and ex-military man, Tom Tugendhat, and including Michael Gove, seek closer alignment with Trump and, post pandemic, will fight tooth and nail to defend, and even demand an increase in, military spending in a delusional commitment to ‘Global Britain’. Pushing against any public pressure to shift government spending priorities, they will insist on the £14bn needed to pay for fleets of F-35 fighter jets to equip our aircraft carriers so as to stand shoulder to shoulder with the US against China’s rise.
Trump’s racist offensive has reverberated around the world, framing China as the new enemy in a campaign of demonisation. Here in Britain, sinophobia is rife across the media, creating a climate of suspicion, fear, anger and hatred. East Asians are targeted in hate crimes; mysterious fires destroy 5G masts across Britain and Europe; Chinese people are made to appear less than human; and a stream of fake news about China, much of it emanating from anonymous IP addresses and twitter accounts, and echoed in the MSM, fills the political vacuum where racism and jingoism breeds. The situation is not unlike the lead up to the Iraq war over its non-existent weapons of mass destruction.
The new narrative of China’s plot to take over the world is in fact a not-so-new revival of the old familiar ‘Yellow Peril’ trope: some one hundred years ago, the public on both sides of the Atlantic were held in horrified thrall by Hollywood fictional tales featuring the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu and his treacherous schemes for world dictatorship.
International cooperation is desperately needed: the virus knows no borders and cannot be tackled by national action alone. Global powers need to come together to share information, exchange good medical practice and develop a vaccine to be made accessible to all. Scientists from different countries working together are spearheading the way forward. The fact that the Chinese government is sending medical specialists to help in our emergency makes a nonsense of attempts to portray the country as our “adversary’ as Monbiot points out. But the bitter truth is that anti-China propaganda stands in the way of the fight against the virus.
Tensions with China may well get even worse as economies around the world deteriorate and governments try to avoid blame for the epidemic. Open hostility will make it harder to limit economic damage. And ahead, climate change threatens new catastrophes. We need a complete reassessment of what security means.
The case for peace and international cooperation could not be stronger. Yet right now British foreign policy is under pressure as the Tory anti-China ideologues seize on the crisis as an opportunity to break with China and follow Trump on the path to confrontation.
Labour’s Atlanticist ‘opposition’ front benchers are out of their depth. Peace campaigners in the US are now speaking out against the deadly ‘blame China’ game, warning of a second Cold War. Britain’s anti-war and peace campaigners must prepare to join them: the enemy is not China; it’s the virus.
Dr Jenny Clegg is a researcher and writer, author of China’s Global Strategy: towards a multipolar world (Pluto Press, 2009); activist in StWC and CND.