The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In coronavirus clash with China, Trump chooses name-calling over leadership

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday, along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today’s WorldView newsletter.

It’s the new normal in pandemic geopolitics. Taking their cues from tens of millions of office workers around the world, leaders of the Group of 20 major economies met over videoconference Thursday morning in a 90-minute virtual session chaired by King Salman of Saudi Arabia about the coronavirus crisis.

Nothing that significant emerged from their discussions. In an anodyne joint statement, the bloc touted the approximately $5 trillion in stimulus it is collectively putting into the global economy — mostly in the form of relief and temporary assistance to the unemployed — and offered unspecific commitments to coordinate a collective response to the virus. The new-age optics of the summit hardly dimmed the real tensions still in play: Saudi Arabia remains in a spat with Russia over each other’s oversupply in the oil market that preceded the nose-dive in global markets, while the novel coronavirus pandemic has only worsened the already strained relations between the United States and China.

In his remarks, Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly inveighed against U.S. tariffs and trade barriers that have snarled the global supply chain and threaten to tip many countries into a recession. The Trump administration, meanwhile, made its position clear Wednesday, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ended the possibility of a joint statement from the Group of Seven foreign ministers by insisting that they label the outbreak the “Wuhan virus” — a descriptor Beijing deems offensive and part of a “sinister” messaging campaign by Washington.

On this front, U.S. allies elsewhere are sympathetic to China. “Other nations in the group of world powers rejected the term because they viewed it as needlessly divisive at a time when international cooperation is required to slow the global pandemic and deal with the scarcity of medical supplies,” my colleagues reported.

According to NBC News, a similar confrontation is taking place at the United Nations, where efforts for a joint Security Council resolution or declaration about the pandemic have been stymied by American insistence on stressing the virus’s origin in Wuhan.

For President Trump and some of his allies, this is a key line of attack. After spending weeks playing down the virus’s threat, they are citing China’s initial opaque management of the crisis as a central reason the United States appeared to have been blindsided by it. On Thursday, the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the United States surpassed the number reported by any other country in the world.

“China unleashed this plague on the world, and China has to be held accountable,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said last week when announcing legislation aimed at ending U.S. reliance on Chinese drug manufacturing.

That’s not quite the view of the rest of the international community. Although Chinese state outlets have churned out their own angry propaganda, accusing the United States of somehow engineering the pandemic, Beijing has stepped up aid shipments to Western countries and dispatched medical teams to help Italy, the worst-hit country in Europe.

As my colleagues reported, there may have been an earlier era when the world looked to Washington for leadership during a global crisis. Under Trump, that moment seems to be passing.

“Very few countries today see the U.S. as part of the solution, whereas in the past it was the natural point of comparison, or a country to imitate,” Luis Rubio, head of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations, told my colleagues.

“I do wonder whether this really is an inflection point in the international system,” said Nathalie Tocci, the head of the Italian Institute of International Affairs and a former foreign policy adviser to senior European Union leaders. “Here in Italy it is going to change for good the perception of who is leading in the world, and it’s not the United States. It’s so strong what is happening. It’s so powerful and it’s so traumatic. The emotions that it ignites today are going to be engraved in the national narrative.”

The Trump administration may be more focused on quietly soliciting aid from other countries than steering the collective international response to the pandemic. Numerous U.S. states are reporting shortages of vital medical supplies, including masks, which have been exacerbated by a lack of federal government coordination over the delivery of these critical goods. This week, Trump sent an urgent request to South Korea — whose rush to roll out mass testing on its populace stands in stark contrast to the way the United States is handling the outbreak — for possible aid, including Korean equipment for testing.

No such requests appear to be made of Beijing. But in a parallel universe — one absent the atmospherics of Trump’s trade war and Xi’s ruthless authoritarian consolidation of power — the two countries could have found common cause.

“Had the United States and China collaborated more closely when the virus emerged, they may have identified its source more quickly; sounded an earlier alarm about its severity; and outlined best practices that the rest of the world could adopt to preempt its arrival and/or contain its spread,” suggested Ali Wyne of the Atlantic Council.

That time for cooperation may still yet come. “When this pandemic finally passes, the world’s nations should have a candid conversation about what allowed it to happen, and decide how to strengthen national and international institutions in ways that could prevent a repeat,” wrote American commentator Robert Wright in a recent column. “If people like Trump and Tom Cotton … continue to gratuitously deepen tensions with China, that will be a lot harder than it needs to be.”

Read more:

Trump and Bolsonaro see coronavirus more as a political hassle than a public threat

Coronavirus could hit the world’s most vulnerable people hardest

How politicians are using the coronavirus to seize control