Coronavirus News Asia

Behind Trump’s push to blame China

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The rhetorical clash between China and the United States over the Covid-19 pandemic escalated to new heights this past week. Harsh language and taunts are now a daily event, feeding growing concern that the war of words could lead to more serious tensions over Taiwan or the South China Sea.

Calls for “decoupling” from dependence on supply chains for vital medical equipment and technology produced in China took concrete form in new steps to block China’s Huawei telecom giant from using American-designed technology.

Both Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump face challenges to their legitimacy and political future from the pandemic and the two are equally eager to deflect responsibility for the crisis.

The Chinese regime has mounted an aggressive campaign to promote the superiority of its system and assert global leadership, despite widely held doubts about the veracity of its claims. It has hawked xenophobic propaganda blaming foreigners, even the US military, for the spread of the virus.

In Trump’s case, the urgency is even greater thanks to the presidential election campaign. The campaign now places central responsibility on China, labeling his Democratic Party opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, “Beijing Biden.”

This strategy was laid out in a confidential Republican strategy memo on April 17th that instructed candidates to accuse Democrats of being “soft on China” and to claim the virus is “a Chinese hit-and-run followed by a cover-up that cost thousands of lives.”

“This election is going to be a referendum on China,” Trump advisor Peter Navarro predicted in a television interview this past week.

When Trump signed a trade pact with China on January 15, things were quite different. The trade deal was a centerpiece of a re-election strategy touting a booming economy and having put “America First.” And for the next two months, Trump issued a string of praises for China and Xi, lauding the handling of the virus.

Then came a stunning collapse of the stock market, a looming recession and rising infection rates. “Trump completely panicked after Covid and the economic collapse hit his campaign,” Jeffrey Bader, former Obama administration national security advisor on Asia, told me.

“He had to find a new villain. He had to come up with all these conspiracy theories about how the Chinese handled the virus. There is a whole disinformation campaign these guys are orchestrating.”

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