The United States and China are locked in a struggle over influence and messaging about the coronavirus pandemic even as governments around the world struggle to control the outbreak.
This week, Washington claimed a small victory.
State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus hailed comments by China’s ambassador walking back an earlier false claim in Beijing that the U.S. Army had introduced the coronavirus to its epicenter in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
Her statement was part of what the Trump administration says is a coordinated effort to push back on a disinformation campaign by the Chinese communist government.
A senior administration official tells NPR that the United States has warned the communist government against suppressing accurate information. Trump is sending that message, too.
“I’m a little upset with China. I’ll be honest with you,” Trump told reporters last Sunday, charging that Beijing should have alerted authorities earlier and allowed U.S. experts to analyze findings about the coronavirus.
The Cold War-like spat has waxed and waned by the day depending on the public remarks of officials in both governments.
But the background throughout has been the desire of each power to position itself as the leader of the response. As Trump and aides talked up their discussions with G7 allies, China’s messaging to Europeans was that their most meaningful support, including in the form of aid to European countries hobbled by the outbreak, is coming not from the West, but the east
As Trump and his aides faulted China’s repressive regime for squelching dissent and information, Beijing’s spokesmen fired right back, including with mockery and with false allegations such as the “Army” claim.
For some specialists, imposing a geostrategic superstructure onto a public health crisis in this way is counterproductive.
Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the blame game has become a distraction from the real work that needs to take place.
“At this point, it seems to me to be quite a waste of energy for the U.S. and Chinese governments to be focused on that question when they should be working hard on protecting their own citizens, contributing where they can to help other countries around the world that are very ill prepared to deal with this virus, Glaser said.
A tale of two systems
In the telling of Trump and some Republican supporters, the pandemic is the fault of an oppressive Chinese Communist Party that pressured underlings and suppressed free expression so much that the virus raged for too long within China with too little warning for the world.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo complained to reporters that disinformation about the virus — which he said was coming from China, Russia and Iran, among other apparent sources — hurt public health efforts and corroded trust.
The Trump administration isn’t casting blame for the virus, but it does want to ensure that accurate data sets are shared with public health officials who continue to fight the spread, he said.
Tara O’Toole, a former undersecretary for Homeland Security under President Obama, said she thought finger pointing is counterproductive. But she did agree that information is critical in a global era that makes epidemics likelier and deadlier.
Outbreaks such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, H1N1 influenza and Zika are happening because of expanding trade and travel patterns.
“These epidemics are going to keep coming,” said O’Toole, who is now executive vice president at In-Q-Tel, a venture capital firm closely linked to the national security establishment.
“We have that to get much better at handling them. So understanding what really happened, from whence these viruses originate and how to fight them, is important for the whole world at the same time,” she said.
At the same time, if the coronavirus crisis has underscored the new risks associated with a closely connected globe, some insiders also say it has exposed specific challenges associated with the bilateral dynamic between the United States and China.
Tim Morrison, who formerly led biodefense issues at the National Security Council in the Trump administration, said the crisis has exposed the critical American dependence on Chinese manufacturing, including of medical supplies and specialized respirator masks that are now scarce.
Trump’s polices already had complicated the economic relationship between China and the U.S. before the coronavirus disaster — and Morrison said the crisis now will force Washington to try to evolve that relationship again to stanch Chinese production of so many vital products.
“One of the tough choices we have to make is we are going to have to figure out how to uncouple or decouple our pharmaceutical, our health care commodity supply chain from China, because we have seen the bulk of it move to China,” said Morrison, who is now a fellow at the Hudson Institute.
The problem – Morrison warns – is China is in control of these and other vital products, which might give it a veto over access to them.
The United States and the West grew to depend on Asia as a reliable manufacturer of nearly everything, but for Morrison and other skeptics, the question posed by the outbreak is whether Washington can live in a world in which its supplies are at Beijing’s mercy.
Beijing touts its own leadership
China’s leaders reject these kinds of charges, but they have embraced the battle with America over global messaging.
In the view from Beijing, quick and stringent action made possible by China’s unique system quashed the virus.
President Xi Jinping already has taken what amounted to a victory lap through Hubei Province, where the coronavirus outbreak originated, and pointed to China’s success in flattening its curve of new infections after a broad crackdown there.
China is one of only two countries so far, along with South Korea, that have proceeded up and then down its curve of infections. New cases continue growing everywhere else.
Official messaging by spokesmen such as Hua Chunying of the foreign ministry also has embraced what China calls the aid it has given to Italy, the European epicenter of the pandemic, and China’s preparedness for global leadership.
Hua’s posts also have become a meta-commentary about the messaging war itself, including with links to stories about the American desire to criticize Beijing.
“Saving lives is more important than saving face! Be honest and responsible!” Hua wrote.
China’s global messaging is not only deliberate, but focused: Twitter is banned inside the people’s republic; the intended audience for these messages are outsiders and nations, such as those in Europe, that China’s leaders have selected.
Reverberations within the U.S.
American officials’ complaints about Chinese communists’ repression have become muddled and intermingled with what critics call racist or ethnocentric language, including that used by Trump himself.
But if the United States won a minor victory in the messaging war this week, so, in this context did China.
After a stream of news conferences in which Trump insisted upon using the term “Chinese virus,” the president ditched that phrase on Monday.
Trump hasn’t abandoned his complaint about how much information he says China’s government concealed about the early phase of the coronavirus outbreak, but he did abandon the phrase “Chinese virus.”
The president told Fox News in an interview on Tuesday that he didn’t regret using that term — “but I decided we shouldn’t make any more of a big deal out of it.”