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Hot or Cold War, Or Peace for Our Time?

We all know the big things in our lives that are changing because of the new consciousness of health risks and the sense of shared responsibility we feel for those around us, particularly the seniors, but there are less obvious and more subtle threats we have to deal with these days – like war with China.

Whoa, nothing to joke about, and anyway, didn’t the markets sort of exhale with that sign of relief back on Thursday when China Vice Premier Liu He said China “fully expects” to meet the obligations under the big trade agreement “in spite of the current global health emergency?”

Those words were taken from the US readout of Liu’s call with Treasury Secretary Steven Terner Mnuchin and US trade ambassador Robert Lighthizer. Liu might be just one of four vice premiers and with a portfolio that doesn’t rank up there with national security, but he is a member of the Politburo. Most important, no one disputed the US readout language. It said the interim meetings called for by the agreement have been and will be held – via conference call – and “will continue on a regular basis.”

Yet the tensions between the two countries are widely seen as more severe than at any time during the Trump administration. That is apparently for one reason only, the president wants them that way. Mnuchin and Lighthizer might wish it were different. Who knows? They might still get their wish.

So the international relations heavyweights are doing what they do when the heads-up alert is sounded, they weigh in.

How about Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations with “A Cold War with China Would be a Mistake,” in Saturday’s Washington Post. China’s Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai is not someone you hear from every day. Yet in Wednesday’s Washington Post, “It’s Time to End the Chinese Blame Game.”

Friday in The Wall Street Journal, “Containing China Will Be Complicated,” by two former high-level US national security officials who are described as principals in the Marathon Initiative focused on preparing the United States for great-power competition. The Wall Street Journal’s William McGurn almost two weeks ago with “Communists in Brooks Brothers.”

In the realm of currently active international policy, the US on Friday blocked a compromise United Nations resolution sponsored by China in the works for six weeks that had been thought to be relatively non-controversial. The surprise final US vote on a measure calling for a pause in all the various theatres of war around the world, summoned by the Secretary-General to allow pandemic relief, came after the US had blocked the first version.

In both cases the US did not like first, explicit language and then oblique wording that still seemed to include support for the UN’s World Health Organisation for which the White House has suspended funding. The WHO, repeats the White House, is too China-centric.

Last week it was learned the US is pushing the European Union to join in an international inquiry into the WHO’s handling of the corona virus. The EU would rather avoid what the US evidently wants, to pin the blame on China for what is alleged to be mishandling of the early world alerts to the virus dangers.

A Chinese envoy has said, in an interview with a German newspaper last week, the country is open to an international investigation of the origin of the virus as long as China is not presumed in advance guilty of spawning it in its Wuhan laboratory accidentally or otherwise.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has used every opportunity to castigate China recently. In addition President Trump has said he’ll have a report ready in a few days on the origin of the virus, which may or may not happen. He has repeatedly said in various ways, “I’ve got a problem with China. The virus could have easily been stopped at the source.”

Alright, already, it’s obvious China is a big concern of President Trump and he is making it a big concern of the international policy cadre within the administration, a limited sphere that does not directly involve Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and the trade ambassador.

The question in the many layered international affairs community within the Washington Beltway is why now? There’s a big trade deal, the execution of which has been slowed by the pandemic but just reaffirmed by both sides.

Is there a US national interest in revenge shaming China for the alleged mishandling of the early virus outbreak, when many other countries mishandled the outbreak as well when it reached their shores? Is some kind of retribution really being threatened, like a scaling up of that lawsuit filed by the Missouri attorney general seeking damages from China for virus expenses? How about an Asian NATO while we’re at it, or at least an anti-China East-West alliance?

Incidentally, does the use of “alleged” signal another attack on the Trump administration by China sympathisers within the Trump-hating liberal news media? Doesn’t everyone know China is this era’s Evil Empire for so many reasons? US foreign policy is ultimately the work of one man, the president, who in this case is aided by a secretary of state who has refined the art of demonisation at every opportunity. This president, after all, keeps a career-long junior demoniser close at hand, his adviser Peter Navarro, the author of “Death by China: Confronting the Dragon – a Global Call to Action.”

Does the president in the end declare China guilty of something? Or does he revert to his proclaimed great relationship with China’s President Xi Jinping and give them a pass? Or has China policy, once a “Make America Great Again” bold initiative, become a campaign crutch as the domestic political battle grows into the clash of the century, or at least of the decade?

The shrewd calculations of the many people paid to watch trade and international and defence and China policy under a microscope, the very real military-industrial complex President Dwight Eisenhower warned of, are no more sure of President Trump’s intentions than anyone else. That makes them extremely nervous. Perhaps even the president is not yet sure what he will do.

But the president’s arsenal of re-election arguments could depend on things like China policy should the pandemic not cooperate in allowing the reopening the American economy on the White House schedule. The China policy watchers include strong supporters of both camps, the demonisers on the one hand and those who think economic engagement is the only sensible long-term policy on the other.

And what of Joe Biden, whom Trump campaign ads would define as a wishy-washy soft-on-China pushover. How will he counter? And what will his choice for vice president signal about China policy – if anything – especially if it somehow becomes the one woman who could change everyone’s calculations about November’s outcome if she accepted, Michelle Obama?

War someday with China? A long Cold War with China? Or decades of peaceful competition married with mutually beneficial commerce? The path may well be decided this year.

Colin Lambert

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