China could gain strategic influence in Western economies suffering from the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. officials and experts fear, despite anger that the contagion spread due to Beijing’s duplicity.
“We are in that moment where the wife discovers that her rich husband has had an affair, but, that if she divorces him, she and her kids are going to be living in an apartment and driving a 30-year-old car, and so she decides to stay with him,” a senior U.S. official told the Washington Examiner.
“The world has seen the romance of China before now,” the official added. “And I think that romance is giving way to a clear sense of Chinese malevolence, but equally coupled with a recognition of dependence.”
U.S. officials fear China will continue to expand its Belt & Road initiative to gain economic and political influence around the world.
“To the extent that the Chinese can show up to countries that need those things and provide those things then, yeah, I think they’re going to find a lot of need,” the Hudson Institute’s Rob Spalding, a retired Air Force general who helped craft President Trump’s national security strategy, told the Washington Examiner. “Money basically makes it easy for these countries to forget, and that’s just the way it is.”
“We have a really fundamental crisis coming in both Europe and the United States,” the senior U.S. official, who was not authorised to speak publicly, told the Washington Examiner.
“I think that in a year or two years, China will have made enormous, enormous strides in terms of its position in the financial system, ownership in supply chains, positions in key tech. And along with that, you will have an increasingly worried West.”
An intense diplomatic dispute over the origins of the coronavirus raised the curtain on the geopolitical shadowboxing already underway. Senior Chinese officials alleged that the U.S. Army brought the virus to Wuhan, where the outbreak originated, prompting Trump to brand the infectious disease the “Chinese virus.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has emphasised publicly that China exposed its partners to the virus, but widespread social distancing tactics in the West could cause enough economic harm that Chinese Communist officials could make Western government and corporations a series of offers that they can’t refuse.
Some close observers of the U.S.-China relationship caution that it is too soon to predict how the world will look after the pandemic eases, but the chances of China gaining ground on the West grow the longer the public health crisis continues.
“Ironically, it seems like Western countries’ unpreparedness and confusion on countering virus is more magnified,” an Asian official told the Washington Examiner on the condition of anonymity.
“You could see what happened in Italy no country could help them except for China. It is very strange to say that in this pandemic era, the world seems to be more dependent on China.”
Pompeo has tried to dispel that perception by touting the $499 million of foreign aid distributed during the crisis, including $225 million unveiled on Tuesday, even as Trump restricts exports of American-made masks to other countries.
“Our focus will be on keeping critical medical items in the United States until demand is met here,” Pompeo told reporters Tuesday. “But the United States continues, even as we speak, to provide high-quality, transparent, and meaningful assistance to our partners all across the globe.”
And China’s public image has taken a hit amid reports that Beijing sold medical equipment to Italy that the Italians had donated to China when the coronavirus first emerged. Those kinds of decisions could create a backlash against the Chinese Communist Party.
“There will be this combination of a significant increase in the Chinese ownership and supply-chain presence, but also a significant increase in resentment toward China,” the senior U.S. official said. “So, basically, people will be doing a lot more things with and for the Chinese, but liking it even less than they do today.”