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Coronavirus Could Incite New Superpower Conflict Between US and China

The COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to become a turning point, forcing the American elite to completely abandon its dismissive view of China and begin to perceive it as an equal, and therefore more dangerous, opponent, suggests Artyom Lukin, Associate Professor and Deputy Director for Research at the School of Regional and International Studies, Far Eastern Federal University.

The coronavirus pandemic has become a testing ground for relations between the two most significant powers in the modern world, the United States, and China. So far, the results are unfavourable, which indicates some fundamental problems between the two. Instead of rallying against this common deadly threat, Washington and Beijing have exchanged accusations and unfriendly gestures. Moreover, against the backdrop of the coronavirus, the initiative to escalating hostility has been taken by the Americans.

When the pandemic had just erupted in China, many in the United States did not hide their satisfaction and were even celebrating. They had hoped that the virus could severely damage its geopolitical and economic rival, and maybe even put it out of the game. According to US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, coronavirus is beneficial to America, because it will weaken the competitiveness of China. Many Senior US officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, have emphasized the Chinese origin of the coronavirus and accused China of not taking appropriate measures to prevent contagion. Some other American politicians, such as Republican Senator Tom Cotton, have gone further and accuse it of “duplicity and dishonesty” with a hint that the source of the virus is a “superlaboratory” located in Wuhan.

In response, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s representative suggested that there are good reasons to assume the virus had an American origin and even hinted at the involvement of US troops.

It’s Dangerous to Normalise the Panic: Why Irrationality Is a Bigger Enemy Than Coronavirus
Kancho Stoychev
There is no doubt that COVID-19 is a danger and requires serious actions which by the way are taken. But we should realize that the bigger danger and enemy is the irrationality which we humans carry in our genes by origin. Its normal to panic in front of a danger but it’s dangerous to normalize the panic.
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However, the issue was not limited to a verbal skirmish: after The Wall Street Journal published an article about the Chinese epidemic with the headline “The Real Sick Man of Asia”, China expelled three WSJ journalists. In turn, US officials cut the quota for the number of employees of Chinese state-owned media outlets, who had permission to work in the United States.

In the near future, a further escalation of US-China tension is unlikely, because the Americans will be occupied with their own struggle with coronavirus. However, after the pandemic subsides, a new round of confrontation seems to be almost inevitable. The United States continues to see China as its primary rival. The fact that China, contrary to the expectations of many, managed to take control of the epidemic quickly, only increases the fears of Beijing among the American ruling class. China’s struggle against coronavirus has demonstrated the effectiveness of its party-government system, its society’s ability to mobilize amid crises, and its technological potential. Coronavirus has demonstrated not only the vulnerabilities of modern China but also its strong points.

The COVID-19 pandemic can become a turning point forcing the American elite to completely abandon the dismissive view of China and begin to perceive it as an equal, and therefore more dangerous, opponent.

The outcome of the US presidential election is unlikely to have a significant impact on the trajectory of these relations: a trend of increasing contradictions will dominate it. Anti-Chinese sentiment is not unique to Donald Trump’s administration. Such notions are held by a significant proportion of the country’s establishment and reflect the consensus of both parties. The policy of containing China began even before Trump, under Barack Obama. That is why, if former Vice President Joe Biden becomes President, this will not change much for Beijing. In this case, pressure on China can become even more systemic. Suffice it to recall that the major foreign policy projects of the Obama administration, the TPP, were mostly conceived to counter the geo-economic expansion of China. One of Joe Biden’s chief foreign policy aides is Ely Ratner, Executive Vice President and Director of the Center for a New American Security, which has a hawkish attitude towards China. Under his leadership, the Center prepared a report for the US Congress, recommending that it confront China in almost all key areas of politics and economics more actively.

If this trend towards the intensification of the US-China confrontation is practically a decided matter, how should Russia be expected to respond? On the one hand, this rivalry is beneficial to Moscow, as Washington’s attention will focus on China, easing pressure on Russia. As the relations with Beijing worsen, the Americans may propose a deal to the Kremlin, hoping to tear it off from China.

But there is another side: the transformation of US-Chinese contradictions into the central axis of world politics will inevitably decrease Russia’s status and transform it into an important, but peripheral actor.

Primarily, it concerns the nuclear strategic sphere, the only dimension in which Russia preserves the Soviet legacy of superpower parity with the United States. However, the changing of the two-part (US-Russia) formula for strategic arms control into a three-part one already seems almost inevitable. Now, Washington insists on Beijing joining this process. As time goes on, the global military strategic structure may turn into a two-part one again, but without Russia. In competing with the United States, China will turn into a military superpower, and Russia, due to its comparatively limited economic, scientific, and technological resources, will increasingly lag. In the long term, one of the possible options for Russia may be the position of France: the country retains its great power status and comparative independence in foreign policy, but strategically focuses on one of two superpowers.
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The Coronavirus epidemic comes at a particular time for the global economy. The forecasts made in December 2019, that is to say, before this epidemic, were not stellar. Already in 2019, growth had been only 2.9%, among the lowest figures seen since 2008, when markets were hit by the financial crisis.
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