How coronavirus is worsening U.S.-China tensions

Through quarantines and targeted lockdowns, U.S. authorities have so far managed to keep the virus from spreading on the American mainland. But there are concerns over a new possible wave of infections, and U.S. officials have expressed frustrations with their Chinese counterparts over the levels of information they have shared about the virus.

Some U.S. China hawks took an even more strident line. In the early stages of the crisis, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) called for a full shutdown of commercial travel between China and the United States. He later repeatedly floated the possibility that the outbreak could be the result of a deliberate Chinese bioweapon, much to the ire of Beijing’s envoy in Washington.

“We don’t know where it originated, and we have to get to the bottom of that,” Cotton told Fox News on Sunday, suggesting the outbreak could have emanated from a well-known Chinese laboratory near Wuhan market. “We also know that just a few miles away from that food market is China’s only biosafety level 4 super laboratory that researches human infectious diseases.”

He added: “Now, we don’t have evidence that this disease originated there, but because of China’s duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question to see what the evidence says.”

Experts soon poured cold water on Cotton’s speculative claims. “There’s absolutely nothing in the genome sequence of this virus that indicates the virus was engineered,” Richard Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, told my colleagues. “The possibility this was a deliberately released bioweapon can be firmly excluded.”

Vipin Narang, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said Cotton’s rhetoric was “borderline irresponsible” and drifted into the realms of conspiracy theory. “Cotton should spend more time funding the agencies in the United States that can help contain and combat the virus rather than trying to assign blame,” he said.

Meanwhile, President Trump has taken an altogether different approach. His soft touch with Chinese President Xi Jinping — whose handling of the crisis Trump praised last week — worried officials within his administration who have said the White House should be taking a tougher line.

“Trump has remained uncharacteristically restrained in his public comments about the coronavirus, which has infected more than 70,000 people, the vast majority of whom are in China,” reported my colleagues. “Trump’s praise toward Xi has irked some advisers, who say the compliments are unwarranted as the United States is still working to get a team of experts access to data and Chinese sites to study the virus, aid in the response and secure all the needed information.”

On other fronts, the Trump administration is locked in what it views as a grand-historic competition with a rising China. At the annual major security conference in Munich this weekend, both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper inveighed against the Chinese threat.

“Under President Xi’s rule, the Chinese Communist Party is heading even faster and further in the wrong direction — more internal repression, more predatory economic practices, more heavy-handedness, and most concerning for me, a more aggressive military posture,” said Esper, though he added that “the United States does not seek conflict with China” and hopes to help Beijing deal with the coronavirus outbreak.

There’s the risk, though, that the ruptures caused by the virus could add to an already growing divide. “The coronavirus may end up being a tipping point in the decoupling process — companies that may have been on the fence about China could start moving their supply chains elsewhere,” wrote Rana Foroohar of the Financial Times. “Meanwhile, the Chinese, who feel cornered over their handling of the virus, will have even more reason to hunker down and build out their own tech ecosystem.”

For European onlookers, that hardly means throwing in their lot with Washington. The forum in Munich, noted Politico’s Matthew Karnitschnig, highlighted the “parallel universes” through which the Trump administration and its closest European partners view their security agenda.

In remarks that preceded the arrival onstage of Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, Wolfgang Ischinger, chair of the security conference and a respected German diplomat, said “China is not getting a very fair deal.”

He went on: “I think China deserves some compassion, cooperation, some words of support, and encouragement rather than only criticism.”

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