How COVID-19 may change rules of engagement with China

Why We Wrote This

A lack of transparency about COVID-19 has deepened the concerns many countries already had about their relations with China. But that growing discomfort must compete with economic self-interest. 

TT News Agency/Fredrik Sandberg/Reuters
Swedish Culture and Democracy Minister Amanda Lind presents a literary award, the Tucholsky Prize, to Swedish writer Gui Minhai in Stockholm, Nov. 15, 2019. China, which detained the Chinese-born writer, criticized the award.

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With COVID-19 dramatizing many countries’ political differences and economic interdependencies with China, a redrawing of rules of engagement seems on the table.

In the United States, bipartisan resentment over Chinese trade practices has been building for several years. Washington is worried about China’s military buildup in the South China Sea, and a tariff war and human rights concerns have brought a new chill. China looks likely to figure prominently in the presidential campaign. 

In many countries, concern over Beijing’s lack of transparency about the virus has been aggravated by its effort to reframe the narrative in its favor. Western states with important trade ties – Germany, France, Australia, New Zealand – have supported calls for an independent inquiry.

A longer-term concern involves China’s position as the main source of urgently needed items. Germany is looking at tightening safeguards against China taking controlling stakes in German companies. In Britain, Conservative members of Parliament are pressing to rethink Huawei’s role in the 5G network. In Africa, there’s been a rare public show of anger over reports of pandemic-related discrimination against African nationals in southern China.

For now, China seems confident economic self-interest will blunt long-term damage.

How in the world are we to deal with China?

It’s not meant as a rhetorical question, nor a provocative tabloid headline. It is a literal description of a reassessment of relations with Beijing among a number of China’s trade and economic partners – a process building for several years, but accelerated and intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Where it will end is impossible to say. Anything like a complete break seems very unlikely. That would suppose a root-and-branch reversal of decades of globalization, and a rupture with the world’s second-largest economy.

Yet with COVID-19 dramatizing political differences and economic interdependencies with China, a far more skeptical redrawing of future rules of engagement seems on the table.

That’s especially true in the United States, China’s main rival and the world’s largest economy.

Even before the Trump administration, there was growing bipartisan resentment over Chinese trade practices: pressure on American firms in China, technology theft or industrial espionage, and the use of state subsidies and currency-rate adjustments to disadvantage overseas competitors. On the geopolitical stage, Washington was increasingly concerned about China’s military buildup in the South China Sea.

President Donald Trump’s tariff war with China, and human rights concerns over its policies in Hong Kong and the forced “reeducation” of hundreds of thousands of Uyghur Muslims, have since brought a new chill.

But COVID-19 – initially hidden, in China – has raised political antagonism to a level not seen in years. A recent Pew Research Center poll found nearly two-thirds of respondents had an unfavorable view toward China, the highest since it began asking the question in 2005. A recent Gallup Poll found only 33% had a positive opinion on China, lower than in the aftermath of its 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square.

With COVID-19 dominating U.S. politics ahead of November’s election, both President Trump and his presumptive Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, are making China an important issue. President Trump, under pressure over his handling of the virus’ spread, has turned his fire on China’s belated response to the initial outbreak. Mr. Biden’s campaign is highlighting President Trump’s effusive personal praise of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, implying that he has, in fact, been soft on China. 

There are also signs of growing discomfort with China outside the U.S. This is not just because of what a number of governments have called Beijing’s lack of transparency over the virus. It has been aggravated by China’s political strategy since COVID-19 was brought under control there.

There is particular resentment over China’s campaign to reframe the narrative, favorably comparing its response to that of democratic governments abroad and making high-profile gestures of assistance to hard-hit countries.

Even Western states with important trade ties to China – like Germany, France, Australia, and New Zealand – have supported calls, rejected by Beijing, for an independent inquiry into how and where the virus began, how it was dealt with, and how it spread.

In Sweden, which has had close ties with China, COVID-19 also seems to have accelerated a downturn in relations. It began several years ago with the detention of writer and publisher Gui Minhai, a Swedish national who had been critical of China’s government. He was sentenced in February to a 10-year prison sentence on an allegation of “illegally providing intelligence overseas.”

Earlier this month, amid criticism in China’s state news media of Sweden’s pandemic response, the Swedes closed the last of their so-called Confucius Institutes, part of a Chinese cultural and language program with facilities around the world.

The European Union, meanwhile, has been bristling over China’s much-trumpeted provision of assistance to several EU member states, especially those like Italy where resentment of the union’s initial delay in providing help has fed anti-EU sentiment.

A longer-term EU concern involves an economic truth COVID has brought into focus: China’s position as the world’s main source of urgently needed items like ventilators and protective equipment. Germany, with the EU’s largest economy, has begun looking at tightening safeguards against China’s taking controlling stakes in German companies during the economic downturn caused by the pandemic – an issue also recently highlighted by the EU’s commissioner for competition.

In Britain, now formally out of the EU, COVID also appears to be prompting a reassessment. This month, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said it could not be “business as usual” with Beijing after the pandemic, adding: “We will have to ask the hard questions about how it came about and how it couldn’t have been stopped earlier.” 

A number of members of Parliament in the ruling Conservative Party are also pressing for a rethink of the government’s decision to allow a role in the country’s 5G telecommunications network for the Chinese company Huawei – a decision made over objections from the Trump administration.

Even in Africa, where China’s mammoth investment, loan, and infrastructure project, Belt and Road, has widened its influence, COVID-19 has caused friction, with a rare public show of anger over reports of discrimination against African nationals in the campaign to control the virus in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. 

For now, China seems confident that economic self-interest, whether among African states or more advanced Asian and European trade partners, will blunt long-term damage to its commercial or geopolitical position.

China’s ambassador to Australia this week, for instance, warned of possible economic retaliation over that nation’s support for an international review of the COVID-19 spread. That led Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to emphasize that this “reasonable and sensible” proposal was not aimed at any specific country.

Yet as an increasingly assertive world power, China under Mr. Xi views its true competitor as the U.S. On that score, China seems determined to pair a pursuit of its national interests with a readiness to take advantage of areas where the U.S. seems malleable or vulnerable. Thus, with the pandemic spreading overseas, China shrugged off criticism in mid-April and arrested prominent pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong. Last week, with Washington withdrawing financial support from the World Health Organization, China announced an additional contribution of $30 million to the WHO.

And this week, a statement from Beijing maintained that Chinese aircraft and naval vessels had turned back an American Navy ship in the South China Sea.
The U.S. said no such confrontation occurred. But it has for some time been mounting naval patrols in the area to underscore its opposition, and that of neighboring states, to Chinese claims of sovereignty over the sea's reefs and islands. 

Amid the contradictory accounts, a Chinese military spokesman pointedly declared: "We urge the U.S. side to focus on the epidemic prevention and control on its homeland, contribute more to the international fight against the pandemic and immediately stop military actions that harm regional security, peace and stability."

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