Is COVID-19 a Game Changer for Transatlantic Narratives on China?

Experts on both sides of the Atlantic give their perspectives on whether the pandemic has changed national understandings, narratives, and foreign policy debates on China.

Expert comment Published 30 June 2020 Updated 8 December 2020 5 minute READ

A man walks past a bag printed with the portrait of China's revolutionary leader Mao Tse-tung on display outside a shop in Hong Kong. Photo by PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP via Getty Images.

A man walks past a bag printed with the portrait of China’s revolutionary leader Mao Tse-tung on display outside a shop in Hong Kong. Photo by PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP via Getty Images.

Harder Line Could Accelerate Animosity with China

Dr Leslie Vinjamuri

Coronavirus has dramatically reshaped the political and economic context for the US foreign policy debate. With more than 20 million Americans unemployed – and an unemployment rate above 13 per cent – more than 125,000 deaths and the rate of infections continuing to climb across the south and south-west, and President Donald Trump polling more than eight per cent behind Joe Biden, it is hardly surprising that China and its role both in the pandemic and in the US economy continues to dominate foreign policy discussions.

In both the United States and Europe, the severity of the health and economic crisis driven by the pandemic has raised the stakes for policy on China and –  especially in the UK, Germany, France and the wider EU –  is tipping the balance towards those who advocate for a harder line on China.

In the US, allegations China covered up the origins of the coronavirus has overshadowed the temporary stability in US-China relations delivered by Trump’s ‘phase one’ trade deal last December.

The fact that China’s purchases are falling short of targets has not helped, but it is also garnering less attention than China’s crackdown on Hong Kong, its conflict with India or allegations by former national security adviser John Bolton that Trump ceded the US ability to pressure China on alleged human rights abuses against its Uighur community in the hopes of securing the trade deal.

Now, the future of the ‘phase one’ trade deal is uncertain, as China threatens to halt its purchases of US goods if the US continues to pressure China over Hong Kong.

All this plays into the popular narrative in the US that China cannot be trusted, and, just when cooperation with China is most needed, the pandemic has led to a shrinking of the space that is open to foreign policy experts who advocate careful strategies that link cooperation with China to specific conditions.

The risk today is that these will be passed over as policy in the United States is driven by partisan competition, fuelled by popular anger, over who can be tougher on China – all within the context of probably the highest-stake presidential election in the post-war period.

But the pandemic also ushers in greater scope for transatlantic alignment and –  possibly – more cooperation on China, because it narrows the terrain, especially in Europe, for policy towards China. Future cooperation now looks more likely to lean towards the harder line on trade, technology and national security favoured by the US administration, rather than more open and pragmatic policies favoured by the UK last year.

If alignment does take a harder edge, this could serve to accelerate animosity between China and the transatlantic community, and therefore create an even more competitive and unstable geopolitical environment.

US-Europe’s Persistent Lack of Trust a Significant Hurdle

Dr Torrey Taussig

Without the pandemic, a transatlantic narrative on China would entail a shared understanding of the challenges China poses to both US and European prosperity, security and democracy.

From this starting point, the US and Europe might then develop coordinated approaches on issues such as whether to allow Huawei to develop 5G telecommunication networks and how to invest in viable alternatives; addressing Chinese unfair trade practices and reforming the WTO; and how US and European development actors can finance and implement sustainable alternatives to China’s Belt-Road Initiative.

But in the COVID-19 world, this kind of transatlantic narrative toward China is inhibited by two factors – deep divisions and lack of trust in the transatlantic relationship, and disagreements in Europe over how to get tough on China. On the second factor, the pandemic has admittedly led many European citizens and their leaders to view relations with China through a more sceptical lens.

There is widespread commentary that the Chinese Communist Party suppressed information about the virus during the initial outbreak in Wuhan province. The resulting health and economic crises raised calls to nationalize supply chains and reduce dependencies on Chinese pharmaceutical and technological products.

Claims that China used an aggressive disinformation campaign to sow doubts about the origins of the virus has led to several rebukes from European policymakers.

Yet the first factor - a persistent lack of trust in the US-Europe relationship - remains a significant hurdle to developing a transatlantic narrative on China, and has only been exacerbated in the COVID-19 crisis. President Trump’s erratic response to the pandemic at home and abroad has deepened scepticism in Europe about American leadership.

His decision in March to enact a travel ban from Europe without even informing European leaders was a bad start. Since then, the US administration has castigated China at the expense of unity in the G7, announced a decision to withdraw from the World Health Organization (WHO), skipped out on the EU-hosted drive to raise funds for vaccine research, and said it will withdraw a sizeable number of US troops from Germany in a decision that appears both hastily made and politically motivated.

COVID-19 could have served as a wake-up call for international cooperation and an impetus for transatlantic alignment on a range of issues, including China. Instead it has become another ‘own goal’ for the Trump administration in its efforts to move European allies toward a tougher and more coordinated position on China.

‘Bad China’ Now Established in America’s Political Psyche

Robert Daly

COVID-19 has catalysed a new American narrative on China. The virus itself is not essential to the narrative but has accelerated a chemical reaction among long-present elements. And the narrative is not that China is a competitor or adversary. It is more concerning than that.

Many Americans – supporters of both main parties, and from across the country – now believe that, as led by the Communist Party, China is fundamentally ‘bad’. In an April Pew poll, two-thirds of Americans expressed negative views of China – a historic high.

American objections to China were established before coronavirus. In both 2018 and 2019, during speeches at Washington think tanks, Vice-President Mike Pence declared China a ‘bad actor’ – not only within China, where he claimed the CCP was repressing ethnic and religious groups and free thinkers, but overseas, where he said China was coercing other nations through military threats, politicized technology, and predatory lending, and also specifically on American soil, where he accused United Front organizations of trying to legitimize Chinese Communist Party practices and silence critics.

Pence did not offer a complete picture of China or US-China relations, and the Trump administration is rightly criticized for complaining about China rather than forming a strategy to counter it, but, still, Pence’s list of China’s sins was alarming and largely accurate. These speeches did not embed the ‘bad China’ narrative in American thinking. But COVID-19 has now done that.

It is not only China’s management of the pandemic, conspiracy theories floated by both US and Chinese leaders, or American fears of disease and decline that make COVID-19 the catalyst. The new narrative has also been driven home by China’s actions in Hong Kong, disappearance of Chinese journalists, increased military patrols in the Western Pacific, rabid diplomatic style, and the conflict on the Sino-Indian border.

This narrative is now established in America’s political psyche. In a country that has always been fascinated by China and has benefitted immeasurably from the inflow of Chinese talent, ‘bad China’ pre-determines how news from the Middle Kingdom is received.

Although many nations around the world have come to share America’s view – and accepting that Xi Jinping’s China does often make a terrible case for itself – the new narrative still carries risks for the US. It blinds America to China’s complexity, its continuing evolution and promise, and opportunities for cooperation. Worse, the Bad China narrative will make it easier to contemplate violence when an almost-inevitable successor narrative takes hold – cold war.

Pandemic May Make UK Political Choices Easier

Peter Watkins

The emerging consensus that the coronavirus pandemic will accelerate existing political and economic trends rather than initiate new ones appears to apply to the UK narrative on China’s rise. Although the idea of a national narrative on China’s rise is a simplification, the pre-pandemic UK narrative did have three main features:

First, it has been weaker than other countries. The UK government’s approach certainly seemed more malleable, being quite heavily influenced by the stronger views of its allies and partners. Second, the recent narrative has been evolving. It emphasised economic opportunity until around 2015, when it started to become more cautious, reflecting a darkening global context.

Finally, there was a sense the UK would increasingly face uncomfortable choices, which would feel even sharper as it exited the EU – the government’s carefully balanced decision on Huawei and 5G in late January 2020 being a good example of this. In the UK, there have been fewer attempts – either by politicians or the media – than in the US to crudely ‘blame’ Beijing for coronavirus, but perceptions have shifted. First, of China as an economic partner. The pandemic – and particularly the need for vast quantities of PPE (personal protective equipment) – highlighted the UK’s dependency on global supply chains linked to China.

Political agitation for rebalancing or onshoring has been relatively restrained. This may, in part, have reflected the general recognition that there was already an emerging trend towards a greater regionalization of supply chains – and that this would now accelerate, driven mainly by commercial decisions.

Secondly, of China as a geopolitical actor. Even before COVID-19 took hold in the UK, there were signs of growing unease about what China’s handling of the initial outbreak – notably the lack of transparency – indicated about the Chinese Communist Party’s priorities and values.

Such concerns led to the formation of the China Research Group in the parliamentary Conservative Party in late April. They have been exacerbated by suspicions the Chinese leadership was exploiting the crisis to pursue other agendas, such as imposing the national security law on Hong Kong. This prompted the UK government’s decision to ‘provide a pathway to future [UK] citizenship’ for British national (overseas) passport holders in Hong Kong – bringing sharp criticism from China.

The pandemic has accelerated and reinforced the post-2015 trend towards a more security-coloured UK narrative on China’s rise – despite the UK economy’s need for more business with China post-Brexit and the pandemic-induced recession.

This has provided the UK government with cover to revisit the Huawei 5G decision which was already politically disputed. It also potentially gives the UK government more cover to accept terms under a US/UK Free Trade Agreement which would constrain a UK/China one. Paradoxically, the pandemic may have helped make the UK’s political choices a bit easier with an – as yet unquantified – price to be paid by the economy and the consumer.

The authors were asked to contribute these perspectives following a workshop they took part in as part of the US and the Americas programme’s multi-year initiative in partnership with the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung which aims to understand American, Canadian and European policy towards China in a range of critical policy areas.