The high-temperature argument over blame for the coronavirus is rapidly pushing the United States and China into a potentially dangerous new Cold War.
President Donald Trump and other administration officials claim that the virus, which many scientists say originally came from a bat, emerged from a Chinese government laboratory in Wuhan. They have offered no evidence, and both Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s top immunologist, say they’ve seen none.
Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo has gone further. He says the episode, including Beijing’s alleged efforts to conceal the initial outbreak in Wuhan, shows that China’s communist government is inherently malign.
“This is an enormous crisis created by the fact that the Chinese Communist Party … reverted to the kinds of disinformation, the kinds of concealment, that authoritarian regimes do,” he said Sunday.
Pompeo said Trump is correcting “40 years of appeasement of China,” a period that includes every president since Jimmy Carter.
Matthew Pottinger, the second-ranking official on Trump’s National Security Council staff, made a similar argument more subtly Monday at a digital conference hosted by University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
Pottinger said China deserves a government more responsive to its citizens and warned that continued repression could spark rebellion. He also borrowed an aphorism from Spider-Man: “With great power comes great responsibility — and I don’t think China has met that test.”
Pompeo and Pottinger are right on the larger questions. China’s government is autocratic and corrupt. President Xi Jinping has been steering the country away from democracy and reform. His military has bullied weaker neighbors, especially in the South China Sea.
In this crisis, China has sounded more like an adversary than a competitor — making unsubstantiated claims that a visiting U.S. soldier may have brought the coronavirus to Wuhan, and returning Pompeo’s insults in kind.
“If the dishonest behavior of evil politicians like Pompeo continues, ‘Make America Great Again’ could become merely a joke,” newscaster Li Zimeng said on Beijing’s main government-owned television network last week.
That’s what makes this a new version of the Cold War, the 40-year-long struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. Each side sounds bent on bringing down the other’s political system.
It’s also unusual for this White House, which generally doesn’t criticize authoritarian governments unless they’re on its enemies list. Until now, that meant Iran, Venezuela and Cuba, but not China.
It’s not clear if Trump is as angry as his hawkish aides. Only a few months ago, he was full of praise for Xi, who had just signed an agreement to buy $200 billion worth of U.S. goods.
“He’s for China, I’m for the U.S., but other than that, we love each other,” Trump said.
On Sunday, in an event at the Lincoln Memorial, the president sounded relatively mild. “My opinion is they made a mistake,” he said. “They tried to cover it.”
That wasn’t quite Cold War stuff — more like an effort to convince voters that China deserves the blame for the pandemic, and please ignore the chaos in the Trump administration.
More serious is the question of how far this new Cold War will go.
Cold Wars are dangerous. In the last one, the United States and the Soviet Union came close to nuclear war at least three times.
“Ideological competition … makes it much more difficult to cooperate,” James Steinberg, who was deputy director of the National Security Council under President Clinton, warned at the University of Virginia event. “It tends to build a greater sense that our success depends on the other side’s failure — that we would be better off if China didn’t succeed.”
The paradox of U.S.-China relations is that the world’s two biggest powers need to coexist, and even cooperate when they can, while they compete and collide.
It’s messy, complicated and hard. But it gets even harder when both sides commit themselves to unrelenting confrontation.
A decision that weighty deserves more deliberation, and not in the heat of a pandemic or a presidential campaign. A great nation’s foreign policy shouldn’t be made on the basis of bat droppings.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at email@example.com