Both the United States and Beijing are looking to come out of the coronavirus period – which may last many months or years – in an advantageous position with regard to the other. The leadership in both countries also believe that blaming and demonizing the other helps deflect domestic discontent with their handling of the virus. At the moment, neither Washington nor Beijing appear to be looking to explicitly build or strengthen coalitions against the other. Rather they each appear to be pursuing an internal-looking, unilateral economic recovery with the concomitant strengthening of domestic political security for the party in power.
The Trump administration has significantly upped its rhetoric regarding China over the past week. It has gone from generally blaming China to a mix of accusations that the coronavirus was manufactured in China, was natural but leaked from a poorly-run Chinese lab, and that China hid information from the world – and frequently a mix of all three. The last point – that China was slow in providing information to other countries that would have helped others understand the scope and severity of the issue sooner – seems to be the argument with the most traction in a wide range of countries. The claim that the virus is some sort of a man-made bioweapon designed to crash Western economies is the least plausible and has been explicitly ruled out by scientists and even the U.S. intelligence community. That did not stop Secretary Pompeo from saying on Sunday that it both was a man-made virus and that it wasn’t – further muddying the waters. It is unlikely that there will ever be enough incontrovertible evidence to show whether the virus escaped from a lab or simply made the jump to humans in markets or other close quarters – as has been the case with previous viruses such as SARS and MERS. But that will not stop the accusations or their use to spread and deflect blame.
The criticisms and suspicions of China appear to be taking hold in Europe and Asia. Both political leaders and businesses are looking to diversify supply chains and are becoming more wary of relations with China that could create political or economic risk. Beijing’s pushback against Washington, ranging similarly from conspiracy theories that the virus was planted by the U.S. Army to simple mocking of the Trump administration’s competence in responding to the virus, has not gained similar traction outside of China. China’s mix of coronavirus aid plus threats if other countries question its stories or actions has not endeared Beijing to many governments.
Washington so far has not capitalized on this potential antipathy to China to create or strengthen new bonds with allies and partners. Washington’s domestic handling of the virus coupled with earlier actions – such as seizing personal protective equipment and ventilators on the international market – have left many countries looking for future collaboration that does not rely on either of these two great powers. The result could be new alignments or – in echoes of the early Cold War era – a new nonalignment with states seeking economic, political, and even military relations that do not link them tightly with either Washington or Beijing.
As countries emerge from the pandemic with different timing and methods, we will see new alliances across countries with similar outcomes and methods. For example, Australia, Austria, Israel, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece and New Zealand are now working together to restart their economics and open their borders just to each other. These new alliances may be one of the most consequential foreign policy outcomes of COVID 19.