Observations of an expat: Sino-American Covid diplomacy

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It is difficult to tell who is winning the Sino-American Coronavirus diplomatic battle. Two weeks ago I would have put the US in the lead. They had successfully poured ice water on Chinese claims to have successfully suppressed the spread of the virus in China. It is now generally accepted that the Chinese statistics are extremely dubious.

This week the pendulum has swung the other way. The reason is the annual meeting of the World Health Assembly which – unsurprisingly – was dominated by the pandemic.

The pendulum received a gentle push from the European Union which successfully proposed a full and independent investigation into the causes, spread, handling and consequences of coronavirus as well as a report into how best to deal with a repeat crisis.

On the surface, this would appear to be a victory for the Trump Administration who have been loud on their accusations – despite all evidence to the contrary – that Covid-19 originated in a Wuhan virology lab from whence it reached the community by accident or intent. The Chinese have been even more outrageous with their leading conspiracy theory: America developed the virus and despatched US military personnel to Wuhan to spread a Covid-19 paste on hundreds of Chinese door knobs.

The EU proposal carefully avoids pointing an accusing finger at any party. Its primary purpose is to learn lessons so that future mistakes are avoided. But any investigation will have the secondary effect of undermining conspiracy theories which will make President Donald Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo look ridiculous.

China is not the only target of the Trump Administration. They are also attacking the World Health Organisation (WHO) which they accuse of being a pawn of Beijing. Part of the reason for this attack is that China and the WHO were slow in identifying the virus, going public with their concerns and declaring a pandemic.

The exact date of the first case is unknown. It was probably in November. But is almost certain is that at the start doctors had no idea what it was; how contagious it was;  how serious it would become or even when it was transmitted from human to human. How could they know? They had no experience of Covid-19. It did not exist in humans anywhere in the world before November-December 2019.

It is true that there were initial, short-lived, attempts at a cover-up. The sad case of whistle blowing doctor Li Wen Liang is the most poignant example. But the public reaction and political and economic consequences of previous epidemics doubtless made the Chinese wary of the dangers of over-reacting until they were certain of the threat to public health. Other governments have been less than transparent in their handling of the crisis. Boris Johnson’s government is being accused of massaging statistics on testing and tracking and protection of vulnerable patients in care homes.

There is however, a much wider issue. Coronavirus is being used by both Washington and Beijing to tout the superiority of their competing political systems by attacking the other. Governments around the world are being asked to back either the American or Chinese version of the pandemic in the full knowledge that their position will have a knock-on effect on business and military support from one of the two powers. It’s a bit like the old Soviet-American Cold War.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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6 Comments

  • So the children are throwing their toys around.’ Mines better than yours’!.The time when Governments worked together for the benefit of humanity and ignored childish things should return. Instead we have children throwing their weight around in the playground. Pathetic.

  • John Samuel 22nd May '20 - 3:53pm

    With a slightly perverse twist, China managed to make the Americans leave the WHO without anyone else following them. The leader of the western world isn’t leading anyone. That’s decapitation.

  • John Marriott 23rd May '20 - 9:50am

    Question: In terms of trade, do we really want to get into bed with either China or the USA?
    Answer: Not if we want to retain a modicum of independence.

    As far as China is concerned, we, and the West for that matter, have become too reliant on their providing us with so many goods. If we are serious about having a manufacturing future, we should, for example, be reconsidering whether we should allow the Chinese to buy the Scunthorpe steel works and ship out the intellectual property rights to a process they clearly did not possess (even after flooding the world’s market in steel a few years back, thus undercutting many western firms). As for Huawei, well, you figure it out?

    As for the USA, that so called ‘special relationship’ was dying as soon as FDR and ‘Uncle Jo’ decided to do a deal on Europe behind Churchill’s back in 1943/4. As for Number 45, he’s already putting ‘America first’, so what kind of ‘sweet deal’ can we expect from him, especially if he gets back in November (which, given the cockeyed voting system is definitely not out of the question)?

    Well, what about Europe? As far as the country that seems to be pulling the strings is concerned, Germany’s dependence on Putin’s Russia for energy makes her, and many other European countries, extremely vulnerable if push came to shove.

    So, perhaps it really is time for us to start making and buying British products and, if necessary, paying a little bit more for them. That means ‘Made in the UK” and not just ‘Assembled in the UK’.

  • John Marriott 23rd May '20 - 5:43pm

    @George Kendall
    It’s clear that you must have a totally different definition of ‘protectionism’ from me. Quite frankly, it never crossed my mind that this is what my post was advocating. Please don’t toss words like ‘folly’ and ‘immoral’ at me, either. It’s clear that you haven’t really understood where I’m coming from.

    What I am advocating is that we start making more things in this country; obviously not everything and certainly not erecting tariff barriers, as Trump was advocating as the answer to everything.

    By all means let us assist third world countries where we can. After all, we are quite happy to benefit from their nurses and doctors etc., often trained in their own country, at no expense to us. I am not talking about a third world country, I’m talking about China, and our increasing dependence upon the Chinese to provide us with everything from electrical goods, motor cars down to a set of model railway figures I bought off Amazon, which took three months to arrive! I trust the Chinese regime as much as I trust Trump’s regime , which isn’t very much, believe me.

    As for being part of “a political partnership that could stand up to Trump and Chinese nationalism”, don’t hold your breath if you are referring to the EU. For one thing, many of its member states are heavily dependent on Russian energy supplies, as I wrote in my post. Is that wise in the current climate. Remember what happened to oil prices in 1973, the quadrupling of which by OPEC as a result of the Yom Kippur war was again beyond our control, when many economists were still telling us at the time that this was where our future prosperity lay.

  • George Kendall 23rd May '20 - 6:49pm

    You’re right, John. I didn’t understand you and I’m afraid I still don’t.

    I don’t see how the government could bring about making more things in this country unless it adopted protectionism. Protectionism, of course, doesn’t just mean tariffs. It includes government subsidies, using regulation to deliberately disadvantage importers, and legal barriers.

    On China, I too am getting increasingly worried by their behaviour. Particularly after they imposed 80% tariffs on Australian barley, following Australia calling for an independent investigation into the origins and early handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. We too are vulnerable to such bullying. Which is why I think we should be deepening international alliances, including with the EU.

    Regarding the EU and Russia, the EU imposed sanctions on Russia following their annexation of Crimea. They aren’t completely reliable. And will be less likely to act in this way now we have left the EU. Which is another reason why I wish we had not left.

    The USA too has imposed sanctions, but leaks from the Trump administration show that his administration is pretty unreliable when it comes to standing up for his allies against Russia.
    https://www.businessinsider.com/trump-wanted-to-expel-fewer-russian-diplomats-2018-4?r=US&IR=T

    Now we have left, I agree with Martin Kettle, that we should seek for allies among democracies around the world, so we are less susceptible to bullying.
    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/20/post-coronavirus-uk-alliances-stand-up-china-us

    Hopefully, after November, we will have a reliable partner in the USA again. But we shouldn’t assume what will happen in that election.

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