Harvey Dzodin: US politicians should stop playing with fire on China

July 24 , 2020

By Harvey Dzodin,a senior research fellow at the Center for China and Globalization(CCG).

The White House just declared “war” on China — not a hot war, but something closer to a “Cold War 2.0”. It’s an act of desperation to divert the electorate’s attention from the US administration’s lack of leadership at home — and abroad — by targeting a country the White House has railed against since the 1980s.

This doesn’t bode well.

A government usually orders another country’s embassy, or its consulate, to be closed on short notice when bilateral tensions rise to a very high degree. And judging by the fact that the US State Department on Tuesday ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas, and asked the diplomats, declared persona non grata, to leave the US within 72 hours, it can be assumed that tensions have indeed reached record levels.

The reason given by the US State Department for the order to close the Chinese consulate was repeated Chinese violations of American sovereignty, including “massive illegal spying and influence operations”. In reality, however, the State Department’s move has much to do with the US presidential election, scheduled for November. The incumbent president had nothing positive to run on so he stooped to a new low to double down the US’ aggressive campaign to demonize China.

No wonder China will retaliate to safeguard its rights and dignity. On Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry informed the US consulate in Chengdu to halt operations.

The US president had hoped to run not only on winning the ugly trade war he unilaterally started against China and other countries, but on misleadingly taking full credit for a booming US economy, for which, in truth, his predecessor Barack Obama deserves much of the credit. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, an enemy the White House couldn’t bully or threaten, much less defeat, given the US president’s lack of leadership qualities or experience.

While continuing to attack China for a few days of confusion in Wuhan, when the first novel coronavirus case was detected in China and when virtually nothing was known about the pathogen, the US administration wasted two full months in denial — claiming the virus would not seriously affect the US. To add insult to injury, now that so much is known through the bitter experience of China and many other countries, the US president still cannot provide competent leadership in containing the virus.

President Donald Trump wanted “America first”, but not in this way. His dithering is responsible for the US leading the numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths — more than 3.8 million and over 140,000 respectively.

The US president desperately wants to divert attention from his disastrous time in office, and his solution to that is to demonize China. For example, three months ago the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent a 57-page memo to campaigns, advising Republican candidates to address the public health crisis by aggressively attacking China. “Don’t defend Trump, other than the China Travel Ban travel — attack China”, the memo says.

The memo stresses a three-pronged approach to attack China: That China caused the virus “by covering it up”, that Democrats are “soft on China”, and that Republicans will “push for sanctions on China for its role in spreading this pandemic”.

The US president, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House trade adviser Peter Navarro and other Republicans have not strayed from that path. They have used racist terms such as “Wuhan virus”, “Chinese virus” and “kung flu” to refer to the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, triggering a wave of racist incidents against Asians, especially Chinese Americans, a number of whom, in fear for their lives, have become first-time gun owners.

The US administration’s China-hate campaign has driven Pew Research Center polling on US citizens’ “favorable” rating of China to an all time low of 26 percent this year and “unfavorable” rating to a record high of 66 percent. And a YouGov survey conducted at the end of last month showed that since the pandemic began spreading in the US, Americans have become increasingly likely to view China as an enemy of the US.

What happens next could be downright dangerous. China and the US could engage in tit-for-tat recriminations. Yet despite the talk about the “Thucydides trap” — that the decline of a dominant power and rise of competing power will most likely lead to war — I remain an eternal optimist.

China and the US need a hopeful and uplifting scenario: onward and upward.

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