Clouded thinking in Washington and Beijing on COVID-19 crisis

FILE PHOTO: A woman wearing a protective mask is seen past a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping on a street as the country is hit by an outbreak of the coronavirus, in Shanghai, China March 12, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo

In 2015, an action movie about a group of elite paratroopers from the People’s Liberation Army, “Wolf Warrior,” dominated box offices across China. In 2020, the nationalistic chest-thumping spirit of that movie is defining Chinese diplomacy, or at least the propaganda surrounding it. This aggressive new style is known as “wolf warrior diplomacy,” and although it is not embraced by all of China’s foreign policy mandarins, it does appear to reflect the current zeitgeist in Beijing. The style is characterized by triumphalism — equal parts eagerness to assert the superiority of China’s approach to COVID-19 and enthusiasm for pointing out the shortcomings of Western countries’ responses.

This brash new approach is helping China’s leaders stoke nationalism and shore up support at home amidst a spike in unemployment and a sharp economic downturn. The same messages that are playing well at home, though, are having the opposite effect abroad.

China’s propaganda push to assert the superiority of its response to COVID-19 is arousing antipathy on nearly every continent. So, too, are its efforts to push countries that receive Chinese health assistance to praise China’s response to the virus while staying silent on its negligent initial response to it.

Although the list of examples is too long to cite in this short piece, it is safe to say that no part of the world has been spared. For example, the French government recently summoned the Chinese ambassador over remarks suggesting that France was leaving its older citizens to die. China’s ambassador to Sweden has threatened media outlets that report unfavorably on China. China’s embassy in Caracas has instructed Venezuelan officials to “put on a face mask and shut up,” in response to references to the “Chinese virus.” China’s embassy in Brazil has gone on the attack against a popular education minister. Indian citizens have expressed outrage over being scolded by the Chinese embassy for commending Taiwan’s response. Prominent Chinese voices have threatened Australia with economic retaliation for challenging China’s preferred COVID-19 narrative. Many African leaders have registered anger over reports of racism against their citizens in southern China. And the list goes on.

China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy” also has generated turbulence in the U.S.-China relationship. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson has pushed fringe conspiracy theories on Twitter that COVID-19 may have originated in the United States and been carried to Wuhan. And China’s propaganda department has launched a coordinated assault on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of a kind not seen arguably since the Mao era. Pompeo has been labeled a “liar,” an “enemy of humankind” and a “super-spreader” of a “political virus.”

Instead of standing back and allowing China to advertise its unattractive insecurities over its role in the initial spread of the virus, though, the Trump administration has adopted an “eye for an eye” response. Trump administration officials have prioritized efforts to link the virus to China. Members of the Trump administration reportedly have been pressing the intelligence community to corroborate a theory that the virus escaped from a Chinese lab. Secretary Pompeo torpedoed a G-7 foreign minister’s statement when his peers refused to include a reference to the “Wuhan virus” in the communiqué. The United States similarly blew up a G-20 health officials’ statement over language relating to the World Health Organization. The United States has suspended funding to the World Health Organization during the greatest global health crisis in the past century.

In a seeming emulation of China’s recent tactics, President Trump appeared to take satisfaction in an upward revision of the death count in China resulting from COVID-19. He and members of his administration also have flirted with demanding financial compensation from China for deaths in the United States resulting from the virus, an idea that could deal a blow to the full faith and credit of the United States without offering offsetting benefits, given the unlikelihood of China ever paying reparations.

I understand the outrage many members of the Trump administration feel about China’s actions. I am angered by China’s conduct too, particularly its mishandling of the outbreak, which contributed to the spread of the virus. But outrage is an ineffective emotion for advancing the national interest. The cold reality is that America’s response is undermining the very objectives it purports to be pursuing.

America’s response is undermining the very objectives it purports to be pursuing.

  • The Trump administration’s efforts to assert the conclusion in advance of the investigation into the source of the outbreak is lowering the likelihood of Chinese support for international scientific collaboration in identifying how the virus was transmitted to humans.
  • The Trump administration’s “take my ball and go home” approach to obstructing consensus in the G-7 and the G-20 and withholding funding from the World Health Organization is destroying pathways to international cooperation in containing the spread of COVID-19. Since the American people won’t be safe until the pandemic is stamped out in every corner of the world, and the United States is not capable of eradicating the virus on its own, the Trump administration appears to be allowing pique to override a more pressing priority of saving lives and stopping the spread of the virus.
  • By getting drawn into a tit-for-tat mud-slinging contest with China, the Trump administration is becoming perceived as a contributor to the problem, rather than a leader in galvanizing global efforts toward a solution. It is in America’s interest for the harsh global spotlight to be centered squarely on China, not on each side’s contribution to the dysfunction in relations between the world’s two most capable powers.

With American elections on the horizon, there’s little likelihood of a change in approach from Washington. There similarly is a low probability of a near-term change in tune from Beijing, given the domestic considerations that seem to be driving this new diplomatic mentality. Even so, lessons must be learned for the future.

Future American leaders will need to restore steadiness and discipline in the face of crisis, with a focus on facts and a determination to advance the national interest above all else. America’s global prestige will depend foremost upon its own performance at home, which to date has been disappointing. Future American leaders also should learn from this period that when China starts digging its own hole, Washington should not wrestle with Beijing for the shovel.