Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair
“Go to China!”, a woman in Denver, Colorado, shouts at two hospital workers standing in front of her car to prevent her from taking part in a protest against the coronavirus lockdown. Her cry is a sign that President Trump is having some success in demonising China: he says that that he has a “high degree of confidence” that the deadly virus emanated from a laboratory in Wuhan, though he cannot reveal the source of his information.
The level of Trump’s mendacity is far grosser than that used to sell the Iraq War by claiming that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Then too there were stories of secret laboratories developing biological weapons. Though Trump is purging US intelligence chiefs and replacing them with Trump loyalists, even they could not stomach his latest conspiracy theory. “The intelligence also concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the Covid-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified,” said a statement from the office of the director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell.
The purpose of Trump’s lies is not to convince by rational argument but to dominate the news agenda by outrageous allegations. This simple PR trick has previously worked well for him, but scapegoating China may not be enough to divert attention away from the price Americans have paid for his calamitous mishandling of the pandemic. The casualty figures tell their own grim story: in China there have been 84,373 cases of the illness and 4,643 deaths while in the US there have been just over 1.1 million cases and 64,460 deaths. Trump loyalists will claim that the Chinese are lying, but then they must also explain away the lower loss of life in South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan.
The strategy is crude, but demonising China as “The Yellow Peril” might just work on election day. “Don’t defend Trump, other than the China Travel Ban – attack China,” says a 57-page memo sent out by the National Republican Senatorial Committee to Republican candidates, advising them on how to rebut criticism of the president’s actions. Joe Biden, the Democratic Party presidential candidate, is already being pilloried by the Republicans as “Beijing Biden”. In an epidemic, people are frightened and seek a scapegoat, foreigners at home and abroad being an obvious target. Probably only a hate-driven conspiracy theory can keep Trump in the White House when 30 million Americans are unemployed.
Many of those who used WMD to deliver a hot war against Iraq in 2003, are the same people who promote a cold war against China today. This approach requires an extraordinary degree of irresponsibility: Trump is launching his cold war against China just when a global medical and economic response is needed to counter a virus that has spread from Tajikistan to the upper Amazon and can only be suppressed or contained by international action.
It is surely disastrous historical bad luck that this unprecedented global threat is occurring just as independent nation states are re-emerging, in so far as they ever disappeared, as the essential players on the international stage at the expense of international institutions: the UN and EU were losing influence pre-epidemic and have been marginalised since in the last six months. Nation states are not only very much back in business, but they are increasingly run by far-right nativist populist leaders, of whom Trump is only one of the more crazed examples. Most of these are proving highly incompetent in dealing with the pandemic and none are likely to favour international cooperation.
The real problem here is the US: international organisations like the UN and agencies like the World Health Organisation only exerted real influence when backed by Washington. Often accused of being American puppets, they enjoyed a degree of autonomy and effectiveness because the US needed to outsource some of its power in order to maintain its global hegemony. Trump is abandoning this calculation.
The new cold war against China was already gathering momentum before the pandemic. Western political establishments have long been wobbling between opposing China as a rival superpower and cultivating it as an economic powerhouse whose explosive if debt-fuelled expansion helped drag the rest of the world out of the post-2008 recession.
The post-1945 Cold War was fought by the US and its allies against the Soviet Union until it collapsed in 1991; this coincided after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 with a cold war against Iran and Iraq which were alternately portrayed as the source of all evil. Trump is unlikely to demote Iran from its present demonic status but he is clearly intent on portraying China as equally evil. Many politically palatable reasons for this will be advanced in the coming months, but the real charge against China is one of effectiveness. It has shown itself more competent than other powerful states in dealing with two world crises: the 2008 financial crisis and the pandemic of 2019-20.
The decline of the US as a superpower is not total: it plays a hegemonic role in the world financial system. But its post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan showed that, despite vast expenditure, its armed forces could not deliver victory and the pandemic is demonstrating that its equally expensive health system is appallingly unequal and inadequate.
Trump is a symptom as well as a cause of the polarisation of the US political system, more divided now than at any time since the Civil War ended in 1865. Yet the decline of the US is much greater than the rise of China, significant though that may be, and it is naive to imagine that Beijing will simply displace Washington at the top table.
In reality, nobody is going to replace the US, but there will be a rush of other countries moving to fill the vacuum left by its absence. Much of this would have happened anyway as US economic and political primacy eroded. But the process by which this is happening has been speeded up by two wild cards that nobody even knew were in the pack: the election of Trump as president in 2016 and the Covid-19 pandemic. The world is currently full of nation states, and not just China, who see threats and opportunities all around them. The result will be ever-increasing turmoil.