Washington Wednesday – Beijing unmasked

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 29th of April, 2020. You’re listening to WORLD Radio and we’re so glad to have you along. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. First up: U.S.-China policy. 

REICHARD: China continues to insist that it did everything it could to stop the spread of the new coronavirus. But most of the rest of the world isn’t buying it. During his Monday press briefing at the White House, President Trump summed up the growing international frustration.

TRUMP: We are not happy with China. We are not happy with that whole situation. ‘Cause we believe it could have been stopped at the source. Could have been stopped quickly. And wouldn’t have spread all over the world. And we think that should have happened.

U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating how the virus got started in Wuhan, with particular attention on a biocontainment lab where researchers were working with coronaviruses and bats. But the Trump administration isn’t waiting on the results to draw its own conclusions. Here’s Peter Navarro, director of Trade and Manufacturing Policy.

NAVARRO: The Chinese Communist Party basically inflicted this virus on the world. And we should never forget that here in America.

So, what effect will the coronavirus pandemic have on the already tense relationship between Washington and Beijing?

Joining us to talk about it is Will Inboden. He served at the State Department and the National Security Council under former President George W. Bush. He’s now executive director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. 

Professor, thank you for your time today and good morning to you.

WILL INBODEN, GUEST: Good to be with you, Mary. 

REICHARD: As we’ve just noted, we have enough evidence at this point to lay almost all of the blame for this global crisis at China’s feet. Before this, some people might have argued that what happens in China shouldn’t really concern us, unless it’s directly related to U.S. interests. But this crisis certainly has shown the limits of that perspective. How has this changed global attitudes toward China and is it likely to change U.S. policy in the short-term?

INBODEN: I think the current crisis is accelerating what was already a deteriorating relationship between the United States and China, and likewise accelerating what was already growing global skepticism about China. So, we might think of the coronavirus pandemic as an acid test that is peeling away any residue of goodwill or cooperation that might have been lingering and, instead, revealing the core nature of the relationship between the U.S. and China, which is a strategic rivalry. And, likewise, isolating China more in the eyes of a lot of the rest of the world as a powerful bad actor. 

REICHARD: What about in the long-term?

INBODEN: Well, it is hard to say where all of this is going to lead. I will say in the short term I’m concerned that China is making some gains here. I think with the thus far rather inept American response, especially coming from Washington, to the pandemic and then to the United States just being on the sidelines while China is doing this misinformation warfare offensive against us, I worry that we’re eroding our position there. However, longer-term, I am more optimistic.

China has managed to alienate most of its neighbors in its region. It is now provoking a backlash against itself in Europe with being the irresponsible source of the virus and then with its ham handed response. And, likewise, I think we’re seeing some real vulnerabilities in the Chinese economy.

Where I think we are right now is I’m calling it a “Cold Peace.” It’s not a cold war yet. It’s not nearly as tense as the Cold War was against the Soviet Union. But it has a number of elements of the Cold War and I think things are going to get worse before they get better. 

REICHARD: Before the pandemic, Washington took a strong stance against Beijing’s spreading influence in the global marketplace, especially in the tech sector. I’m thinking specifically of Huawei. 

Our European allies didn’t share our concern six months ago. The United Kingdom approved of Huawei to build the country’s 5G network, over U.S. objections. But British lawmakers are now rethinking that decision. Will, do you think Washington might have more backing now in its warnings against getting too cozy with Beijing?

INBODEN: I think so and I hope so. One area where I’ve been critical of the Trump administration is it’s alienating so many of our allies. This is a source of American strength. It’s something the Chinese government envies of America. China has no allies. They see our allies as real assets of ours. And so when the American government is disparaging our allies or not cooperating with them, that really weakens us. And that’s one reason I think so many of our allies had embraced Huawei as a supplier for 5G. Now that our allies are seeing just how malevolent the Chinese Communist Party can be, I think and hope there’s going to be an opening to reconsider their 5G partnerships and a chance for the Trump administration to reset some of its relationships in a more positive direction. 

REICHARD: As part of its effort to deflect criticism over its response to COVID-19, China has taken a page out of Russia’s playbook. Internet trolls linked to the Chinese Community Party are flooding social media with fake news about how the virus spread, among other things. Does that represent a new approach to foreign policy for Beijing? And if so, how might U.S. policy change in response?

INBODEN: I think it does. This is a very significant development and I think there’s two things going on here. The first is this growing partnership between Russia and China. For most of the 20th and early 21st century, the Soviet Union and then Russia were rivals, even enemies of China. And the United States was able to play that to our advantage, especially during the latter half of the Cold War. But under Putin and then Xi Jingping, we’re seeing this growing partnership between the Chinese and Russians in military cooperation, Russia is a gas supplier for China’s energy needs, cooperation together to support authoritarian thug regimes around the world. It’s really troubling.

China was already very active with the United States with Chinese propaganda, but their propaganda previously was more focused on trying to get the United States to like China, to think good things about the Chinese Communist Party, you know, present a positive face. It was clumsy, it wasn’t working very well, but that’s what they were doing with their Confucius Institutes and things like that. What’s new now, in addition to this Chinese-Russian partnership, is, as you said, these disinformation campaigns, this propaganda accusing the United States of creating the coronavirus, efforts to sow division in American society just as the Russians were doing it. It’s very worse, then, because the Chinese capabilities are more advanced and more extensive than the Russians are and so now China’s going in this direction. I worry we’re being slow to respond to it. Final thought and an analogy I’ve used before from the Cold War is in the 1980s the Soviet KGB created and spread this vicious slander that the CIA in the United States government created the AIDS virus and that we spread it around the world. Total fiction. Most Americans realized it as fiction, but the KGB was incredibly successful at spreading that in developing countries and it did deep damage to America’s image in Africa, Latin America, parts of Asia. I’d worry that something similar could be going on right now with Chinese propaganda about the United States having created the coronavirus, which again is just pure fiction. And so I really think and hope that the State Department and especially the intelligence community is active in countering this around the world, not just the United States. 

REICHARD: There has been talk of U.S. and European companies, especially pharmaceutical manufacturers, reconfiguring supply chains to limit or even remove China’s involvement. How likely is that to happen?

INBODEN: I think it’s pretty likely. And, again, I go back to my point earlier about the pandemic is accelerating what already works in global trends. And so one of the global trends we already were seeing was the decoupling of the American and Chinese economies, you know, for the last 30 years our economy’s become deeply intertwined in finance, with supply chains, with trade regimes. And over the last several years we’ve already been starting to pull apart there. American companies realizing that the Chinese market is not so attractive anymore. The American government, of course, putting the tariffs on. And now that we’re seeing these supply chain vulnerabilities, especially with drugs, pharmaceutical products that we need being manufactured in China, you don’t want to have an adversary state having a monopoly on those supplies. I’ve said in another context before that one challenge with the U.S.-China relationship is it’s pretty much unprecedented in world history for two countries to be so economically interdependent as the United States and China are and also be strategic rivals. One of those had to give. Twenty years ago people hoped that the economic interdependence would bring a friendship and no strategic rivalry. Turns out it’s looking more like the opposite, that we’re decoupling our economies and the strategic rivalry is accelerating. Mostly because of some very bad choices Beijing has made.

REICHARD: Will Inboden is a former member of the George W. Bush administration and now heads the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. Thanks for joining us today.

INBODEN: Thanks a lot, Mary. I enjoyed it.

(Xie Huanchi/Xinhua via AP) In this March 10, 2020 file photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping talks by video with patients and medical workers at the Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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