Washington: The United States recorded its first Covid-19 case on January 21.
“China has been working very hard to contain the coronavirus,” President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter three days later, taking an indulgent view of Beijing’s alleged culpability. “The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American people, I want to thank President Xi.”
Six months later, on Thursday, Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, was declared a tyrant by Trump’s top diplomat Mike Pompeo.
There have been more than four million Covid-19 cases in the United States, and over 144,000 fatalities. SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), may be the “China virus” or the “Wuhan virus”, as Trump and his aides have sought to portray it to shift blame, but it is an American problem, more than anything else.
And one that could rob President Trump of a second term.
Polls have been brutal on Trump’s handling of the epidemic. Joe Biden, the former vice-president and the presumptive Democratic nominee, leads the President by nearly nine points in the RealClearPolitics average of polls. Trump is also trailing Biden in the swing states that gave him the presidency in 2016.
Trump is trailing Biden in more than just the polls.
He is in such a desperately bad situation politically that he been forced to walk back his earlier attempts to downplay the epidemic. Trump has had to embrace masks (or any facial covering) after mocking Biden for wearing them; and cancel the Republican convention that he had wanted so badly to showcase his first term. He will accept the nomination virtually, it seems, following Biden’s lead.
His frustration with China has grown exponentially at the same time. He has attacked Beijing for letting the virus escape its borders. “So it’s a shame that it happened. It shouldn’t have happened. China should have stopped it,” he said Thursday, re-litigating his case against China.
Trump ran his 2016 campaign for the White House on the promise of ending China’s rogue behaviour on trade, including currency manipulation. He set into motion a series of measures soon after coming into office that led to a full-fledged trade war between the world’s two largest economies shortly.
He pursued a trade deal even though it had become clear that China was not interested in conceding the main American asks, such as ending forced transfer of technology. He won a limited Phase 1 deal, but never got to the larger agreement that he had wanted to claim complete victory.
It is no longer a priority. “The trade deal means less to me now than it did when I made it,” Trump told reporters Thursday.
Trade ceded centre stage to Covid-19 as the main China issue when infections and fatalities began shooting around March. New York city and state soon replaced China’s Wuhan and Hubei province as the new epicentres of the raging pandemic, and Trump was left defending his shoddy handling of his administration’s first major crisis.
Trump and his aides sought to deflect blame by putting it all on China, and soon US-China relations were in a precipitous downward spiral. This led to slew of sanctions, visa restrictions; and harsh remarks over the mistreatment of Uighur Muslims, restrictions in Hong Kong, and aggressive military postures in hot spots such as the South China Sea, and the disputed areas along its borders with India and Bhutan.
Earlier this week, the Trump administration ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, alleging it was being used as an intelligence-gathering hub. On Friday, China notified the US that it’s revoking the operating permit for the US consulate in Chengdu, according to a statement from Chinese foreign ministry.
On Thursday, secretary of state Pompeo signalled the end of the decades-old US policy of engaging China with the hope of changing it and its behaviour.
“The old paradigm of blind engagement with China has failed,” Pompeo said in a widely anticipated policy speech at a legacy California library run by the foundation of late President Richard Nixon, who re-established diplomatic ties with China and paved the way for its opening with a historic visit in 1972. “If the free world doesn’t change Communist China — [it] will surely change us,” Pompeo added, setting up his call for an international alliance of “like-minded” nations.
There is a need for “a new grouping of like-minded nations — a new alliance of democracies”, Pompeo said, without specifying which nations.
In a question-answer session following the speech, the secretary of state said these nations will have the backing of the US for sure. When asked if he was urging nations to pick between the US and China, in line with a choice the US presented to the world in the 1940s between itself and the USSR, Pompeo said the choice for them was between “freedom and tyranny”.