Last year, President Trump agreed to a “Phase One” trade deal with China. As a result of this tentative agreement, the president paused a “trade war” that had begun to harm American farmers. But China hawks believed (and still believe) that whatever damage America sustained in the near-term was worth the longer-term changes President Trump hoped to force China to make in its grotesquely unfair trade practices with the United States.
Still, the agreement helped accomplish two things: first, it boosted the U.S. economy heading into an election year; second, it helped ailing farmers, who form a key constituency in President Trump’s eclectic electoral base.
The harder hit this voting base was by the “trade war,” the greater difficulty President Trump would have in what already has proven to be a contentious election season.
Yet, the limits of the deal are being exposed.
The United States agreed to exempt Chinese high-tech firms, such as Huawei, from doing business in the United States. It also allowed for technology transfers between U.S. and Chinese tech companies. These transfers have proven to be devastating to American interests in the past, as Chinese state-owned companies use data from U.S. firms to advance their military technology. Co-opting advanced American technology also furthers China’s long-term strategic interests.
Coronavirus also presents a strategic challenge. COVID-19 is a novel disease with a transmission rate even higher than that of influenza. The question is just how deadly the disease will prove to be to humans. It has already proven to be a grave threat to the logic of letting China remain the dominant player in the global supply chain.
China struggled to contain the virus at first. In fact, Beijing attempted to stage-manage news of the outbreak by pressuring the World Health Organization (WHO) and carefully controlling the medical data coming from Chinese hospitals. The Chinese spent nearly two months attempting to cover-up the outbreak, thereby allowing for thousands if not millions of people potentially infected with the disease to leave Wuhan and travel the world, spreading this disease to other countries.
Even when Chinese authorities began responding to the outbreak, their purportedly superior centrally planned system was unprepared. Chinese medical staff were poorly protected against the disease and became carriers of the disease rather than defenders against it.
Moreover, the coronavirus outbreak may not have been an entirely natural event. Whereas many in the scientific community take China’s word that the disease originated at a legendary outdoor Wuhan marketplace known for the sale of exotic meat (such as bats, snakes, dogs, cats, and other strange critters), Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ala.), the defense reporter Bill Gertz, and I have challenged these assumptions. Wuhan is home to China’s bioweapons program. In fact, it houses a Level 4 virology lab that specializes in research on novel coronaviruses. Reports have surfaced in recent weeks that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology had been complaining about lax safety standards when dealing with bats infected with a coronavirus that sounds eerily similar to the COVID-19 strain currently rippling throughout the world.
In any event, as the disease has spread, the world economy has suffered. Once the Chinese Communist Party began efforts to contain the virus’s spread, Beijing was forced to shut down most production and shipping within and from the country. Demand for oil plummeted, causing world oil prices to drop precipitously. Meanwhile, as the disease spread to neighboring countries, global demand for goods suffered as well. Even if COVID-19 isn’t as deadly as the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, the legitimacy of globalization is looking pretty sick at the moment.
We may never know the true extent, nature, or origins of the coronavirus. Nevertheless, the West has taken a disturbingly blasé attitude toward China’s assurances about its containment efforts. In fact, Beijing has attempted to blame the United States for the disease while at the same time using what should be the greatest example of Chinese weakness as a case for creating an alternate World Health Organization-type institution run by China.
Clearly, the coronavirus is not a case study of unity and cooperation, as so many utopians in the West would like to think. Beijing is looking at this as another example of furthering its bid to displace the United States as the world hegemon.
The Trump Administration should recognize Chinese perfidy not only on the matter of its coronavirus response but on trade as well. Rather than continuing to press for more trade deals and a stabilization in U.S.-Chinese relations, the White House should more fully embrace the restrictive trade and immigration policies on which President Trump campaigned during the 2016 election.
The president would do well to put a halt to all technology transfers between U.S. and Chinese companies. He also needs to make it more difficult to share sensitive data between American and Chinese institutions. Then, the White House needs to more completely decouple the world supply chain from China and return many of those capabilities to the United States and its allies. Only by weakening China now can we prevent its plan for global domination from being realized. Trump needs to stick it to China bigly, no matter the short-term costs.