Has the U.S.-China Cold War Now Begun?

Among the biggest victims of the coronavirus pandemic is the fiction of amicable U.S.-China relations. Those ties have been worsening for years, even before President Trump decided to call out Beijing’s predatory behavior starting in 2017. With the crisis now pitting America and China openly against each other, it seems impossible to salvage the old working ties. Washington now faces an unambiguously adversarial relationship with the Chinese Communist Party, one in which global ideological blocs may be drawn. Losing this new cold war would be a grievous blow to global transparency and liberal order. It would also threaten a significant reduction of American power and influence abroad. 

Even just a few months ago, it appeared that traditional engagement between the United States and China might survive. The trade agreement was the most visible sign that elites in both countries wanted to return to some level of normalcy. Outstanding issues such as Huawei and 5G were slouching towards a state of permanent irresolution, the imprisonment of a million Uighurs was largely forgotten, and cultural and student exchanges were escaping any serious interruption. A stalemate in the South China Sea was also emerging, with the Trump administration dramatically increasing the number of freedom-of-navigation operations, but with the Chinese dug into their new military bases. All that has been swept away by the coronavirus crisis. 

What China Did and Did Not Do 

It is important both politically and morally to retain clarity about what has happened. Arguments that Washington and Beijing must work together to defeat the pandemic are foundering on the rocks of the Chinese government’s freely-chosen actions. CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping decided early on that concealing the truth about the outbreak, both at home and abroad, was a national priority. This put his country on a collision course with Washington and the world.  

Xi’s government has consistently denied the hard evidence that Chinese officials knew about human-to-human transmission at least in December, failing to warn the globe and misleading the credulous World Health Organization. Nor has it admitted that the government destroyed virological samples from Wuhan. Meanwhile, even though the CCP has “solemnly apologized” to the family of Dr. Li Wenliang and exonerated him for his attempts to warn about the epidemic, it continues to threaten and suppress brave Chinese whistleblowers, who attempt to reveal the truth about what is happening in China.   

Beijing wants to convince global public opinion that it has beaten the coronavirus and is in a position to help save the world. The CCP openly contrasts its claimed victory with conditions in the United States, claiming that the virus rages uncontrolled in America due to President Trump’s ineffective action.  

Yet the truth is more complex. Leaked video shows the supposedly closed Wuhan emergency hospitals being relocated outside the city, while the officials have decreed that asymptomatic patients, primarily in Wuhan, not be counted as new cases, thereby giving the false impression that there is no more indigenous spread of the pathogen. Thanks to the efforts of Chinese citizens and opposition media outlets, evidence is mounting by the day that the epidemic is far from controlled in China. And, far from acting as an altruistic partner attempting to help other stricken countries, Beijing is actually charging  nations for the emergency aid it is giving, even when those supplies are defective, as in the case of test kits sent to the Czech Republic. 

The Terrain of the New Cold War 

In response to his government’s manifest failures during the coronavirus crisis, Xi launched a global propaganda campaign, largely targeting America. As proof of Washington’s bad faith, Beijing objected to use of the terms “Wuhan flu” or “Chinese virus.” In turn, government spokesmen and scientists have blamed the U.S. for creating the coronavirus and releasing it into China, and Beijing has mobilized bots on social media to spread the lies. It appears that this rabid nationalism is being fomented among some of the masses. A restaurant in Beijing was photographed with a banner congratulating America on its coronavirus crisis, and a civil lawsuit was filed against Trump and the U.S. military for bringing the virus to Wuhan. 

Blaming Washington for the outbreak prepares the ground for claiming that it was America that is the cause of the economic straits into which China’s economy appears to be sliding. There are also signs that Xi is continuing, if not increasing, his military actions in the disputed South China Sea, potentially as a way to deflect domestic criticism and to warn other nations not to think China has been weakened by the pandemic.  

In some ways, the coronavirus pandemic was simply an excuse for years of pent-up frustration and distrust between Washington and Beijing to be fully released. Yet the CCP has by its own choices sowed permanent doubt about its trustworthiness as a global partner. Its behavior during the crisis can no longer be swept aside by diplomatic niceties that ignore the facts on the ground. 

Given Xi’s coverup, it is not only reasonable but necessary to ask how any U.S. government, let alone the rest of the world, can anymore trust what Chinese officials say. Those who believe that increased engagement is the only way to solve common problems must question how meaningful dialogue between U.S. and Chinese leaders can take place while China continues to lie about the origins of the virus and its own actions.  

This poisoning of relations between America and China is fuel for the new cold war and won’t easily be forgotten. Indeed, it may well have established the new normal between the two nations. It is difficult to imagine ties going back to pre-COVID levels anytime soon, if ever. For those committed to maintaining as much as possible of the post-1945 world order, Beijing’s actions have shown that its long-professed claims about contributing to global governance are questionable if not worthless, just when they are needed the most.   

Really, a New Cold War? 

But is all this really a new cold war, with its connotations of existential struggle? More pertinently, why should Washington, already taxed by economic and medical meltdown, spearhead the opposition to Xi’s global offensive? The stakes for the liberal order are high. If the Beijing regime succeeds in rewriting history and escaping either censure or pressure to change its behavior, then the world will remain vulnerable to future Chinese public health and environmental failures. In addition, countries like Italy, Spain, and Serbia, which have accepted emergency Chinese government “aid,” will be added to those countries increasingly dependent on Chinese trade through the One Belt One Road scheme; this will further gestate an incipient pro-Chinese political bloc that will increase Beijing’s influence and reach, thereby enabling its further bad behavior.  

If there is a new cold war, it is being fought to maintain certain standards and norms that have benefited the world for seven decades. Beijing has long touted its techno-authoritarian model as superior to liberal forms of government. Ceding victory in the coronavirus battle would help cement the belief that the CCP’s repressive and opaque systems are the wave of the future. 

Given Beijing’s propaganda success so far, it may seem inevitable that the CCP will emerge stronger than ever from this crisis. Yet America should never forget that it has potentially hundreds of millions of allies in the ordinary Chinese who feel betrayed and oppressed by their government. Their bravery in shouting down party-state officials and recording heartbreaking video is testament to their desire for more responsible, not to mention humane, leaders. Other countries that early tried to warn the world, like Taiwan, should be given a larger international role. The global community, teetering during the pandemic, may also have a role to play, as legal opinion is emerging that Beijing can be held responsible for its failures at the beginning of the crisis, based on international law. 

It is too early to understand the full scope of this new cold war. Suffice it to say, the old model is shattered and Xi is right to fear that China must now re-earn the world’s trust. A long propaganda and proxy struggle between Washington and Beijing is more likely than ever. With emotions running high, the risk of an armed encounter, accidental or otherwise, between the two is also heightened. In the end, victory may come down to which economy proves more resilient in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, thereby proving which system truly is stronger.  

Michael Auslin is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of “Asia’s New Geopolitics.”

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