News analysis

US piles on the pressure as ties with China plumb the depths

Washington has accused Beijing of covering up virus outbreak, among other allegations

Using Mandarin to "reach out" to the Chinese-speaking world on the Internet, US deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger preached democracy this week in a move seen by analysts as an attempt to foment chaos in China, including Hong Kong which was rocked by months of unrest last year.

Mr Pottinger, who faced police intimidation when he worked as a journalist in Beijing in the late 1990s before joining the US Marines, warned that punishment of Chinese "heroes" - doctors who sounded early warnings about the coronavirus outbreak and citizen journalists who have disappeared - would eventually backfire.

"When small acts of bravery are stamped out by governments, big acts of bravery follow," Mr Pottinger said in a pre-recorded speech delivered by video at the University of Virginia's Miller Centre and by audio on the Internet late on Monday.

He invoked the 101st anniversary of the May Fourth movement - student protests in Beijing against the "Unequal Treaties", during what is known as China's "Century of Humiliation" in the 1800s - to underscore his message that "the cliche that Chinese people can't be trusted with democracy was... the most unpatriotic idea of all. Taiwan today is a living repudiation of that threadbare mistruth".

Mr Pottinger, who until now worked behind the scenes to help shape hardline policies towards China, joins President Donald Trump and other members of his administration, Congress and some in the media who have fallen over each other to heap pressure on and accuse China of covering up the Covid-19 pandemic and under-reporting its infections and deaths. Some have floated conspiracy theories, while others demanded compensation.

At first glance, Mr Pottinger appears to have taken a softly-softly approach, but some in Beijing see a more insidious intent, referring to the Chinese saying about "a needle hidden in a ball of cotton" that aims to prick and hurt an unknowing victim.

"The US is seeking to divide China (from the rest of the world) externally and collapse China internally," said Mr Zhao Hai, an expert on the US at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think-tank in Beijing.

So it came as no surprise to China when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo upped the ante on Sunday, asserting on ABC's This Week that there was "enormous evidence" that Covid-19 originated in a lab in Wuhan - the epicentre of the pandemic - and not a market selling bats and exotic wildlife as many scientists believe.

Mr Pompeo did not say whether the virus had been intentionally or accidentally released. Chinese state television described his accusation as "insane" while the high-security Wuhan Institute of Virology has rejected such claims as "impossible". The World Health Organisation dismissed Mr Pompeo's remarks as "speculative".

"Pompeo's anti-China bluff strategy reveals all-or-nothing mentality to fool US voters," the Global Times, an offshoot of the Communist Party mouthpiece, the People's Daily, said in an editorial.

President Trump is determined to be re-elected in November despite widespread criticism of his bungled handling of the pandemic which has infected 3.6 million people and killed more than 250,000 worldwide since December. Mr Trump played down its severity for weeks early this year and the US has paid the price, becoming the hardest hit country with more than 1.2 million infected and about 69,000 deaths.

Although some Chinese diplomats and state media have responded harshly to the threats and conspiracy theories by hawkish US politicians, President Xi Jinping has remained above the fray, a sign he is hoping against hope that relations between the world's two biggest economies would turn for the better as the world slides into recession.

"The US is trying to provoke China to over-react," a party source familiar with the thinking of the Chinese leadership, who requested anonymity, told The Straits Times.

US deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger has helped shape hardline policies towards China.
US deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger has helped shape hardline policies towards China.

When asked if China was running out of patience, the source said Beijing would react only to any US move to accuse its diplomats or reporters of espionage and expel them, seize Chinese assets in the US or default on US$1 trillion (S$1.4 trillion) of US Treasury bills, notes and bonds that China has bought.

Amid the escalating war of words over the virus, Washington-Beijing relations are at their lowest level since ties were normalised in 1979. The two giants were embroiled in a trade and tech war last year.

"The coronavirus may do more to unravel US-Chinese ties than trade wars, technology threats and presidential tweets ever did," journalists Nahal Toosi and Adam Behsudi wrote in Politico.

"The two countries' relationship - already under enormous pressure in recent years - is on the verge of imploding as both sides seek to assign blame for the virus' origin and exchange tit-for-tat recriminations on other fronts, including expelling journalists," the pair wrote.

For Beijing, Mr Trump and US politicians have been deliberately fanning anti-Chinese sentiment, attacking the World Health Organisation and demanding an international inquiry to divert attention from America's fumbling when dealing with the outbreak.

A new Pew Research Centre survey found that about 66 per cent of Americans had an unfavourable view of China. A record 91 per cent saw China's power and influence as a threat, including 62 per cent who described it as a major threat. The telephone survey conducted in March involved 1,000 respondents.

"Hawks have gained the upper hand in the US. They do not want cooperation and tensions to ease. They want mutual suspicion and tensions to rise," Mr Zhao, the researcher, said.

"If the epidemic worsens in the US, bilateral relations will worsen. If Trump's election chances worsen, blame-shifting will worsen," he added.

Any miscalculation over Taiwan or the South China Sea that leads to conflict ahead of the US presidential elections would be a disaster not just for the two giants but also for the rest of the world.

For what it's worth, Madam Fu Ying, a former top Chinese diplomat, wrote in The Economist magazine: "China is neither the former Soviet Union, nor intent on becoming the next America."

But, increasingly, it seems Washington is unconvinced that China has no ambition of supplanting it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 06, 2020, with the headline 'US piles on the pressure as ties with China plumb the depths'. Print Edition | Subscribe