At a time when the world is facing an imminent shared threat, an escalating cold war between its two largest economies is the last thing anyone needs. And yet, given a toxic brew of ideological hostility, a prolonged trade war, geopolitical rivalry, and domestic politicking, that outcome is more likely than not.
Having already claimed more than 217,000 lives and sent the global economy toward its deepest slump since the Great Depression, the Covid-19 crisis is bound to reshape geopolitics. While the contours of the post-pandemic order remain to be seen, one thing seems certain: far from normalizing their relationship, the United States and China are likely to become increasingly estranged – and increasingly hostile.
Even before the current crisis erupted, the Sino-American relationship was on life support. The outbreak may have sounded its death knell. In particular, evidence that local Chinese authorities initially suppressed information about the new coronavirus, together with the severe disruption of global supply chains caused by China's sudden nationwide lockdown, highlighted for most Americans two sources of severe vulnerability stemming from the bilateral relationship.
The first is China's repressive political system. While Americans have long been aware of the ideological chasm between their country and China, to most it was largely an abstraction. Stories about the forcible detainment of hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang, the repression and abuse of Tibetans, and the persecution of political dissidents were harrowing, but distant. For many, they were merely evidence of the US system's superiority.
The Covid-19 outbreak – which has caused the deaths of more than 58,000 Americans, partial economic shutdowns, and mass unemployment – turned the abstract into reality. For the first time, ordinary Americans going about their lives in their own country fear for their economic and physical survival, because of political repression in a distant land.
And Americans do, by and large, blame Chinese political repression for the crisis. According to a recent Harris poll, more than 70% of Americans believe that China reported inaccurately on the outbreak's effects, and over 75% hold the Chinese government responsible for the virus' spread. In fact, 55-60% believe that China's government deserves more blame than its American counterpart for Covid-19's spread in the US.
The second source of vulnerability lies in economic interdependence, especially US reliance on Chinese supply chains. Before the outbreak, Americans viewed this issue mainly through the lens of trade imbalances and job losses. They now largely see China's outsize role in producing the world's personal protective equipment and pharmaceutical ingredients as a dangerous national-security weakness that must be mitigated.
But while the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted for Americans the true extent of the danger of engaging with China's one-party regime, a large and immediate surge in mutual hostility was not inevitable. That outcome reflects both governments' decision to leverage the crisis to boost their domestic standing.
After news of its botched initial response in Wuhan got out, the Communist Party of China (CPC) went into damage-control mode. As soon as new infections began to decline, the government launched an aggressive diplomatic effort and propaganda blitz to repair its image. It has sent medical supplies and personnel to hard-hit countries like Iran, Italy, and the Philippines. At home, it has trumpeted its own resolute action, whipping up nationalism, and criticizing Western democracies' weak responses.
The West, meanwhile, gave China plenty of ammunition. US President Donald Trump, in particular, has overseen a truly inept crisis response, characterized by finger-pointing, constant contradictions, and outright lies.
With Trump's failed response, and the associated meltdown of the US economy, now threatening his re-election prospects, the Republican Party is eager to pin the blame on China. And many Americans seem convinced: according to the Harris poll, more than 50% agree with Trump's characterization of the new coronavirus as the "Chinese Virus."
This toxic brew of ideological hostility, a prolonged trade war, geopolitical rivalry, and domestic politicking will most likely fuel further escalation in bilateral tensions. In the US, Congress is likely to pass legislation mandating the reshoring of China-based production of goods deemed relevant to national security. And the Trump administration will probably impose new sanctions, including tighter restrictions on technology transfers.
Because such punitive measures enjoy wide public support – 71% of Americans want to pull manufacturing back from China – the only real question is how harsh they will be. Given the political stakes, Trump is unlikely to show much restraint. After all, the US relationship with China is set to be the most important foreign-policy issue in the November election. Already, Trump has begun attacking his presumptive Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joseph Biden, for being "soft" on China, while Biden has responded by accusing Trump of being softer.
As for Chinese President Xi Jinping, he is unlikely to back down. Earlier this month, at a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee (the CPC's top decision-making body), he declared that "we must maintain 'bottom-line thinking' and make mental and material preparations for changes in the external environment that will last a relatively long period of time." It is not yet clear exactly what Xi's "bottom-line thinking" is, but it is a safe bet it implies that China will respond to intensifying US pressure not with concessions, but with retaliation.
At a time when the world is facing an imminent shared threat, a worsening cold war between its two largest economies is the last thing anyone needs. But with neither leader likely to change his approach, this outcome will be hard to avoid. In fact, far from catalyzing global cooperation, the pandemic may well lock the US and China into a vicious cycle of escalation, leading directly to full-blown conflict.
Minxin Pei is Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Project Syndicate, and is published by special syndication arrangement.