Pandemic and the rising enmity between USA and China

By: Dr. Rajkumar Singh

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected international relations and caused diplomatic tensions. The diplomatic relations have been affected due to the tensions around trade and transport of medicines, diagnostic tests and hospital equipment for coronavirus disease 2019. Leaders of some countries have accused other countries for not containing the disease effectively and resulting in the uncontrolled spread of the virus. Developing nations in Latin America and Africa cannot find enough materials for testing for coronavirus disease, partly because other countries in Europe and the United States and outspending the resources.

Issues between The US and China

The Chinese government has been criticised by the United States for its handling of the pandemic, which began in the Chinese province of Hubei, while State propaganda in China has been promoting a narrative that China’s authoritarian system is uniquely capable of curbing the coronavirus and contrasts that with the chaotic response of the Western democracies. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell is also of the view that  China is aggressively pushing the message that, unlike the US, it is a responsible and reliable partner. To counter the negative image created during the pandemic, China has sent aid to 82 countries, the World Health Organization, and the African Union. According to Yangyang Cheng, a postdoctoral research associate at Cornell University, “The Chinese government has been trying to project Chinese state power beyond its borders and establish China as a global leader, not dissimilar to what the U.S. government has been doing for the better part of a century, and the distribution of medical aid is part of this mission.”  

More controversially, China has also attempted to deflect criticisms by blaming the United States Armed Forces for initiating the coronavirus epidemic. It is widely agreed that this is not the case. Problematically, Xinhua, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, published an editorial threatening to drag the US into “the mighty sea of coronavirus” by ending pharmaceutical exports, even after official Chinese sources claimed the epidemic in China was under control. The US reaction to this threat, particularly in conservative circles, has been extremely negative, and relations between the two countries have soured more since then.

Covid-19 and effects of US sanctions

In this period of global health emergency two countries -Iran and Venezuela are worst affected by the sanctions imposed by the United States. As leaders around the world stress the borderless nature of the virus, some attempts at ramping up hostilities could prove disastrous for economically vulnerable countries. .In Iran and Venezuela, two countries under the staunchest U.S. sanctions, government efforts in fighting the epidemic have been exceptionally beset by international trade and payment restrictions. As these hurdles mount grave difficulties for both nations to procure essential medical supplies and other items, the coronavirus has been spreading unhindered within the confines of their borders.

While the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, along with leaders of other major powers, have repeatedly called for a sanctions ceasefire around the world, the Trump administration does not seem set to change course but rather intensified its confrontational approach against the two virus-stricken countries. Trump said the nuclear deal was not strong enough and wants to apply “maximum pressure” on Iran to curb its nuclear program, halt its ballistic missile work and end its support for proxy forces in the Middle East. The Islamic Republic says it will not negotiate unless the U.S. lifts its sanctions.

Alike Iran, the U.S.-Venezuela spats, the back-and-forth accusations have been escalating mutual enmity. In the latest effort to force Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to step down, the U.S. brought “narco-terrorism” charges against Caracas and sent its anti-drug navy ships to the Caribbean, adjacent to Venezuela, on top of offering an award of 15 million U.S. dollars for Maduro’s arrest.  Maduro responded stressing his intention to stay and control the epidemic, while Russia slammed the still-in-place U.S. sanctions, calling it “a tool of genocide” amid the COVID-19 outbreak.   While Venezuela has yet to feel the full force of the pandemic, only a quarter of doctors in the country have access to a reliable supply of water and two-thirds are without a soap, gloves or masks.

There is also a severe shortage of intensive care beds in the oil-abundant country. In the face of irreconcilable rhetoric, other major world powers have aligned to offer their help. Along with the World Health Organization and the United Nations, they have been persistent in stressing the importance of international collaboration. In line other countries, France, Germany and Britain exported medical goods to Iran in the first transaction conducted under Instex, a trade mechanism designed to bypass U.S. sanctions and barter humanitarian goods after the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Instex was set up more than a year ago and was long overdue to serve its purpose, but the first utilization of the mechanism spoke volumes about the EU-3’s resolve to come to the worst-hit Middle Eastern country’s aid. Meanwhile, China and Russia have also been sending large quantities of medical aids to both Iran and Venezuela.

Efforts to undermine the global co-operation

For countries of the world, this is especially a time for international cohesion, but attempts to undermine it are still visible.The U.S., in particular, has been criticized for its persistent campaign to place the blame on China, an effort believed to have further promoted division among the many virus-stricken populations. This approach has seen notable push backs both domestically and internationally. While relations between China and the U.S. were on a downward trajectory, events seemed to have taken a brighter turn after a phone call between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Both leaders recognized the need to amend bilateral ties and strengthen cooperation in the fight against the global pandemic.

The phone call came after G20 leaders pledged a five-trillion-U.S.-dollar stimulus to stave off global economic collapse in an extraordinary virtual meeting.  The leaders also committed to do “whatever it takes” to minimize the social and economic damage of the coronavirus pandemic, reflecting a spirit of much-needed unity. As earlier the war of words between the U.S. and China were not exceptional cases during the global pandemic.

The author is Professor and Head, University Department of Political Science, B.N.Mandal University, Madhepura, Madhepura-852113, Bihar, India.

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