COVID-19 continues to rob countless people around the world of their livelihoods. While it also depends on when a vaccine or miracle drug is developed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that this pandemic is a once-in-a-century phenomenon.
What we need to be even more cautious of now is COVID-19’s potential to also endanger the world’s peace and security. As the infection spreads, the world’s economy is stagnating and people are losing their jobs. In order to survive domestic crises, we may begin to see countries implement strict measures against the outside world, and leaders may begin to incite nationalistic ideals. In other words, there is a risk that COVID-19 could further lead to the spreading of a “virus of conflict.”
The most apparent manifestation of that risk is the current tension between the United States and China. U.S.-China relations have continued to deteriorate since the beginning of the Donald Trump administration, but before the pandemic, tension centered around each country’s action and reaction in the fields of trade, technological hegemony and oceanic hegemony.
Increased Belief in the Communist Party’s Inherent Evil, and the Reimaging of that ‘Evil’ under COVID-19
As mentioned earlier, this is indeed a serious problem; however, if the blowback of U.S.-China tensions was strictly limited to those three areas, then it would have still been possible for the two nations to reach to some kind of agreement. Yet thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is no longer that simple. To put it briefly, the U.S. and China are no longer engaged in a mere conflict of interests. Instead, the conflict has progressed to a visceral one in which the two countries now even condemn and refute the character and nature of the other’s philosophy. Specifically, since the crisis began, the U.S. government and Congress have assumed a new perspective toward China, one that regards the Communist Party as “inherently evil.” In simpler terms, it is the opinion that the culprit behind China’s continued violation of human rights and international order is none other than the authoritarian ideals of the Communist Party.
What caused U.S. distrust and suspicion of China to intensify to this extent? Regarding technological and oceanic hegemony, there was undoubtedly an undercurrent of accumulated dissatisfaction even before the pandemic. Nevertheless, COVID-19 was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
In the United States, a tremendous number of lives have been claimed by the pandemic. The American people are undeniably experiencing a level of grief and frustration unimaginable to the Japanese. Moreover, the current economic slump brought on by the virus is quite severe. The country is overflowing with people who have lost their jobs and have been forced to rely on unemployment benefits.
Filled with anger and no clear target at which to direct it, the people are taking it out not only on Trump for his mishandling of the situation, but on China. Because the Chinese Communist Party does not recognize a free media or freedom of speech, information regarding the virus during the early days of the pandemic was suppressed, and the infection ended up spreading to the rest of the world. This is all the fault of Chinese authoritarianism.
The future of U.S. policy toward China will focus more on addressing this “inherent evil” of the Communist Party.
Even the Incoming Biden Administration Cannot Change the Tide
It is unlikely that the trend in U.S. diplomacy with China will change even under the administration of former Vice President Joe Biden, who won the presidential election in November. Since the summer, Biden administration aides who are working on Biden’s plan for foreign policy and national security have been more persistently promoting the idea of “Biden diplomacy” at the online events of U.S. think tanks. Even within the team, the two individuals who held the biggest influence over Biden’s campaign pledges were Antony Blinken, former deputy secretary of state under the Barack Obama administration, and Jake Sullivan, currently one of Biden’s close advisers.
There are three key points that these two figures emphasize regarding the future of U.S. policy on China. The first point is that, even under the much anticipated Biden administration, the U.S. must not reduce the amount of pressure it is putting on China in order to pursue a more conciliatory approach. The second point is that, unlike what we saw during the Trump administration, going forward, it will be crucial that the U.S. strengthens its cooperation with allies such as Japan, Australia and Europe. The third point is that, also unlike President Trump, who made light of human rights and the situation in Hong Kong, Biden will address the issue head-on and work toward improvement.
Since it would be counterproductive for Biden to be seen as weak against China, there are times when he intentionally assumes a tough and unyielding stance. However, as the Biden administration has expressed its desire to work together with China to address the issue of climate change, there is some skepticism as to the extent Biden will maintain his tough facade. In any case, it is unlikely that the Biden administration will ever set U.S.-China relations as far back as the Obama administration did during its first term.
What is problematic is that we are not sure if, in the future, the tension between the two countries will remain limited to diplomacy and politics, or if there is a possibility that things could escalate into a military confrontation. The answer to this cannot be found by observing U.S. policy on China alone. We must also look at things from Beijing’s perspective and consider the damages and the changes in China’s policy on the United States due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Xi Jinping’s administration has announced that it has put a stop to the infection’s spread. However, despite this victory declaration, the resulting damage the country is facing due to the virus is serious — the biggest impact of all being the effect on the economy. While the country’s gross domestic product has increased, that same prosperity is not reflected in the country’s employment rates. The retail, food service and hotel industries — the industries most in need of employment assistance — still show no signs of recovering.
It will be longer yet until restaurant, hotel and retail businesses return to their pre-COVID glory, and the country is currently experiencing its highest rate of unemployment since China began its reform and opening-up policy in 1979. It is undeniable that Chairman Xi and top Chinese officials are more than anxious over this fact, considering that before long, the anger and dissatisfaction of the unemployed could turn into fervent criticism of the Communist Party.
The increased criticism from the U.S. and other leading countries as to China’s responsibility in the outbreak is another strike against the party’s authoritarianism. Until now, Chairman Xi promised that China would become a superpower and surpass the U.S. by 2050, and he tried to garner the Chinese people’s respect and affirmation as a “great leader.” If the world blames him for the COVID-19 pandemic, then all of his efforts would have been in vain.
The Possibility of Military Escalation
What is concerning going forward is the risk that the U.S. and China’s back-and-forth exchange of hard-line measures will escalate and cause a military confrontation. If such a thing were to happen, the issue would likely be one concerning the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait. If the confrontation is over the South China Sea, then, even if China and the U.S. resort to military force, it is unlikely to cause a full-scale war. However, if the confrontation were to happen over Taiwan, then there is admittedly a chance it could result in an all-out war. This is due to the fact that China considers Taiwan to be a part of its domain, and has made it clear that it is not against the use of military force if foreign powers intervene.
Even if things do not immediately escalate into a U.S.-China confrontation, as of mid-August, China was carrying out military exercises in the Taiwan Strait, and there is a risk that military tension will continue to rise.
Someday, a vaccine will be developed and the rate of infection will finally dwindle. When that happens, COVID-19 will likely lose its momentum. However, this other “virus” (of conflict) that has already invaded and begun to erode the relationship between the United States and China will not disappear so easily.