Olalekan A. Babatunde

Olalekan A. Babatunde

By Olalekan A. Babatunde

Recent happenings amid the coronavirus pandemic have seen a pattern of tit-for-tat diplomatic relations between the United States and China. The latest last week were the retaliatory moves by the two ordering the closure of consulates in each other’s countries. Though the first move used to be taken by the US and immediately retaliated by China in what most media practitioners termed tit-for-tat move. Within the third week of July 2020, the Chinese government ordered the closure of the US Consulate in the south-western city of Chengdu in direct retaliation to the early one given by the President Donald Trump administration to close down the Chinese Consulate in Houston, Texas, within 72 hours. The question of when it will subside has received less attention.

Rather than focus on cooperation and global leadership to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts, the two superpowers seem intent on combating each other. While the US through its Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused the Chinese Consulate officials of “stealing” its intellectual property and aiding economic espionage, China said its move was a “necessary response” to the US, which ordered China to close its consulate. Interestingly, relations have sunk to their lowest level in more than four decades after the two countries normalized diplomatic relations. The deteriorating relations are now becoming the “new normal”. Sparked by the trade tariffs, defence, technology, media and diplomacy crises, the Cold War has intensified since the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic. Observers will be intrigued by the recent exchanges.

First, the US has accused China for allegedly responsible for spreading the coronavirus, and therefore China should be made to pay compensation for its inability to contain the spread. China has also posited counter theory that American soldiers may have been the original source of the virus during a visit to Wuhan last October. Secondly, the Hong Hong’s security law has made Trump administration to sign legislation to penalize Chinese and Hong Kong officials and end the city’s preferential trading status with the US. China denounced the measure and vowed to retaliate. Third, the US sees China’s occupation of the South China Sea as assertive and vehemently opposed its claims as “completely unlawful” and thereby setting up potential military confrontations between the two in the Pacific.


Fourth, the crisis over the accusations by US that China was stealing its technology, which escalated with the blacklisting of Huawei, China’s largest technology company and detention of Meng Wanzhou, its chief financial officer. For assisting the US to arrest Meng, China retaliated by arresting two Canadians in its territories. Last week, Britain, in a move seen as siding with the US, barred Huawei products from its high-speed wireless network. Fifth, TitTok, a Chinese valuable digital property is threatened with a ban by the US. Sixth, the two countries have placed some political officials with travel ban to each other’s countries. Not only that, the Trump administration has limited the number of Chinese citizens who could work for Chinese news organizations in the US. Chinese researchers are arrested and facing trials in both Houston and San Francisco. China retaliated by ordering the expulsions of American journalists.

Seventh, US has taken steps to cancel the visas of thousands of Chinese students and researchers in the US which have ties to universities affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army. China’s response is being expected. Lastly, besides the grievances over Taiwan and Tibet, the issue of China’s treatment of the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang has attracted sanctions from the US on a number of Chinese officials. China promised retaliation against American institutions and individuals. According to the BBC, “the US is hostile and calling the shots while China is not backing down.”

According to Orville Schell, the Director of the Center of the US-China Relations at the Asia Society, “I think we’re in a dangerous and precipitous spiral downward, not without cause, but without the proper diplomatic skills to arrest it.” He remarked that the confrontation “has jumped the wall from specific and solvable challenges to a clash of systems and values.” The rapacity of the retaliation is a profound shift from what we used to know. If both do not exercise restraints, it could have long-term effect on the world’s peace, stability and development. Both US and China represent 40 percent of global economic output.

The tit-for-tat actions highlight the world’s political failings. Which among the G7 countries, Russia or multilateral institutions can mediate between the two belligerent parties? None. Instead, the display of complacency, greed and self-interest are offshoots of authoritarianism, populism, Brexitismand right-wing nationalism. This portends evidence of cracks in international consensuses and is very concerning. If this cat and mouse relations where one tries to manoeuvres the other were left unmitigated it would leave the rest of the world more vulnerable. The ever-increasing conspiracy theories are worsening the geopolitical realities. I think it is time for the propaganda to stop. Both countries need not pretend otherwise.

Also, as the tit-for-tat relations deteriorate, one would wonder what effects they could have on the global scene. Their worsening rows portend serious adverse implications for the economic, financial and technological development. As the world needs the multilateral cooperation and support in the fight against the ever-spreading COVID-19 pandemic, such initiative and leadership cannot be garnered just because the two are in a brawl. An example of this problem is the neglect of support that needed to be given to the World Health Organization and other initiatives to mitigate the spread of the virus and assist the developing countries in overcoming the impact of the pandemic on their financial and economic challenges. Were the support given, the world can adequately prepare for the next crisis.

Ironically, President Trump appears to adore President Xi due to how he repeatedly expressed admirations for the Chinese leader. For instance, President Trump often refrained from criticizing President Xi even when the media pressured him to make one. Traditionally, China rarely makes sensational statements on international stage but full of actions. Perhaps due to this pragmatism, it is difficult to pinpoint any major statement to President Xi except maybe on the Belt and Road Initiative, and a few other issues like hosting world leaders. Conversely, it has been President Trump’s tactics to accuse, condemn or evict China most especially due to his narcissism and populism. According to Rick Gladstone of the New York Times, “Mr. Trump has repeatedly described the virus in racist and stigmatizing terms by calling it ‘China virus’ and ‘Kung Flu.”

Once President Trump announced his Make America Great Again mantra and eventually won the election, I foresaw that his administration’s inward looking would portend serious challenges for his country. The US pushback from the world stage has enabled China to assert itself on the global scene. The void left behind is gradually being filled by China in international trade, industry, humanitarian assistance, cooperation and other engagements. For its part, China has criticized the America’s poor handling of the virus. Most commentators agreed that President Trump’s response to the pandemic has been a tragedy of monumental proportions. At the moment, the US with about 340 million people has recorded more than 4 millions caseload of the COVID-19 infections, more hospitalization and more death (almost 150,000) than China’s 4,200 with 1.4 billion population.

Similarly, the administration’s response to the protests of the Black Lives Matter following the killing of George Floyd in the hands of a white police left a big void in the national leadership. So for sowing chaos in trying to make America great again, President Trump’s America would score no consequential point because China will continue to push back at any bluff that would threaten its sovereignty and foreign interests. This might further escalate the crises. So it is not yet clear when the two would shield their swords.

But saving the world from tit-for-tat politics requires realism and not any game of brinkmanship. Tit-for-tat moves are a sign of weakness and not strength. The US and China must be pragmatic in their foreign relations in accordance with the international law, basic norms, customary relations and practices. The COVID-19 pandemic should force a rethink among the two to lead exemplary global leadership that will deliver high-level and coherent result on the scourge and its social, economic, cultural and political implications.

The European Union leaders have set a vivid example on how leadership ought to cooperate during this global emergency when it agreed on recovery packages for its members. The power of multilateralism is what should be forged between supposed the US-China. One should hope that the US and China will eventually realize the need to bury the hatchet and arrive at an understanding that tit-for-tat exchanges will not only escalate into direct war but endanger the Pacific region and leaves the world in peril. Though, it would be a long and bumpy journey, but its destination is worth every step of it.

Today, the US can no longer contain China. Neither of the two can self-isolate from the other. But seems that the COVID-19 only exposed their weakest links. To China, and even most watchers of the diplomatic deterioration, President Trump is using the intensified diplomacy to campaign for re-election in November. If that is the case, then the world should not expect any abatement in the tit-for-tat games until after the Trump’s presidency in either 2021 or 2025.

Olalekan A. Babatunde, PhD, is a fellow at the Nigeria’s Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Abuja. He can be reached on Twitter @olaaustinebabs.