SupChina illustration by Derek Zheng
The rhetorical climbdown from the U.S. and China that we noted in late March was never going to last long, and indeed, American politicians other than President Trump never really stopped trying to outcompete each other in their “tough on China” rhetoric, as it increasingly resonates with most Americans.
This past week saw escalations from both sides, though arguably the most worrying aspect of the new trend is that Trump — by far the single most influential individual who regularly comments on U.S.-China relations — appears to be embracing the unsubstantiated theory that COVID-19 originated in a lab in Wuhan.
The Financial Times reports (paywall):
Asked on Thursday if he had seen information that gave him a “high degree of confidence” that the virus emanated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, Mr Trump told reporters: “Yes, I have.”
Over the weekend, the Trump administration continued to point fingers at China for the ravages of COVID-19. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed there is “enormous evidence” that the coronavirus came from a lab in Wuhan, in an interview on ABC News on Sunday (full transcript on State.gov). He, like Trump, did not specify what this evidence was, nor did he clarify what amount of evidence qualifies as “enormous.”
Chinese state media, meanwhile, is returning to conspiracy theories first injected into the mainstream by foreign ministry spokesperson Zhào Lìjiān 赵立坚 in March, which insinuate — without even bothering to claim that there is “enormous evidence” — that COVID-19 might have originated in the U.S. A tweet from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson account on April 27 hinted at this reversal of tactics, and then the People’s Daily published 10 questions on COVID-19 that must be answered by U.S. politicians on May 1. For flavor, here are questions 2, 3, and 6:
- “There are over 20,000 deaths from the seasonal flu in America starting last September, how many of those cases were the novel coronavirus undetected?”
- “Why did Washington suddenly shut down its bioweapons lab in Fort Detrick, Maryland last July?”
- “When did the earliest COVID-19 infection happen in the U.S.? Why doesn’t Washington get experts to trace it?”
In another sign U.S.-China relations could get much worse very quickly, Trump threatened to bring back his favorite policy tool of tariffs — which he said “at a minimum are the greatest negotiating tool that we have ever devised that we never use” — if China doesn’t fulfill all of its purchase promises from the phase one trade deal, the SCMP reports. That means that China will have to buy $76.7 billion of American goods this year on top of its 2017 baseline, all during the most significant global economic downturn of the century.