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Donald Trump has mastered the art of using daily press briefings on the Covid-19 pandemic as a way of exciting his base. While his approval ratings remain low compared to other world leaders’, they are near a high point for his presidency, thanks in no small part to the drama of the briefings. He often lashes out at reporters during the question and answer period, an effective way to please the media-allergic Republican base.
On Tuesday, the most notable drama involved Trump browbeating Youyou Wang, a reporter from Hong Kong. Wang asked Trump if he was cooperating with China. Trump turned the question on the reporter and asked, “Who are you working for, China?” Trump kept pressing Wang on this question as she explained that she was with Hong Kong–based Phoenix Television. “Who owns that, China?” Trump inquired.
The incident gave Trump the headlines he was surely hoping for, with right-wing pundits celebrating him for his bold disregard for political correctness in standing up to a foreign interloper. It was a perfect bit of theater for Trump, because Phoenix TV is a pro-Beijing outlet, so he could be seen as taking an indirect swipe at the government without a direct confrontation.
This culture war theatrics had the useful effect for Trump of allowing him to continue to cast himself as an opponent of China, while not fighting the Chinese government directly. Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, Trump has used the Asian country as a scapegoat to take the blame for the failures of his administration to competently address the pandemic.
Yet there has been a wrinkle in Trump’s anti-China stance. Until recently, he and his administration have referred to Covid-19 as “the Chinese virus” or “the Wuhan virus.” Trump stopped using these phrases around March 24th, after criticism that they were inflaming racism. On March 27, Trump had a phone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping that might have reinforced this shift. The move away from these phrases is likely influenced by the fact that the United States is dependent on China for medical supplies. China is the only country in the world that has the productive capacity to supply quickly the ventilators and personal protective equipment on the scale demanded by a global emergency.
Because of the need to continue trade with China, at least until the United States rebuilds its manufacturing and pharmaceutical infrastructure, relations with China are in a curious stalemate. It’s not quite a Cold War yet, but perhaps the cusp of a Cold War, with the United States continuing to keep the business relationship with China open but also nursing plans for retribution once the crisis is over.
As Stewart Patrick of the Council of Foreign relations explained to Politico, “This is a case where it’s important to call China out on behavior that endangers global public health, but it’s also important to bear in mind the urgent over the merely important.” He added, “We have a common enemy here.”
As a result of the medical emergency and the need for Chinese goods, the Trump administration is being uncharacteristically tactful, preferring to use indirect methods to challenge China rather than an open confrontation. Trump’s press conference spat with Youyou Wang was one example of an elliptical fight. His threat to cut funding for the World Health Organization (WHO) because it is “very China-centric” falls into the same pattern: targeting not China but an organization that can be linked to China.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was similarly roundabout when asked on Tuesday why he was no longer using the phrase “Wuhan virus.” Pompeo gave a lengthy answer about the need for other nations to be transparent about the spread of the virus, but he notably did not mention China by name.
While the Trump administration is engaged in rhetorical feints, congressional Republicans are becoming more blunt about their desire to inflict retribution on China. As Politico reports:
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) joined calls for a WHO probe on Tuesday, including an examination of whether U.S. funding of the group should be revoked. Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) recently called on the State Department to conduct its own investigation into China’s role, while Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) wants Beijing to forgive U.S. debt and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) is looking to sanction Chinese officials.
All signs point to Republicans’ not only ramping up anti-China rhetoric but also using China as a wedge issue in the fall election. It has the potential to be very effective in dividing the left, since Democrats are already split on China policy.
One of the issues that separate Joe Biden from Bernie Sanders is trade with China. Biden is an ardent advocate of expansive trade relations with China. Sanders has emphasized his long-standing opposition to the opening up of trade relations with China without pushing for higher environmental and labor standards.
“Since the China trade deal I voted against, America has lost over 3 million manufacturing jobs,” Sanders tweeted on May 1, 2019. “It’s wrong to pretend that China isn’t one of our major economic competitors.” Beyond trade, Sanders has been critical of China’s authoritarianism.
As on many other issues, the pressure of events is forcing centrist Democrats to realize that Sanders is right. In a press conference last Thursday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo remarked, “It is the cruelest irony that this nation is now dependent on China for production of many of these products. Many of these products in the normal marketplace were being produced in China. And now you have everyone shopping China for PPE, gowns, ventilators. The gowns, the gloves are not complicated components to manufacture. The gowns are Tyvek or paper material.”
After the pandemic is over, the United States is going to have to have a serious debate about decoupling from China. At the very least, maintaining a robust health care system might require giving medical equipment the status of essential products needing to be manufactured at home.
But even before that decoupling debate happens, Trump is likely to play the China card against the Democrats, particularly if Biden is the nominee. Aside from Biden’s support for trade agreements, Trump will almost certainly continue to harp on his son’s business dealings in China. Hunter Biden sat on the board of a private equity firm backed by the Chinese government.
China is one of the many areas where Biden would benefit from taking advice from Sanders. The trick is to push for a needed shift in America’s relations with China while avoiding the trap of militarism. The key is to argue that decoupling from China is the opposite of wanting a new Cold War. The goal of decoupling is not a new great-power competition but an America better able to manufacture essential products.