A New Pacific Cold War Between Washington and Beijing

While social tension and unrest in the streets of the United States have garnered most of the headlines, in the diplomatic backgroundm the makings of an intensified rivalry between Washington and Beijing are growing. The Trump administration has taken a series of measures — withdrawing from the WHO amid accusations of undue Chinese influence, banning Chinese commercial flights, and ending the special relationship with Hong Kong — that collectively amount to a diplomatic broadside against China. At the same time, major figures in Europe, which may hold the swing vote, are beginning to lean against Beijing over its handling of the coronavirus.


The tempo of soft power confrontation between China and the U.S. has been accelerating. Perhaps the first casualty of what increasingly resembles a burgeoning Pacific Cold War is the WHO, whose reputation has suffered considerable erosion since the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, when WHO officials were perceived as demonstrating “an alarming lack of independence from the People’s Republic of China”. On May 18, President Trump said that if the WHO “does not commit to major substantive improvements within the next 30 days, I will make my temporary freeze of United States funding to the World Health Organization permanent and reconsider our membership in the organization.”

However justifiable Washington’s frustration with the WHO may be, the bid to withdraw funding created an opening which Beijing moved swiftly to exploit. In a shrewd countermove, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced at the start of the forum that Beijing would donate $2 billion toward the WHO’s anti-coronavirus efforts, saying: “In China, after making painstaking efforts and sacrifice, we have turned the tide on the virus and protected lives,” Mr. Xi said. Cloaking its move to cement its influence over the WHO, Xi noted that “we have done everything in our power to support and assist countries in need.”

John Ullyot, a spokesman for the National Security Council, responded that “as the source of the outbreak, China has a special responsibility to pay more and to give more,” and labeled Xi’s commitment of $2 billion “a token to distract from calls from a growing number of nations demanding accountability for the Chinese government’s failure... to tell the truth and warn the world of what was coming.”


In the last week, the Trump administration has taken a series of new measures which collectively amount to a diplomatic broadside against Beijing and its influence. On wednesday, the administration announced a ban on Chinese passenger airlines entering or leaving the United States, effective June 16. This came in retaliation for a similar ban imposed by Chinese authorities on American companies. The measure is sure to weaken bilateral trade and tourism, already battered by the coronavirus outbreaks in both countries.

In another critical measure, President Trump announced on Friday that Washington would “begin the process” of ending the U.S.’s special relationship with Hong Kong, which provides for preferential arrangements on trade and law enforcement. “My announcement today will affect the full range of agreements we have with Hong Kong,” the president declared, including “action to revoke Hong Kong’s preferential treatment as a separate customs and travel territory from the rest of China.” This, of course, comes in response to Beijing’s announcement that it was applying a repressive ‘national security law’ to the once-autonomous city, which Trump asserted would “extend the reach of China’s invasive state security apparatus into what was formerly a bastion of liberty.” He also warned of sanctions against officials, whether Chinese or Hong Konger, deemed responsible for the rollback of liberties in the territory.


If Europe can be said to hold the balance of power between the U.S. and China, then Berlin is inarguably the European center of gravity. And, according to Bernhard Bartsch, senior Asia expert at the German foundation Bertelsmann Stiftung, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been “struggling to adjust [her] China policy.” Traditionally, Berlin has been extremely reluctant to criticize Beijing owing to the deep intermeshing of German economic interests with the Chinese market. Since the beginning of the 21st century, Germany has drawn the second largest share of Chinese investment in Europe, behind only Great Britain. In 2018, German-Chinee bilateral trade accounted for nearly €200 billion. Perhaps of equal import to Berlin’s export-driven economy was access to Chinese markets: in 2018, Germany produced nearly half of all EU exports to China, according to data compiled by an independent think tank.

But since the outbreak of the coronavirus, leading voices in Germany have grown increasingly restive, and increasingly resentful, of Beijing’s role in the crisis. The editor in chief of a major German tabloid Bild recently published a calculation of monetary damages China’s failure to contain the virus early cost German taxpayers. Equally provocative from the Chinese standpoint, the center-right FDP submitted a bill to the German Bundestag calling for Taiwan’s admission to the WHO, a step long resisted by Chinese authorities, who view any international recognition of Taiwanese independence as a subversion of Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity. But according to FDP chairman Johannes Vogel “if we want to reduce our dependency on China, we should focus more on deliveries from Asian democracies."