It’s an issue that goes to the heart of American-Chinese relations and may end up leading to a schism that would be a long time healing.
More than anything else, China demands respect as a superpower. It goes to the core of their national identity and helps keep the Communist Party in power.
But superpowers don’t get sued for damages. The Chinese see the effort underway in America to hold China accountable for its original response to the coronavirus outbreak as an insult and an attempt to undermine the authority of the Communist Party.
Some analysts believe that any attempt to hold China financially accountable will backfire and lead to another cold war. Long-time China watcher Cary Huang thinks the danger of a break is real.
The accusations come as the voices of a global chorus of “China owes us” are getting louder, with a growing number of governments and organisations seeking to hold Beijing accountable and demand compensation.
Such rhetoric has also dominated the media in both countries. For instance, The Wall Street Journal ran recent commentaries urging a more confrontational stance towards Beijing. In reaction, Beijing mobilised its party-run propaganda machine to air and publish attacks on the US, singling out Pompeo as the particular target for scathing criticism, calling him an “enemy of humankind”, a “political virus” and “rumourmonger” with a “dark mind”.
That sort of anti-American rhetoric directed at an individual hasn’t been seen since Mao’s time. The Chinese are feeling the international pressure and don’t think a superpower should be subjected to such probing questions. They better get used to it. As the financial and human cost of the pandemic continues to go up, China’s initial efforts to cover up the severity of the epidemic as well as the WHO’s inexplicable acquiescence in pushing Chinese propaganda as fact had consequences that can’t be measured.
What makes the situation so dangerous for China is that public opinion in both parties is turning toward punishing Beijing.
Some suspect that Trump is trying to deflect sustained criticism of his own coronavirus response, as election season gears up. But it should be noted that the escalating rhetoric is backed by a bipartisan unanimityand consensus in public opinion.
In recent weeks, bills with bipartisan support have been piling up in Capitol Hill with proposals to allow Americans to sue and seek compensation from the Chinese government and/or punish China. The Trump administration is also reportedly exploring options for retaliation, amid calls to impose economic sanctions and conduct investigations into the pandemic, including China’s culpability and its relationship with the World Health Organisation.
Something will eventually pass Congress and President Trump will sign it. It may end up as a “Sense of the Congress” resolution or something equally vague and without teeth. But as evidence begins to mount that the origin of the release of the coronavirus was a lab in Wuhan, China will find itself besieged on all sides, and Americans will be looking for satisfaction from the Chinese government. Needless to say, this would severely damage U.S.-China relations.
Huang thinks it could reignite a cold war.
If Trump acts to seek damages from China over the pandemic, it will put an end to such normalised diplomatic relations, as any such move might be tantamount to the declaration of war. Under such circumstances, history will be pushed back in time, probably to before Deng’s US visit or Nixon’s China trip.
China has begun to throw its weight around, especially in east Asia where it is slowly building up its military capabilities to threaten its neighbors and create a threat to Taiwan. Is a confrontation with the U.S. inevitable? With relations souring and Beijing feeling disrespected, anything could happen.
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