The COVID-19 black swan has accelerated international and domestic push factors towards a downward spiral in US-China relations. To be sure, the US-China Cold War trope already contained the seeds of a self-fulfilling prophecy, but the administration’s Cold Warriors did not have a free hand. For instance, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer were more interested in reaching a trade deal with Chinese counterparts than forcing negotiations into an endless economic race to the bottom. More importantly, they were empowered by a transactional US president, who was focused squarely on his own re-election, was uninterested in gross human rights violations, and was enthralled with his autocrat counterparts’ methods, including Xi Jinping’s. Finally, while the US legislative branch pointed at a bipartisan consensus aimed at curbing Chinese influence, the spirit in Congress remained largely reactive, not least because US public opinion has often emphasized Islamic terrorism and Russia as international threats. On the contrary, the pandemic has empowered the US administration’s radical hawks, convinced Trump of the merits of abandoning his restraint on China issues to make up for a failing economy, an improbable US-China trade deal, and falling popularity. In turn, this informed a degree of reactive aggressiveness on China’s part and fed into spiralling US-China security dilemmas during an election year.
The pandemic has widened the international rift between these two great powers and accelerated the trend towards international instability. In my view, the pandemic fed into mutual mistrust, deepening geopolitical tensions and mounting insecurity that were independent of each state’s strategic intent. The logic has been distinctively zero-sum. In fact, the US government aimed to prove that Beijing was more dependent on America than vice-versa, while policymakers on both sides saw defensive or internally motivated initiatives as if they were offensive ones. In the process, both states came to recognize that offense would have constituted the best defence. As a result, the US and China moved along a mix of reactive and assertive postures that betrayed a series of dangerous security dilemmas governing bilateral relations and the two governments have not shied from tapping all dimensions of power during the pandemic: military, economic and communication power. In fact, the Trump administration recalibrated its maximalist pushback on all of these dimensions in light of what key policymakers understood as China’s “unrestricted warfare” .
International factors typical of the zero-sum logic of power politics have also been at play. The US government’s preoccupation with building a “coalition of the willing” to investigate the origins of the virus certainly aimed at facile scapegoats to account for its home-bred failures, but also stemmed from the ideological belief that the CCP was responsible, even just unwittingly, for the creation of the virus . To be sure, the Trump administration aimed at cornering the CCP for its own negligence in allowing the virus to spread to score important victories in the US-China global battle for hearts and minds that had built up in the past few years. Along with an overhaul of the State Department that prioritized the China challenge, the Trump administration defunded traditional public diplomacy programs to refurbish and substantially empower the Global Engagement Center (GEC) – an interagency office originally preoccupied with countering ISIS and, eventually, Russian disinformation – to engage in data-driven and audience-focused strategic communications that countered China’s narratives, propaganda, and public diplomacy-writ large. By 2020 GEC’s base budget had ballooned to $ 138 million dollars from $ 20.2 million dollars in the 2016 fiscal year. The zero-sum quality to US-China public diplomacy initiatives triggered action/reaction dynamics proper of the security dilemma everywhere, no matter the intended audiences and effectiveness of these messaging. For instance, GEC had criticized and countered China’s “medical aid diplomacy” in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, especially its use of state-sponsored disinformation and coordinated inauthentic behaviour on social media.
Yet, GEC has overestimated the entity and effectiveness of China’s efforts: it hinted at an improbable coordination between Russia and China in the global propaganda wars, it misanalysed the magnitude of China’s disinformation network on social media, and failed to underline the highly parochial nature of Chinese information operations. Alas, the US government likely understood China’s propaganda efforts solely in terms of an offensive strategy that weaponized its public diplomacy to mimic Russian disinformation malpractice. According to this logic, China would spin its medical diplomacy and assistance for political advantage, thereby discrediting European and US governments’ action, magnifying social tensions and driving a wedge between targeted states and their traditional allies.
In fact, China’s “wolf-warrior” diplomacy and repellent social media engagement was essentially domestic-focused. The propaganda and retaliatory measures threatened against countries that criticized Beijing’s handling of the crisis, such as Australia, successfully alienated other countries. Similarly to the Wolf Warrior movie franchise, China’s heavy-handed diplomacy and more active use of government-backed disinformation campaigns on Western social media were successful with the intended audiences: Chinese citizens – who vicariously participated in the Twitter battles through echoes in their own state-sanctioned media – Chinese expats and overseas Chinese. Authoritative China-watchers recognize that Beijing acted out of a feeling of deep insecurity over regime stability – in fact, real unemployment had already skyrocketed ahead of the COVID-19 crisis – and preliminary evidence suggests that China’s overseas information operations were aimed at mobilizing and cementing a united front already by late 2019. The US government’s all-out communication offensive on the virus origins, on China’s mishandling of the coronavirus, and its surprisingly high-profile calls for political change certainly hit a raw nerve in Zhongnanhai, because overseas Chinese communities, who have fuller access to information through Western media and social media platforms, are an important pressure group on regime stability back in the mainland. As of writing, public opinion among major US allies has hardly moved closer to China; quite the contrary, in fact.
Finally, US publicity efforts have also been meant for domestic audiences to raise awareness of the long-term “existential threat” posed by China, in the words of Attorney General William Barr. The pandemic coincided with greater publicity of CCP influence operations on US soil. The US counter-intelligence pushback under the banner of the Department of Justice’s “China Initiative” picked up momentum in 2020 with high-profile indictments of Chinese espionage activities in the US; reportedly, a new China-related counterintelligence investigation is opened by the FBI every 10 hours. Growing oversight and limitations over the activities of US-based Chinese diplomats and state-sanctioned media outlets, visa caps and bans over Chinese reporters, advanced STEM researchers and Chinese nationals with previous ties to the military apparatus, have led to the July 2020 closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston. These activities originate from a lack of reciprocity, mixed with a deep sense of insecurity. But the US government arguably also acted with the intent of publicizing the CCP’s “malign” activities, to warn against the perceived China threat, communicate resolve and mobilize public opinion along the US government’s maximalist agenda.
Ahead of the pandemic, US government officials suggested that US prosecutors were going to come up with a flurry of indictments on China-related espionage matters, following the time necessary to build the cases. In February 2020, for instance, the DOJ indicted Huawei with RICO charges since it stole intellectual property rights from six US companies. This unusual indictment, usually reserved for criminal organizations, may well prevent Huawei from using the US financial system, including US dollars-based transactions, if the company is convicted of the offenses charged with. Under the rubric of a China Initiative the DOJ and the FBI was part and parcel of the US whole of government pushback.
How will things go from here? There is no doubt that recent US government activities and statements qualify as a serious list of “indictments” against Chinese behavior, as Professor David Shambaugh has authoritatively put it on this outlet. In addition, the US government’s counter-propaganda, the publicity accorded to high-profile counterintelligence efforts against China, and the facile demonization of the Chinese Communist Party’s “malign” activities are meant to cement domestic and international audiences round the US maximalist (and costly) China pushback. It remains to be seen what will become of GEC and of US “whole of government” pushback under a Biden administration, because much of these activities are also very much dependent on the role of personality, such as the State Department’s Mike Pompeo and the National Security Council’s Matt Pottinger. While the US government’s Huawei embargo is likely to remain in place, a more nuanced China policy is still likely under a Biden administration.