Coronavirus pandemic intensifies the United States-China rivalry
A U.S. dollar banknote is pictured behind a protective mask, which is widely used as a preventive measure against the coronavirus (COVID-19) - Photo: Alexey Pavlishak/REUTERS

Coronavirus pandemic intensifies the United States-China rivalry

Gabriel Moyssen
Mexico City
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Far from contributing to improving international cooperation as it might have been expected, the coronavirus pandemic is intensifying the rivalry between the United States and China

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Far from contributing to improving international cooperation as it might have been expected, the coronavirus pandemic is intensifying the rivalry between the United States and China while a new world order post-crisis is taking shape.

It is worth remembering that the emergency provoked by the pandemic comes after more than one year of inconclusive trade negotiations characterized by the growing influence of the Asian giant in world markets, and the lack of a compromise from Washington, which has transformed sanctions into a favorite tool of its unilateral policies.

The latest round of tensions was triggered by U.S. President Donald Trump and his collaborators, insisting on alluding to the “Chinese virus” that is threatening to cause havoc in the country.

The “onslaught of the Chinese virus is not your fault,” tweeted Trump on Wednesday referring to the people forced out of work by the outbreak.

Days before, far-right Senator Tom Cotton, considered a rising Republican star, declared that he was looking into holding China accountablefor the pandemic.

Earlier in February, Cotton did not rule out the possibility that COVID-19 may have been developed by Beijing in a “super laboratory” and that the damage from the virus could be “worse than Chernobyl.”

In reaction, Chinese Foreign Minister spokesman Zhao Lijian claimed that the U.S. “brought” the virus to his country during the October 2019 Military World Games held in Wuhan. “When did patient zero begin in the U.S.? How many people are infected? Be transparent! Make public your data! The U.S. owes us an explanation,” Zhao tweeted.

Beyond the current conjuncture, it is evident that the Trump administration is worried about the pandemic impact in the November 2020 general election, and that was also a reason behind the slow domestic response to the threat when the coronavirus was expanding in China three months ago, to the point that Trump called the Democrat criticism over his preparations the “new hoax”, during a campaign rally in South Carolina.

In other nations, the pandemic has been used to attack neighbors due to political motivations. El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele, for example, suspended passenger flights to the tiny Central American country after accusing Mexico of allowing a dozen people sick to board a flight to San Salvador, an assertion quickly denied by Mexican authorities.

Bukele did not provide evidence for the claim, yet the reason behind his position, according to Salvadoran media, is the asylum granted by Mexico to Othón Reyes Morales, former Salvadoran Parliament leader accused of corruption.

The risk of manipulating the health, social, and economic crisis has moved United Nations human rights experts to urge States to avoid overreach of security measures in their response to the outbreak and to remind them that emergency powers should not be used to quash dissent.

“While we recognize the severity of the current health crisis and acknowledge that the use of emergency powers is allowed by international law in response to significant threats, we urgently remind States that any emergency responses to the coronavirus must be proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory,” the experts said.

Repressive action

“Emergency declarations based on the COVID-19 outbreak should not be used as a basis to target particular groups, minorities, or individuals. It should not function as a cover for repressive action under the guise of protecting health nor should it be used to silence the work of human rights defenders,” they added.

Back to the topic of U.S.-China rivalry, it is also important to note that Beijing is winning the public image battle, thanks to the extreme yet effective measures adopted to stop the propagation of the virus, as well as its proactive approach on international cooperation sending direct medical assistance to the most affected countries, as Italy and Spain, when the European Union virtually limited its support to the financial area.

After years of neoliberal austerity imposed by the Finance ministries from the Eurogroup, which dismantled the welfare state in the two Mediterranean nations, and severely punished Greece during its debt crisis in 2015, it is expected that anti-EU sentiment will increase among Italians. Non-EU nations are also disillusioned.

European solidarity does not exist, it was a fairytale,” remarked Serbian President Alexandar Vucic in his announcement of the emergency situation in the Balkan country.

Vucic, who was a promoter of Belgrade’s integration in the European Union, slammed the bloc for “giving lectures” to Serbia in the past about how they “should not buy Chinese goods,” and informed that “I sent a letter to President Xi [Jinping], in which for the first time I officially called him not only a dear friend, yet also a brother, and not only my personal friend yet also a friend and brother of this country.”

In contrast, the United States is maintaining and even increasing its policy of sanctioning and blocking antagonists from South America to the Middle East. On Tuesday, the U.S.-controlled International Monetary Fund (IMF) rejected Venezuela’s request for a USD $5 billion loan to help it cope with the pandemic, despite concerns about its weak economy and public services.

“Unfortunately, the Fund is not in a position to consider this request,” because there is “no clarity” on international recognition of the Venezuelan government, the institution said.

Also on Tuesday, Washington imposed fresh sanctions to nine entities based in South Africa, Hong Kong, and China, as well as three Iranian individuals, for engaging in “significant transactions” to trade in Iranian petrochemicals. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Tehran to free U.S. citizens it has detained, as a “humanitarian gesture” because of coronavirus.

Iran has reported more than 16,169 coronavirus cases and 988 deaths in one of the worst national outbreaks outside of China, and the situation is aggravated by crippling U.S. sanctions, especially since the Trump administration withdrew two years ago from the multilateral deal that froze Iranian nuclear activities.

As in the Venezuelan case, Tehran has requested a loan from the IMF—for the first time in 60 years—seeking emergency financing to support its efforts to combat COVID-19. On March 4, the IMF announced that it would make available up to USD $50 billion through its Rapid Financing Instrument, a facility targeting “low-income and emerging markets.”

However, explained, due to the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign on the Islamic Republic, including a number of financial barriers that hinder its access to central banks from Europe, Japan, and India, and to its own foreign currency reserves that it maintains in accounts around the world, it is unlikely that Iran will receive an IMF loan, thus complicating the response capacity to coronavirus.

The pandemic is also showing the sharp contrasts between the measures taken in each country and its potential repercussions at the international level. A report from the German newspaper Die Welt revealing that the White House offered “large sums of money” to the German medical company CureVac to develop a vaccinefor the U.S. only,” caused widespread outrage last weekend.

In the light of the huge resources that are being dedicated to maintaining afloat the financial system, it has also stirred up considerable controversy the proposal allowing the virus to spread to build immunity in the United Kingdom. The UK government’s chief science adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, said that one of “the key things we need to do” is to “build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune and we reduce the transmission.”

Nevertheless, with a population of 66 million in the country, that strategy could lead to as many as 40 million people infected. Depending on the mortality rate—estimated to be 1% globally—the death rate en route to improving immunity could range from 300,000 to more than a million.

The opposition to the plan led Downing Street to adopt other measures, promoting social distancing in line with World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations; on the contrary, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said a mass lockdown was not feasible and that his government had instead opted for a “controlled distribution” of COVID-19 “among groups that are least at risk.”

“Those who have had the virus are usually immune afterward, just as in the old days with measles,” Rutte declared on Monday. “The larger the group is immune, the less chance that the virus will jump to vulnerable elderly people and people with poor health,” he stressed.

“That is the principle. Yet we have to realize that it can take months or even longer to build up some group immunity, and during that time we need to shield people who are at greater risk as much as possible,” Rutte added.

Editing by Sofía Danis
More by Gabriel Moyssen

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