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  • Hamsini Hariharan

COVID-19 Will Make the US-China Great Power Dynamics More Confrontational

This article (co-written with Monish Tourangbam) first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on April 15, 2020 and can be accessed here.

As the first term of the Trump administration comes to a close and the United States gears up for its next presidential election, the coronavirus outbreak has gripped national and international attention, spawning debates and discussions on a post-COVID-19 world order. While its impact on a host of bilateral and multilateral engagements is being assessed, one relationship that is gaining more attention is the one between the two most powerful countries in the world, the United States and China. War of words and blame game between the two countries seems to have occupied the headlines. The ground zero of the outbreak has shifted to the U.S. while China projects an image of a country that has successfully combated the virus and is ready to help the world. For instance, China has sent doctors and medical supplies to countries around the world even as the European Union and the United States are trying to consolidate their own responses to the global outbreak. This comes at a time when the Trump administration has been facing a lot of flake for its inefficient handling of the pandemic.

The political leadership in the United States has, for one, accused the Chinese government of bringing about this global pandemic, with its questionable handling of the public health crisis in China. Beijing’s dogged determination, to take advantage of the crisis, to bolster its claim to global leadership and Washington’s categorical insistence on calling it the ‘Chinese Virus’ has opened new faultlines in a great power dynamic, that was already moving towards its more confrontational streaks. The Chinese government initially signaled its displeasure at the US’ apathy over the initial stages of the virus – of evacuating citizens without offering any help. On social media, Chinese diplomats strongly signaled their anger and some even went far as to back rumors that the coronavirus was a bioweapon manufactured in American laboratories.

The bilateral spat between the two most powerful countries in the world comes amidst the unfinished business of a trade war between the two. The Trump administration started its innings by accusing the Obama administration for failing to put China in its place and accommodating its rise to the detriment of U.S. global leadership. Through Trump’s election campaigns back in 2016, he stressed on the threat from Chinese manufacturing in stealing American jobs. The election rhetoric translated into policy when he became President. June 2018 saw the first round of tariffs from both sides and since then, the United States has imposed tariffs on Chinese goods worth more than $360 billion and China has imposed tariffs on American goods to the tune of $110 billion.

Around the same time, reports point to a China that seems equally focused on ramping up its power projection in the Western Pacific, while the world is grappling with containing the COVID-19 outbreak. America’s call for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” in operational terms, has meant more unfettered access to the waters of the Western Pacific, the geopolitical hotspot of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. China’s territorial claims in the South China and its militarization of the space, has been a matter of concern for a number of Southeast Asian countries, close to the United States. China’s ambitions for sea control and sea denial in the region is perceived by the U.S as an affront to its freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) and has been a matter of contestation and confrontation between the Chinese and the U.S. Navy.

Chinese military drills in the South China Sea, in response to American FONOPS missions, including a joint military exercise with Cambodia, a Southeast Asian country hugely depended on Chinese aid, have been reported. The busy waterways of the South China Sea have been viewed, as one of the most probable sites of a major military confrontation. While the U.S. military and its force posturing, aiming to sustain its primacy in the Western Pacific, has been unchallenged for a long time, the consequences of China’s rise has fundamentally altered the dynamics. What further complicates the great power dynamics between the two, and what would probably determine the complex dynamics of a Cold War 2.0 is the fact that China is the most consequential development and economic partner of a number of countries, which prefers the U.S. as their security partner.

The U.S. and its Indo-Pacific partners who are wary of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), have often scrambled for a credible response. More recently, the Blue Dot Network has been proposed among American partners, to perhaps, to offer an alternative, through “a multi-stakeholder initiative that will bring governments, the private sector, and civil society together to promote high-quality trusted standards for global infrastructure development.” A number of US government documents including the US National Defense strategy, the National Security Strategy and the National Military Strategy have reflected a growing sense of threats perceived from a rising China. China has been called out for engaging in predatory economies and along with Russia, has been clubbed as near peer competitors challenging America primacy globally and more particularly in the Indo-Pacific.

Besides, the confrontational streak is being reflected in other non-military dimensions as well. Both countries also stepped up their signaling to indicate more confrontation. Over the last few years, the United States has raised concerns over Chinese tech companies which remain private but have deep links to the Communist Party. With 5G technology for example, the US government has blocked companies like Huawei and ZTE over apprehensions over national security threats and has pressurized its allies to do the same.

On the other hand, the numbers of Chinese students in the United States is falling dramatically. The United States suspended their Peace Corps program to China which had been active since June 1993 and thought to be independent of political ties. On a number of issues from Huawei and the WTO to sanctions on Israel, China and the US have been at odds. There have also been minor diplomatic incidents as the United States expelled two Chinese diplomats and in retaliation, the Chinese government amended the rules by which American diplomats could meet with local officials.

The U.S. is fighting a war against COVID-19 infections and mortalities, unlike any it has seen in its history and China leaves no stones unturned to create counter-narratives to its image as a country that irresponsibly handled the COVID-19 outbreak in its own soil leading to the global pandemic. At a time when calls for global cooperation and coordination are being heard louder than ever before, the U.S.-China great power dynamics is taking a new shape, and it, unfortunately, does not show signs of any thaw relationship. All signboards, lead to a road, that will, create new faultlines of confrontation in a relationship, that is most consequential for the global order and global governance.

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