US and Western allies offer disjointed response to China coronavirus calamity

US and Western allies offer disjointed response to China coronavirus calamity

Joel Gehrke – The Washington Examiner – Wednesday 06 May 2020

A wave of frustration with the Chinese Communist Party has followed the coronavirus pandemic around the world, but President Trump’s administration and Western allies aren’t sure how to cooperate in response.

“We have a great opportunity here,” the Heritage Foundation’s Dean Cheng, a senior analyst in the conservative think tank’s Asian Studies Center, told the Washington Examiner. “And, it is not at all clear to me that anybody in this town has a plan, certainly with regards to the Chinese and how to handle their missteps.”

That assessment reflects an array of factors that complicate the problem presented to Western strategic thinkers. The public health crisis, with the attendant economy catastrophe, is bad enough. Trump’s relationship with important European leaders has been fraught throughout his presidency. And even if they wanted to set aside transatlantic tensions to consider the thorny strategic problems posed by the rising communist power, it’s difficult to do so when many Western nations remain paralyzed by the contagion.

“Embryonic stages,” Australian Sen. James Paterson, the deputy chair of Australia’s select committee for the coronavirus response, told the Washington Examiner. “Most countries are not in the frame of mind and don’t have the luxury of thinking about what is the post-coronavirus world look like, how should geopolicy change, how should domestic policy change.”

The same could be said of Trump’s brain trust, according to U.S. analysts familiar with the administration’s policymaking with respect to China. The deliberations often weigh powerful competing factors, given China’s emergence as a major rival and the interdependence of the world’s two largest economies.

“Here’s the problem: There’s no doubt that there are lots of things the administration could do,” the American Enterprise Institute’s Zack Cooper, an expert in U.S.-China competition and American alliances in Asia, told the Washington Examiner. “But on what the administration is going to do on China stuff, very few people have a good sense of where they’re actually going.”

Trump has expressed an interest in demanding that China pay damages to countries harmed by the pandemic, but that proposal has run aground in Germany, the European Union’s economic heavyweight. To the extent that a common response to the pandemic is percolating within the “alliance of democracies,” it has focused on the need for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic and the World Health Organization’s response.

“Whatever we can do to learn from that is more important than reparations,” Paterson, whose government has spearheaded the diplomatic effort to demand an investigation. “In any case, you can’t have a conversation about compensation or reparations or anything like that until you’ve understood exactly what happened.”

EU officials have joined the call for an “independent review,” despite China’s anger at the idea, which Chinese officials have denounced as a “politically motivated” scheme. But Brussels is making a point not to sign up for U.S.-led denunciations of Beijing.

“In my opinion, we need to look independently at what happened, standing aside from the battlefield between China and the United States, who blame each other for the events in a bidding war that has only exacerbated their rivalry,” EU High Representative Joseph Borrell said in an interview with Le Journal du Dimanche, a French publication.

But Borrell suggested the need for greater suspicion of Beijing. “With China, we have been a bit naive,” he said in the interview, which was published Sunday. “China has a selective multilateralism based on a different understanding of the international order. It’s also selective in matters of international law.”

That might give China hawks in Washington cause for optimism about a Western partnership to manage threats from Beijing, but a clear breakthrough in transatlantic cooperation could be slow to come given the litany of disputes that Trump and European leaders have had on foreign policy issues, such as the withdrawal from 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accords.

“The Europeans are so frustrated with the administration that it’s tough to cooperate on this issue,” Cooper said. “There just are not that many European countries that are willing to sign up for particularly tough China stances at the moment, but I think some of that is changing, but they tend to want to be a little more careful than we have been in the last few years.”

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