Four months into his administration, Biden shows little sign of rising to this task. On May 26, he announced that he was giving the U.S. intelligence community 90 more days, working with U.S. scientists, to report on covid-19’s origins in China, whether from infected animals or a laboratory leak. But he also laid down a marker that the true source may never be known.
Regardless of how this investigation turns out, the regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping has already committed more than enough wrongdoing to warrant a strong response by the world’s leading democracies — a coalition that Biden should start to organize now.
The bill of particulars against the CCP begins with the overwhelming evidence that for weeks in late 2019 and early 2020, as the coronavirus was loose in China and people fell ill, Beijing covered up its dangers, exponentially accelerating international harm. Even as CCP leaders eventually imposed domestic restrictions, they allowed unwitting travelers to visit infected zones and then spread disease and death abroad.
And it was China’s reckless conduct of inherently dangerous activities — whether in unsanitary “wet markets,” where live animals are sold for food, or in CCP-run virology labs — that unleashed the virus in the first place.
No responsible state would have behaved so badly, as most democratic world leaders would privately acknowledge. Yet they hesitate to say so publicly, no doubt aware of what happened last spring when the Australian government urged an independent inquiry into covid-19’s origins: Beijing instantly retaliated with punitive trade sanctions. Xi seems to be reviving the tradition of Chinese emperors who ended their instructions to officials, “Tremble and obey.”
China already knows it can go largely unpunished for its push into the South China Sea, for its outrages against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, for throttling democracy in Hong Kong, for intellectual property theft that costs foreign states hundreds of billions of dollars annually. If the CCP similarly escapes consequences for playing the central role in a cataclysm that strikes innocents in homes across the world, it will grow ever bolder, seeing few lines it dare not cross.
Herein lies Biden’s diplomatic opportunity. Every nation suffers. Seldom does a president have such timber for building coalitions.
The leading democracies must act together. Their great economic power could do much to persuade China to curb its dangerous viral research activities, cooperate with the investigation of the coronavirus’s origins and, over time, pay some measure of the pandemic’s damages to other nations.
Failing that — and the CCP under Xi would surely balk — an international coalition could impose heavy costs on CCP leaders and China’s economic activities. The CCP needs access to the bulk of the world economy.
The Biden-led coalition would need to ready calibrated unilateral and multilateral measures against the CCP leadership and Chinese entities. If the CCP will not act responsibly toward the world, the world should not protect CCP leaders’ assets hidden abroad. The world should enforce claims against China’s state-owned enterprises and improper commercial activities, and curtail preferential treatment of Chinese entities. Such measures could be phased in to give diplomacy time. New policies, new agreements or even new laws may be needed.
Would such measures be fair? In the United States, we punish destruction of evidence and consider cover-ups as indicating culpability. We hold inherently dangerous activities to strict liability. China is already clearly guilty on these counts.
The CCP would surely retaliate harshly. It might disrupt supply chains and punish people and companies most likely to unravel the democratic alliance. Like China, we have vulnerabilities — including our own supply chains — some of which we should urgently address. Finding ways to deflect the blows from China’s response would be the most demanding part of Biden’s diplomatic challenge.
The CCP has benefited enormously from access to an orderly world. Having thrown that world into disorder through its misconduct, China could have tried to right matters by embracing full disclosure and an international investigation into what went wrong. Instead, when Biden announced his directive to the U.S. intelligence community, Beijing responded with scorn.
The leading democracies may choose to swallow their losses to avoid confrontation. Biden may resolve to be tougher next time. But history shows that next time is often too late.