Covid-19 perfect storm for US rivalry over China

Soon after the United States became the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic the World Health Organization became caught in the crosshairs of President Donald Trump’s ire with China over the spread of the coronavirus. Now, Trump is threatening to permanently halt US funding and reconsider its membership in the international organization if it fails to commit to “major, substantive improvements within 30 days”. What are the roots and scope of this new “cold war” episode between the two superpowers? What could be the impact on International Geneva? Elements of answers:

Background The US has a long history going back at least to the 1950s of cutting off money or withdraw from international organizations. “There’s nothing new about this,” said David Sylvan, Director of Research at The Graduate Institute in Geneva. In the 50s, the US withdrew from Interpol the international intelligence-gathering network, in the 1970s, from the International Labor Organization (ILO), and in the 80s from UNESCO, the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization. “They reintegrated them a few years later because the reason these agencies were created is the same reason why the US supports them. I am quite sure they will reintegrate WHO,” said Sylvan. Very quickly if Biden is elected, less so if Trump is “but it will happen”.

WHO is the Punching Bag The WHO is being scapegoated. It’s not that the WHO has done terrible things but is seen as a stalking horse, an arena for China. The pandemic is a trigger for taking all the objections many people in the US have about the Chinese, and putting them together.

“In general, US elites don’t like China, and specifically a significant section of the Republicans don’t like international organizations. So, when something like Covid-19 comes along, it is perfect for them because they can align,” explained Sylvan.

Tailor-made US attacks The arguments used by the US against WHO are tailor-made for its attacks on China.

“If the US wants to go after China, they can find some international organizations, and they can reproach something. It doesn’t matter if the arguments are true, real or correct,” said Sylvan.

Driven by electoral opportunism In the lead up to the November presidential elections, Trump wants to distract his electoral base, as well as the global community from his own terrible handling of the situation of the pandemic of the United States. He also wants to make his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, appear to be pro-China.

Concerns among US elites about China’s widening economic influence:

“What has the US elite completely freaked out right now is the idea that it may be possible that a single party states does not play by the rules and at the same time is successful,” said Sylvan.

“WHO is simply at the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Sylvan. “A lot of people who don’t like China can’t stand Trump, but in this particular case there is an alliance. In other words, the US President intensifies the conflict but he is only a symptom.”

During the cold war, the assumption was that in the long term state-controlled economies would inevitably fail. The Soviet Union, a serious ideological and political competitor, was never a serious economic threat.

How China upsets the US China doesn’t play by what the US consider the rules of the game made up by them and vastly respected by the majority of the countries around the world including :

  • intellectual property and trade;

  • military and diplomatic issues in Eastern and South East Asian countries and Africa.

New “Cold War” ? Many American circles – among republicans and democrats, business and finance leaders, US military, the Navy, intellectuals and commentators- now see China as a serious competitor of the US like any other countries since the Soviet Union.

“I would not call it a cold war because arguably the US never took China very seriously in the past,” said Sylvan.

China was even used at times to counter Soviet Union.Today China challenges the US “model”. Although for now, while a competitor, it is still nowhere near the United States in terms of its military or financial power, which remains denominated in US dollars.

“You could argue that since 1945 you never had two superpowers but only one. The US deep concern is that China might at some point become a superpower,” said Sylvan.

Dangerous situation It may not be a “war” but it’s still not safe.

  • In the short term, there is a pandemic at stake;

  • in the middle and long term, the problem is that China is highly integrated to the global supply chain.

“It is not possible to simply solve the situation. Tensions are likely to grow in the coming years. There will be a combination of pressure and objective to put tenses around the economic ties,” predicted Sylvan.

Trump’ and his allies have exacerbated tensions But even if Biden is elected, there will still be friction with China around many issues that concern middle-of road Republicans and Democrats:

“It’s not something Trump does by himself. A lot of people in the West Wing of the White House, who surround him, are very hostile to the very idea of international organizations. John Bolton, an old-line, centrist right Republican, who used to joke about taking away the top 15 floors of the UN building in New York, was Trump’s national security advisor last year.”

Current attitudes could also be infectious Anti-China and anti- positions will remain common in US political circles and instiutions, such as Congress, even if Biden wins the election, and thus influence US policies towards UN and other international actors.

“US politicians always think they can score points by beating up international organizations. Issues will come up over and over again with China or Chinese activities be denounced and labelled as such. The organizations which should be above all this will not be able to do it,” said Sylvan.

The US case of the World Trade Organization (WTO) is slightly different. It’s part of a crusade against the international trade.The US have been trying to dismantle it, but China is only one particular aspect of it according to Sylvan.

The main question pending is how much finding the US will cut to other agencies.

“The majority of organizations - the WTO, UN agencies, NATO and a whole number of others- will keep their heads down over the next six months and pray that Biden wins the elections to avoid too much damage,” concluded Sylvan.