World·Analysis

Pandemic, an economic meltdown, now a 3rd crisis: China-U.S. tensions

The world's two biggest powers are growing increasingly hostile and it's worsened with COVID-19. The rivalry could intensify this year, with the U.S. public angry and the president bashing China as an election strategy.

Scrap between superpowers at the WHO is just one flashpoint in feud with world-altering potential

U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping shake hands in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

First came the deadly pandemic, then the economic meltdown, and now a third international crisis looms. It's geopolitical, involving escalating tensions between the world's existing and emerging superpowers: the United States and China.

This week's feud about the World Health Organization is just one flashpoint in a rivalry intensifying on multiple fronts.

It only seems likely to escalate in this U.S. election year, as President Donald Trump drops hints that bashing Beijing will be a central campaign theme. 

Polls suggest there's deep anger in the United States against the Chinese government amid the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a potentially large audience for Trump's message. 

Trump is ripping foreign institutions and his election rival as China-friendly. Trump's son and his former campaign manager are promoting calls to slap China with financial penalties. 

A flood of bills introduced in the U.S. Congress would steer manufacturing of critical supplies away from China.

The countries are expelling each other's media outlets.

Watch: Trump suspends WHO funding

U.S. President Donald Trump announced he would suspend funding to the World Health Organization pending a review of its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic while touting plans to restart the U.S. economy 'soon.' 2:03

The idea that Canada is immune to any fallout from their clashing is repudiated by recent history.

Canadians have already suffered human and economic costs for the country's supporting role in a U.S.-China legal drama, and Ottawa is still under monumental pressure in its dilemma over allowing China's Huawei into the 5G network.

Frightening lessons from history

Graham Allison is more worried than ever.

The founding dean of Harvard's Kennedy School, he wrote a book three years ago about a terrifying pattern in world history: the likelihood of war when a new global power emerges to challenge the old order.

Allison examined the lessons of 16 such transformational moments in the last 500 years in Destined For War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides' Trap. 

Twelve resulted in war.

His book argued that the U.S. and China were making the same mistakes that previously led to disaster, and it could get worse with nationalists leading both countries.

That was in 2017. Asked last week whether the countries are now closer to open hostility, Allison replied unequivocally: "You bet." 

He said in his frequent visits to Beijing and Washington decision-makers regularly ask what Thucydides, the ancient Greek military historian mentioned in his book's title, might say today. 

"My answer each time," Allison said, "[is that] he'd say both parties [are] right on script, accelerating at a faster pace than he would have expected, towards what could be the grandest collision of all times."

Watch: Anger in China after whistleblower doctor dies

Memorials and demonstrations pop up all over China for Dr. Li Wenliang. The doctor from Wuhan tried to warn people about the coronavirus as early as late December. He was silenced by authorities, accused of “spreading rumours." 2:04

Anger over the current pandemic stems from allegations that Beijing's secretive behaviour made the initial outbreak worse.

The Associated Press reports that the Chinese government sat on evidence for a week about a possible pandemic, while punishing whistleblowers and reportedly restricting research in what international activists call China's "Chornobyl moment." 

Many ordinary Chinese people share in this anger, judging from memorials and demonstrations around the country. 

Under fire for his own inconsistent response to the crisis, Trump is seeking to tap some of that frustration. 

Peter Navarro, whose job in the White House now involves procuring medical gear, was, before joining Trump, a China hawk in books and film

He said the world's mask shortage was made worse because the Chinese government bought hundreds of millions of them early, while the international community was "still sleeping" about the severity of COVID-19.

White House official Peter Navarro, seen here at an April 2 briefing, says the U.S. wants to talk to China about secrecy that he says imperilled lives. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

"That's a significant discussion we need to have [with China], at least after this is all over," Navarro told Fox News last week.

The Trump administration has a receptive audience for this message. 

A new Harris poll finds overwhelming consensus in the U.S. that China is responsible for COVID-19. Ninety per cent of Republicans, 75 per cent of independents, and 67 per cent of Democrats agreed with that statement.

Trump's campaign is now repeatedly swinging at former U.S. vice-president Joe Biden as soft on China; they say Biden's son is profiting from relations with Beijing.

Biden's campaign spokesperson pushed back by pointing to a glaring inconsistency in Trump's message: the president personally praised China's handling of the virus. 

It's one of many twists and turns in Trump's own erratic messaging during this crisis.

International institutions are already being pulled into the feud. 

The World Health Organization is just the latest. The U.S. has suspended WHO funding in the midst of the pandemic because it wants a review into whether it was too willing to cover for Beijing.

Three categories of potential consequences

A former Canadian official who used to brief politicians about emerging threats on behalf of Canada's intelligence agency lists international institutions as one of three areas likely to be impacted by China-U.S. hostility.

"There are no answers yet to any of these things. I don't have a crystal ball," said Stephanie Carvin, formerly of CSIS and now a professor at Carleton University's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

"But these are the things I'll be looking at."

Her list includes: 

  • International institutions. U.S.-China tensions aren't just threatening the WHO. They're also part of a broader dispute that has paralyzed the World Trade Organization's top enforcement body. The countries are also fighting over voting rights at the International Monetary Fund, which could soon play a critical role in stabilizing faltering economies. Carvin expects an "acceleration" of existing tension at international bodies.
  • Trade. At least nine bills currently in the U.S. Congress would seek to study or reverse U.S. reliance on China for medical supplies. Canada and the U.S. are already studying ways to repatriate some production of vital minerals used in manufacturing. That's atop multiple other signs of cooling in business relations.
  • Economic actions. Carvin said the Chinese government will continue using economic pressure to achieve political aims, rewarding friendlier countries and punishing foes.

The Chinese government is working to build goodwill, doling out masks to other countries, including Canada, as the rest of the world scrambles for supplies.  

And they've pointed out that the U.S. was hardly kept in the dark about the virus: it was notified in January, and even closed its Wuhan consulate on January 26.

They also accuse the U.S. of hypocrisy regarding free speech. 

A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman raised the firing of U.S. Navy Capt. Brett Crozier after he sounded the alarm about a COVID-19 outbreak on his ship.

"By American values, he should be hailed as a hero instead of being punished, right?" said Chinese spokeswoman Hua Chunying.

"The comments by these few U.S. politicians are just shameless and morally repulsive."

Watch: WHO defends its record on COVID-19

The World Health Organization has defended its handling of the coronavirus outbreak after President Donald Trump orders withdrawal of U.S. funding for the organization. 2:55

In the U.S., meanwhile, there's now lots of talk about making China pay for the coronavirus — literally.

It includes a class-action suit in Florida, and reports that the U.S. government is considering legal action over alleged hoarding of medical gear. 

One Canadian company that produces masks in China told CBC News that the Chinese government forbade exports. 

One Washington-based trade analyst said the U.S. has a big decision to make, if it truly intends to decouple trade from China.

The decision in question: whether to rejoin other allies in the Asia-Pacific trade deal, said Eric Miller.

It could be another election issue — Trump withdrew from the TPP and Biden has talked about possibly rejoining.

One thing Miller is adamant about: U.S.-China relations will change.

"This marks the real breaking point that puts the U.S. and China on a definitive cold-war path. It had been coming for a while," he said. 

"There is a profound sense of anger in the United States … [A feeling that] China has to pay."

About the Author

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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