China has tried to use the crisis to build influence but is also accused of spreading disinformation and financially benefitting from the virus, while the US has also been criticised for its inept response to Covid-19.

As the coronavirus pandemic rips across the world, tensions between the US and China are mounting as both sides indulge in the blame game.

As the two countries exchange accusations on who is responsible for the catastrophe, one question comes to mind: who will come out on top when the dust settles?

Some see the situation as an opportunity for China to increase its global influence by coming to the aid of countries suffering from the pandemic while others think it is exploiting the situation which will backfire and will trigger animosity towards Beijing.

Former US Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Matthew Bryza, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, spoke to TRT World over the policies of the rival countries.

Bryza said China is the first country to recover from Covid-19 which has given it a leg up in kick starting its economy again - and has also allowed it to become the main supplier of personal protective equipment globally.

“So China has a great opportunity to emerge looking like the new global leader, the country that everybody needs,” he said.

“However, China is widely criticised for having not moved quickly enough to stop the new coronavirus and to alert the world to the sickness circulating in Wuhan.”

It’s not just the US that has been on an offensive against China.

Australia says Beijing’s irresponsibility needs to be investigated. Chinese state media responded to the statement by saying Australia was like “gum stuck to China's shoe”.

Moreover, China’s Ambassador to Australia, Jingye Cheng, warned that any Australian enquiry will result in a boycott of its goods. 

“Maybe the ordinary people will say ‘Why should we drink Australian wine? Eat Australian beef?’,” Cheng told Australian media.

On the other hand, according to four sources and diplomatic correspondence reviewed by Reuters, China tried to block a European Union report alleging that Beijing was spreading disinformation about the coronavirus outbreak.

Bryza believes there is not very much anger against China and doesn’t think many people in the world really blame China for the pandemic. 

“I think there are extreme people particularly on the far political right in the United States and in Europe who do play up China,” he said. “I think that's because they're probably prone to conspiracy theories, they already didn't like China and were maybe in some cases strong supporters of President Trump who's decided to confront China on China's truly unfair trade practices.”

He added: “China is not a good International actor when it comes to trade, or not a fair actor.” 

On the first page of the internal report shared with EU governments on April 20, the EU’s foreign policy arm stated: “China has continued to run a global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and improve its international image. Both overt and covert tactics have been observed.”

The EU’s competition chief Margrethe Vestager urged governments to buy strategic firms’ stakes to prevent China from taking advantage of the economic crisis born out of the pandemic.

On the other hand, some view the pandemic as a geopolitical turning-point away from America.

Well-funded Chinese state-run media organisations show that Beijing countered the spreading of the virus thanks to its strong one-party rule.

After China’s on-the-ground assistance to help Serbia in the battle against the pandemic, a billboard thanking Chinese President Xi Jinping appeared in the streets of Belgrade.

A man wearing a protective mask passes by a billboard depicting Chinese President Xi Jinping as the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) continues in Belgrade, Serbia, April 1, 2020. The text on the billboard reads
A man wearing a protective mask passes by a billboard depicting Chinese President Xi Jinping as the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) continues in Belgrade, Serbia, April 1, 2020. The text on the billboard reads "Thanks, brother Xi". Picture taken April 1, 2020. (Reuters)

In addition to Serbia, Beijing has sent medical teams to Cambodia, Iran, Iraq, Laos, Pakistan, Venezuela and Italy, the only G7 nation to join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and which has been devastated by the coronavirus. 

China has sent nearly 110,000 masks and 800 protective suits, worth less than $50,000, to Spain. However Chinese state media called it “a new turning point” for relations between the two countries.

Bryza underlined that Chinese companies are playing a very important role in selling personal protective equipment around the world and he thinks that's significant.

“Actually, the Chinese government has been careful now to make sure that there's a minimal amount of fraud and a maximal amount of the right equipment with the proper quality standards being manufactured, but there is still a lot of fraud in the equipment that's manufactured in China,” claimed Bryza.

China’s dream to increase its international influence

President Xi’s report at the party congress in 2017 said his country will become a global leader by the middle of the century.

“China has become a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence,” the report said.

Bryza said: “China has ambition for a long time to use its wealth in the form of the BRI and invest in major infrastructure projects all give it great influence in many parts of the world.” 

China has long been trying to increase its economic and political presence in the Pacific, Asia and Africa through its BRI.

The programme is also criticised for being a functioning “debt-trap” for developing or underdeveloped countries.

China has been criticised for its BRI programme as it gives unsustainable loans to poor countries who are unable to repay debt, and then Beijing is accused of taking over strategic assets - one such example is Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port.

War of words

At first, Chinese authorities blamed the United States military for bringing the virus to China, which emerged in December in the central Chinese city of Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said: “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!”

China behaved “despicably”, according to Bryza, when its spokesman announced that there was evidence that the United States military brought the coronavirus into China. 

Together with China, Bryza said, horrible conspiracy theories coming out from Russian state-run television channels also claim that the US is responsible for starting this new coronavirus. 

“That behaviour should be condemned and nobody should be tolerated,” he said.

US President Donald Trump said on Monday that China could have stopped the coronavirus before it spread and that his administration was conducting “serious investigations” into what happened.

“We’re doing very serious investigations... We are not happy with China,” Trump said at a White House briefing. “There are a lot of ways you can hold them accountable. 

“We believe it could have been stopped at the source. It could have been stopped quickly and it wouldn’t have spread all over the world.”

Bryza said Trump and some of his political allies trying to call this the ‘China virus’ was childish and unhelpful. He doesn’t think blaming any country is helpful in any way.

“What we need is for the countries of the world to be working together to defeat the coronavirus by collaborating scientifically to come up with a vaccine as quickly as possible, and making sure all that protective equipment gets to where it needs to go,” he said.

When it comes to the US, Bryza thinks US political influence will be reduced globally as a result of the coronavirus pandemic for two reasons.

Firstly, Trump really “doesn't want to lead the international community's response” and in fact is threatening to cut off US funding to the World Health Organisation  

Secondly, the Trump government's performance inside the United States in battling the coronavirus has been seen around the world as “inept and incompetent”.

However, Bryza emphasised the US still is “the most powerful country” and still has “the largest economy” in the world.

“But its prestige for geopolitical influence will reduce as a result of this,” he said.

Source: TRT World