Trump risks blowback from war of words with China over coronavirus

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a news conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, February 2, 2020. — Reuters pic
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a news conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, February 2, 2020. — Reuters pic

WASHINGTON, March 26 — US President Donald Trump and some top aides have repeatedly excoriated China over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, a stance that even some in his administration worry could bring a dangerous backlash from Beijing.

While Trump himself softened his tone after a week of blaming what he called the “Chinese virus” for the human and economic toll of the disease, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday had harsh words for the Chinese, accusing them of an "intentional disinformation campaign."

Increasing strains in US-China relations have raised concerns at a time when experts say an unprecedented level of cooperation is needed to face the crisis and deal with its fallout.

“The US and China are engaged now in a demonisation contest," said Daniel Russel, who served as the State Department’s top Asia adviser until early in Trump’s term.

“That inevitably hinders badly needed cooperation.”

At risk also is Trump's hard-won trade deal between the world’s two biggest economies, a key plank of his 2020 re-election campaign.

While Washington and Beijing have so far mostly been waging an escalating war of words, the Trump administration has raised the prospect of turning rhetoric into action, which could further ratchet up tensions.

White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, a leading China hawk, is crafting a new “Buy America” executive order aimed at reducing US reliance on Chinese-made pharmaceuticals and other medical supplies.

China, which has matched US recriminations over the virus, has warned that such a move would be unwise and unrealistic.

An article carried by the official Chinese news agency Xinhua said the world should thank China, rather than blame it, and warned if Beijing were to ban the export of drugs, “the United States would sink into the hell of a novel coronavirus epidemic.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is leading a faction within the administration opposed to Navarro's initiative, said a senior US official on condition of anonymity. Internal dissent is based on concerns that now is not the time to antagonise China when its help is needed to fight the pandemic and keep the global economy afloat.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

US-China tensions cloud G20

Friction between the United States and China is expected to overhang a video conference of the Group of 20 major economies today to discuss the pandemic, which has upended life and sent economic shockwaves around the globe.

With his pronouncements, Trump has whipsawed back and forth in how he has characterised China’s role.

After initially commending China for “doing a very professional job” fighting the virus, Trump ratcheted up his rhetoric last week, saying “the world is paying a very big price for what they did” and accusing Beijing of covering up the outbreak's early stages in the Wuhan province.

But Trump’s language softened again this week as he offered further praise for Chinese President Xi Jinping, describing him as a “friend.”

Pompeo, meanwhile, has become the public face of the anti-China camp. He called the disease the “Wuhan virus” yesterday, using a term that angers China, and said Beijing needs to be more transparent.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China had shared information and urged Washington to “cease politicising the epidemic.” Despite Pompeo’s tough talk, another US official said that unless Trump or his surrogates take direct aim at Xi, something they have yet to do, relations could still be salvaged.

Trump this week has regularly touted his trade deal with China, pointing out that Beijing’s is moving ahead with its promised agricultural purchases considered crucial to his electoral prospects in farm states. — Reuters

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