While the Chinese-US relations have been characterized by a conflictual nature since the arrival of the Donald Trump administration in January 2017, the current crisis, that had started to take shape between both countries in light of the COVID-19 virus crisis, is perhaps the most serious in the history of the relations between both countries. It involves the risks of building an international anti-China bloc if the US manages to hold China responsible for the synthetic (artificial) origin of the virus and its “intentional laziness” in warning countries of the world of the consequences of this disease and to convince the largest number possible of countries of this assumption. This would have serious strategic implications for China at more than one level.
On the other hand, a careful reading into the Chinese behaviour in this crisis reflects China’s insistence on a number of “historic constants”, particularly its adherence to the traditional concept of sovereignty and the principle of non-interference in internal affairs. However, it equally reflects an important shift in the language of international Chinese discourse in favour of adopting a vocabulary that is more potent and more expressive of the shift in international power balances.
Even on the assumption that the current crisis recedes, which is a likelihood that cannot be discounted, it will most probably have deep effects on the Chinese and US behaviour. This requires an understanding of the crisis within the framework of the current deeper and more stable shifts within the world order and their reflections on China’s position within that order.
Risks of the current crisis for China
The current crisis involves three main risks for China. The first risk relates to the potential damage for China’s soft power and its development model. While China did not pay much attention to the tools of soft power for decades, a close observer of China’s policies over the last few years, particularly since it put forward the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, would notice the increasing interest received by soft power tools within the framework of Chinese foreign policies. One of the important indications within this framework is what was mentioned in the important Chinese document entitled “Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road” which explains in more detail the Chinese government’s vision of this Initiative. The document specifies five main action priorities for the Initiative, the fifth of which focuses on expanding and deepening popular involvement through the promotion of academic, cultural and media exchange, expanding scholarships, expanding the organization of culture years, film festivals and book fairs, exchange of serials and films, and promoting tourism and interaction between political parties, parliaments and non-governmental organizations. In application of this priority, the last four years have witnessed a Chinese expansion in many of the aforementioned areas, in addition to expansion in spreading the Chinese language through the Confucius Institute.
The US success in building an anti-China bloc based on the COVID-19 crisis and its global implications will certainly greatly affect China’s image in the world and the effectiveness of the Chinese soft power tools. This effect may even extend to the “appeal” of the Chinese political and development model. While it is true that China has repeatedly emphasized every country’s right in choosing its own political and development path, the Chinese model, particularly the development one, has been greatly appreciated, especially by developing countries. This appreciation became even greater in light of China’s success in managing the COVID-19 crisis. In light of this experience, many writings emerged that tended to incorporate the nature of the political and administrative system as an important variable in China’s success in managing the crisis. Within this framework, it is impossible to ignore the existence of a Chinese interest in the spread of its political and development model as one of the means of supporting Chinese soft power on the one hand, and as an important requisite to curb western hostility towards that model, on the other.
The second risk relates to the potential damage to the Belt and Road Initiative with all its components. The assumption put forward here is that some countries will review their association with the Initiative or that the US will seek to practise its influence over many of those countries to carry out this review in a manner that could lead to the abatement of the Initiative’s appeal as a transregional global project. In this context, the US may seek to deploy many cards, including for example promoting assertions that the Initiative is merely “a project for Chinese hegemony over the world” and that the Initiative will deepen the debt crisis of developing economies and subsequently “swap those debts with political acquisitions”, etc. It is no secret that many of those assertions have been voiced in US writings since the Chinese Initiative was put forward, but they did not manage to prevent the interaction of a large number of countries with the Initiative. Those assertions are expected to be revived on a larger scale going forward if the US escalation against China persists.
The third risk, which is the resultant of the other two, focuses on the likely spread of the China threat theory on a large scale outside the US. This “theory” refers to the collection of writings and assertions that links the Chinese ascent with China’s transformation into a source of economic and military threat to the regional order, the US and the world order. This “theory” was mainly developed in the US, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, specifically starting from 1992. It represented one of the sources of concern for China and one of the determinants of Chinese discourse and policies vis-à-vis the outside world.
The success by the Trump administration in building an international anti-China bloc could create significant opportunities for the spread of the China threat theory outside the US, particularly if the latter manages to promote the numerous assertions that support the idea of the Chinese threat to the world order.
Yet despite the importance of those three potential risks, the US capability to implement them is not certain. On the one hand, those risks remain contingent on two basic conditions: first, the need by the US administration to prove the validity of its account regarding the manner of emergence of the COVID-19 virus. While the US assumption regarding the synthetic origin of the virus was voiced at the highest political level (US President Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo), it has not been associated with putting forward specific evidence confirming the validity of this assumption. Despite the pressures put by the administration on US intelligence agencies (according to several testimonies), to support this assumption, the reports issued by those agencies ‒ as of the time of writing this analysis ‒ deny their inclination toward this assumption. They still insist that the virus is not man-made, which underlines the political nature of the proposed US assumption. This nature was confirmed by Trump’s claim that China seeks to take any action to ensure his defeat in the upcoming elections.
The second requisite is the capability of the US administration to build a global anti-China alliance or bloc. So far, there are no strong indications that the US administration could succeed in achieving this goal. The parties supportive of the US assumption are still small in number, mainly the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morison (who had a diplomatic row with the Chinese ambassador in Australia), and New Zealand’s Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters, in addition to some international names known for their anti-China inclinations such as Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong before it was handed back to Chinese sovereignty. European powers continue to adopt either positions rejecting the US assumption/accusations or a balanced discourse thereon.
On the other hand, China has noticeably succeeded over the last decade in building a huge network of interests around it, including within Europe. Those common interests are based on an important network of international economic groups (the G20, the BRICS group and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization) and multilateral financial institutions (the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which is one of the important financial arms of the Belt and Road Initiative, and the New Development Bank (NDB), the financial arm of the BRICS group). The Belt and Road Initiative is no longer a theoretical idea or merely a Chinese initiative; over the last six years, China has managed to create a broad network of international interests around the Initiative in the regions of east, south, southeast and central Asia in addition to Europe and east Africa, whether through the numerous projects that have already been executed or are being executed (railways, international highways, development of maritime ports, free economic zones, etc.), the integration of a large number of countries into the Initiative’s financial arm, represented by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (80 members in the bank as of May 2020, in addition to 22 countries in the process of becoming members, and the funding by the bank of a large number of projects in those countries, either individually or in collaboration with other international financial institutions, including the World Bank and multilateral European banks), or the organization of a series of international forums about the Initiative.
Those international interests which have been formed around China and the Belt and Road Initiative constitute important obstacles to any US project to build an international alliance against China in general or against the Belt and Road Initiative in particular. They also constitute an important barrier to the promotion of the China threat theory.
How does China manage the current crisis with the US?
1. the Chinese reaction
It is possible to distinguish between three levels of the Chinese reaction to the US accusations and the relationship with the US in general.
The first level relates to China’s short-term or direct reactions. Relevant Chinese behaviours tend to insist on absolute rejection of the US assumption with regard to the origin of the COVID-19 virus, including the rejection of any form of international inquiry or receiving any international commissions to look into the true origin of the virus. China has also rejected the accusations made against the World Health Organization (WHO) of conniving with the Chinese government in hiding any information or covering up the reality of the epidemic spread within China. Chinese flexibility was limited to the possible acceptance of receiving a WHO medical commission.
In line with this position, Chinese diplomats were noticed to have engaged in arguments with their western counterparts and western media using strong vocabulary in defending the Chinese position and refuting US accusations. Some of them have explicitly referred (as is understood, for example, from the rebuttal issued by the Chinese ambassador in the UK Liu Xiaoming) to their country’s new position within the world order. This language is considered an important indication of a transformation in China’s international discourse.
China’s hard line stance on the idea of the international inquiry or the international commission is expected considering its adamant adherence to the concept of sovereignty in its traditional sense and to the principle of non-interference in internal affairs, including the absolute rejection of the idea of internationalizing internal affairs, which is true for political and non-political issues alike, and the escalating trust crisis between China and the US. This opens the door to the possibility of “polticizing” the work of any international commission and employing its results to serve US accusations. The Chinese stance on the issue of the international commission is not expected to undergo any change as it is related to issues that are extremely sensitive for the Chinese.
Within the same framework, China’s moves are expected to work on mobilizing its military capabilities in the South China Sea region as the main theatre expected to witness a likely US escalation against China in view of the great strategic importance of this region and its associated maritime straits of extreme importance to China (Malacca and Taiwan) through which passes the greater portion of Chinese trade and oil imports and in view of the strong US military presence in the region and close to those straits. This provides the US with a significant opportunity to put military and political pressure on China. In addition, the region is the subject of a dispute between China and most countries in southeast Asia. This provides the US with an opportunity to seek to mobilize those countries and employ them in its conflict with China. Associated with this also is the preparedness for any scenarios related to Taiwan, particularly in light of the attempts by advocates of Taiwan’s unilaterally declared independence to benefit from the current tension and their appeal to hold a referendum on the independence issue.
While China has managed over the last few years to obtain the privileges of using a number of maritime ports in a number of countries (Pakistan’s Gwadar on the Indian Ocean, Myanmar’s Kyaukpyu on the Indian Ocean, Malaysia’s Kuantan on the South China Sea, Djibouti’s Obock on the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka’s Hambantota on the Indian Ocean, Brunei’s Muara on the South China Sea, and the Maldives’ Feydhoo Finolhu on the Indian Ocean), China is not expected to drag the conflict with the US to those areas. Besides, the agreements governing the use of those ports are essentially economic and not military (despite the big controversy over the possibility of using them for military purposes at the stage of intensified conflict with the US).
2. Prospects of de-escalation
Despite the above, it is difficult to rule out a relative breakthrough and the de-escalation of the current crisis over the medium term based on the assumption that the Trump administration seeks, through the current escalation against China, to achieve a number of interim goals that, once achieved, will increase the possibilities of the de-escalation of the crisis. The first of these goals relates to the US desire to obtain Chinese concessions during the upcoming round of trade negotiations. While the two sides reached an interim agreement last mid-January to end the trade war between them, the pandemic circumstances prevented its implementation. This analysis is supported by the fact that while the relations between both countries have been witnessing a verbal and media war, US officials responsible for trade negotiations have started to engage directly with their Chinese counterparts. Chinese Global Times newspaper referred on May 8th to a phone conversation between US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and China’s Vice Premier Liu He in which the two sides vowed to create favourable conditions for the implementation of the phase one trade deal, while cooperating on the economy and public health.
The second goal of the ongoing escalation relates to the US presidential elections. This crisis could be linked to Trump’s election campaign in light of the huge drop in US economic indicators due to the implications of the COVID-19 crisis. This drives Trump to focus on external issues generally. In this sense, the attack on China constitutes a central issue considering the circumstances of the pandemic and its escalating implications, in addition to the attack on Trump himself inside the US regarding the way he has been handling the COVID-19 crisis. Many US media reports and reports issued by US agencies have stated that the greater part of the responsibility for the transmission of the epidemic in this magnitude to the US is attributed to the laxity of the US administration in taking the necessary precautionary measures early enough. As soon as the crisis broke out in the US, leaks started to come out on the warnings that were sent by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other intelligence agencies to the White House throughout January and February, only to be downplayed by President Trump. Instead, he paid more attention to other issues, particularly his impeachment in the House of Representatives and the confrontation with Iran. US media also published many reports that included ample details on the attempts by White House officials to convey their viewpoint regarding the necessity of paying adequate attention to the virus, but to no avail.
In this context, the attack on China and holding it responsible for the transmission of the pandemic to the US and the world constituted an important card to ease the pressure to which the Trump administration was exposed and to cover up for the mistakes it committed during its handling of the crisis. This trend is particularly pursued by Trump in light of his conviction that China “will do anything they can” to make him lose his re-election bid, as referred to earlier.
Yet apart from the Chinese measures in the short run and the chances that the crisis will recede in the medium term, the development of the Chinese-US relations in the long run may take a different direction in light of the broad consensus among scholars of international relations that the world order has entered the stage of “potential clash”, according to the theories of “power transition” and “hegemonic stability”. This stage is characterized by the predominance of the conflictual nature over international interactions between hegemonic and rising powers and the tendency by those powers to transform international institutional structures into conflict tools or arenas. The relations of both countries could proceed into an advanced arms race. In light of the current crisis, some members of the Chinese elite have started to call explicitly for expanding the Chinese nuclear arsenal to deter the US, including the call by the editor-in-chief of the English-speaking Global Times newspaper Hu Xijin to increase the Chinese-owned nuclear warheads to 1,000 within a short time, in addition to developing at least 100 Dongfeng-41 strategic missiles. He described opponents of this move as being “naïve as children” and underlined that “peaceful coexistence” between China and the US is not something to be begged for; rather, it requires strategic tools with a country that only believes in strength.
China’s future global position in light of the current crisis
It may be difficult to understand the current crisis in Chinese-US relations and other earlier crises as well as many Chinese and US policies over the last decade without understanding the ongoing shift in China’s position within the world order based on the accelerating change in the distribution of economic and military capabilities. There is a broad consensus among scholars of international relations that China has started to assume the position of the rising power within the world order so that it could constitute a threat to the position of the US as the dominant power at the order’s top. Regardless of whether the anticipated shift in the world order structure will come about through an inevitable military confrontation (as foreseen by some theories) or not, what is certain is that there is a gap between the position of China as a rising power and the size of the privileges/gains it obtains within the world order.
Different viewpoints exist regarding the nature of the expected Chinese behaviour vis-à-vis this situation according to the different theories of international relations. For instance, the “power transition” theory asserts that the shift in power balances between the dominant power at the top of the world order and the rising powers will lead to increasing possibilities of war between those powers at certain stages. Advocates of this theory distinguish between three phases in the development of the relationship between the country dominating the world order and the rising country. The first is the phase of “stability and non-war” where a relatively large “power gap” continues to exist between the dominant power and the rising power. The second phase is characterized by a narrowing of the “power gap” between the two sides as a result of the continuous growth of the rising power’s capabilities at a rate that exceeds that of the dominant power. Thus, this phase is characterized by increasing potential for military confrontation (war-prone zone). According to the theory’s assumptions and assertions, this confrontation comes about as a result of one of two factors: on the one hand, in light of the shift in the power distribution structure and the increasingly narrowing gap in favour of the rising country, an increase comes about in the threat facing the stable position of the dominant country. Thus, the latter may hasten to carry out a “preemptive strike” against the rising power in an attempt to abort its project. On the other hand, the governing elite within the rising power may think that the time has come to initiate a war against the dominant country, whether to accelerate building a new world order that reflects the new power balance or out of conviction that the dominant power is seeking to abort the rising power’s project through a preemptive military action. If the rising power is successful in this confrontation, that would mark the launch of a new world order that starts the third phase.
The theory assigns an important role to the governing elite in the development of the state of “dissatisfaction” in rising countries. This means that the power transition does not mean that the war will inevitably take place; the matter depends on the development of the elite’s “awareness” that their country does not enjoy privileges commensurate with its weight within the existing world order and that the rules governing the workings of that order do not suit their country anymore, which drives it towards the war decision to build a new world order when it becomes aware that the moment is right for such a move.
Therefore, while the theory does not assert that war is an inevitable result of the “power transition”, it does assert that the war becomes inevitable when the state of dissatisfaction arises within the rising power. The theory also underlines that the “power transition” process takes a relatively long time, perhaps several decades. It may also involve a series of low-profile confrontations or wars. Interestingly, however, it underlines that the result is eventually “settled” in favour of the rising country and that attempts by the dominant country to abort that transition will fail as long as the prerequisites are met (the materialization of the power transition in favour of the rising country, dissatisfaction of the governing elite with the governing rules of the world order, and the size of the privileges that its country obtains relative to its position within that order).
While the Chinese-US relations have so far not seen any clashes to permit the assertion that they have proceeded to the second phase of the “power transition” path, there are many indications that support this assumption, mainly the increasing US military presence in the Asia-Pacific Ocean region in general and the South China Sea region in particular. Some analysts claim that one of the main goals of the announcement by President Trump on 20 October 2018 of the US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is to be relieved of all international restrictions that prevent developing military capabilities that can deal with the Chinese military capabilities in the Asia-Pacific Ocean region, which might pave the way for the launch of an arms race that involves the US, China and Russia.
Another viewpoint is put forward in the “hegemonic stability” theory. Charles Kindleberger put forward a basic assertion that the existence of a “hegemonic” country is a prerequisite for building a liberal world economic order and for the sustainability and stability of that order. The relevant assumption is that building and preserving that order require financial resources that cannot be provided by any except the hegemonic country. Thus, the absence of the hegemonic country and/or its failure to provide those resources and bear the “sacrifices” necessary to protect that order lead to its collapse. Kindleberger set five basic services that need to be carried out by the hegemonic country at times of economic crises to be successful in preserving the “liberal international economic order”. These are: ensuring a free market for distress goods, providing long-term loans at times of economic recession, providing a stable exchange rate system, coordinating macroeconomic policies, and, lastly, acting as a “lender of last resort” and providing liquidity. Kindleberger asserts that two main factors stand behind the fulfilment by the hegemonic country of this responsibility: the first is “moral responsibility”, and the second is that no other country can afford those costs.
According to the assertions of this theory, the US capability to afford the burdens of the world economic order is remarkably diminishing. Besides, the existing economic and financial institutions are no longer capable of accommodating the rising powers. This has driven those powers to develop their own institutions. Thus, one of the explanations put forward of the tendency by China to develop a number of multilateral financial institutions, mainly the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), is that the Bretton Woods institutions (the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank) no longer reflect the actual distribution of global economic and financial capabilities in light of US insistence on dominating voting powers despite the structural changes that have occurred in the distribution of economic capabilities since the foundation of those institutions in the aftermath of World War II. This has led to the development of negative perceptions by China and the emerging economies that those institutions are biased against them. Furthermore, there is no real chance of reforming those institutions in a manner that would reflect the new economic and financial weight of China (and the emerging economies).
Actually, the matter is not confined to the distribution of relative representation and voting powers within the Bretton Woods institutions; it extends also to the Chinese-US disagreement over the main philosophy governing the workings of those institutions, or what is known as the “Washington Consensus” which completely disagrees with the pivotal Chinese principle of “non-interference in internal affairs” and rejection of political and economic conditionality.
Endnotes and sources
 This was mentioned in the document entitled “Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road”, issued by the National Development and Reform Commission. The document is among the most important issued by the Chinese government in this respect and explains in more detail the government’s vision of the Belt and Road Initiative. See: National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China, “Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road”, China, 28 March 2015. Available at: http://en.ndrc.gov.cn/newsrelease/201503/t20150330_669367.html (accessed on 22 Nov. 2016).
 China has been keen to emphasize this issue as part of its traditional adherence to the principle of non-interference in internal affairs and its attachment to the concept of sovereignty in its narrow legal sense. It has also been keen to underline this in most of the documents on the Belt and Road Initiative.
 According to a report publish by the New York Times, on 30 April 2020, an official in the Trump administration indicated that there are pressures put on US intelligence agencies to support the assumption put forward by Trump and Pompeo and that officials in those agencies fear that their reports on this matter could be distorted to support that assumption. See: Mark Mazzetti, Julian E. Barnes, Edward Wong and Adam Goldman, “Trump Officials Are Said to Press Spies to Link Virus and Wuhan Labs”, The New York Times, April 30, 2020. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/30/us/politics/trump-administration-intelligence-coronavirus-china.html
 See: Steve Holland, “Exclusive: Trump says China wants him to lose his re-election bid”, Reuters, April 30, 2020. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-china-exclusive/exclusive-trump-says-china-wants-him-to-lose-his-re-election-bid-idUSKBN22C01F
 The Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming said: “You’re talking about independent investigation. It’s up to the WHO. We support the WHO. We believe we should play by international norms and international rules, not by some other countries’ rules”. In response to US claims, Xiaoming said: “This is not the first time that some politicians want to play world police. This is not the era of ‘gunboat diplomacy’. This is not the era when China was still in a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society. This is the third decade of the 21st century. Those people cannot understand it. They think they still live in the old days when they can bully China and the world.” See: “US intelligence agencies under pressure to link coronavirus to Chinese labs”, The Guardian, April 30, 2020. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/30/cia-pushes-back-at-trump-efforts-to-link-coronavirus-to-chinese-laboratories
 Richard Chiasy, FEI SU & Lora Saalman, “The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Security Implications and Ways forward for the European Union”, SIPRI & Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Stockholm, June 2018, p. 6. Available at: https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2019-10/the-21st-century-maritime-silk-road.pdf (accessed on February 20, 2019).
 “Phase one trade deal not a threat, but a life saver for US”, Global Times, May 8, 2020. Available at: https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1187772.shtml
 For some of those details, see:
- Shane Harris, Greg Miller, Josh Dawsey and Ellen Nakashima, “U.S. intelligence reports from January and February warned about a likely pandemic”, The Washington Post, March 21, 2020. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/us-intelligence-reports-from-january-and-february-warned-about-a-likely-pandemic/2020/03/20/299d8cda-6ad5-11ea-b5f1-a5a804158597_story.html
- JOHN WALCOTT, “The Trump Administration is Stalling an Intel Report That Warns the U.S. Isn’t Ready for a Global Pandemic”, TIME, MARCH 9, 2020. Available at: https://time.com/5799765/intelligence-report-pandemic-dangers/
 Hu Xijin, “China needs to increase its nuclear warheads to 1,000”, The Global Times, 8 May, 2020. Available at: https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1187766.shtml
 For more details, see: Abramo F. K. Organski, World Politics (New York: A.A. Knopf, 2nd edition, 1968); Abramo F. K. Organski & Jecek Kugler, The War Ledger (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).
 See, for instance: “The U.S. Withdrawal from the INF Treaty is the Next Step in a Global Arms Race”, Worldview Stratfor, Assessment, 22 October 2018. Available at: https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/us-withdrawal-inf-treaty-russia-global-arms-race-missiles (accessed on 20 January 2019).
 Matthew Gillard, “Hegemonic Stability Theory and the Evolution of the Space Weaponization Regime During the Cold War”, A Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfilment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts, Faculty of Graduate Studies (Political Studies), The University of British Columbia, August 2006, pp. 16-17.
 Daniel C.K. Chow, “Why China Established the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank”, Vanderbilt Journal of Transitional Law, Vol. 49, 2016, pp. 1278- 1279. Available at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2737888 (accessed on 13 Feb. 2019).
Nizar Abdul Kader | 24 Feb 2021
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