By Josef Gregory Mahoney
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng recently described China-U.S. relations as having reached a stalemate. In general terms, this is a valid description. Although U.S. President Joe Biden has redoubled American containment efforts, the U.S. position is still eroding. Furthermore, whether unfounded allegations of genocide or continuing suggestions COVID-19 originated with a Chinese cover-up of human error or worse, a bioweapons misadventure, U.S. narratives continue to misrepresent China in the worst possible ways.
Origins of COVID-19
What should we make of growing calls to investigate U.S. Army base Fort Detrick in connection with searching for COVID-19’s origin? Is this merely an irrational attempt by Chinese interests to distract global attention from the Wuhan-origin thesis, as alleged by Western officials and media? Not at all.
There are two points to be made here. The first is that Fort Detrick is America’s leading black-box bioweapons-related research facility. It has long been involved in secret and dangerous research that has invited both real and imaginary risks and conspiracy theories, including extensively documented and somewhat credible allegations that some of its scientists have gone rogue and contributed to biological attacks or been victimized by them. It also is a federal superfund site, meaning parts of the base have experienced severe environmental pollution. Some believe this is linked to local cancer clusters.
Additionally, in August 2019, its leading laboratory lost its license to operate for eight months due to demonstrated failures of biosafety levels 3 and 4—the highest in the four-tier system—protocol. The lab was not allowed to resume full operations until April 2020. Consequently, there have long been calls in and outside the U.S. for more transparency related to Fort Detrick, including investigations of its activities past and present.
Second, while these kinds of reasonable concerns have fed genuine calls for investigations of Fort Detrick from Americans and non-Americans alike, separately, we might also view this from the Chinese side as a type of “discourse strategy.”
On the one hand, science indicates the virus most likely emerged naturally, probably in bats, and probably was affected by climate change. Allegations from the U.S. that COVID-19 was deliberately engineered or mistakenly released by a laboratory in Wuhan are most likely fabrications that have exploited racist and nationalist prejudices against China and tried to shift attention away from U.S. failures to contain the outbreak by demonizing China.
On the other hand, in purely scientific terms, if the virus was engineered and deliberately released, however unlikely but as some in the U.S. Government assert, then Fort Detrick is also a possible origin, arguably more plausible than the Wuhan laboratory. Thus, if Chinese officials are forced to contend with the implausible conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was engineered, then it’s reasonable to engage that discussion by raising questions about Fort Detrick.
A lot of the initial optimism that many had after Biden’s election for improved China-U.S. relations has evaporated. But many in Beijing still believe the U.S. will return to a more constructive and mutually beneficial relationship. This is because China’s behavior and expectations are highly rational and disciplined, particularly since 2012, given President Xi Jinping’s extensive Party strengthening efforts and government reforms. By contrast, the U.S. position seems increasingly irrational.
U.S. irrationalism is observable in many ways. It’s not that Biden or any of his key advisors are crazy or stupid (although nearly half the U.S. seems to think those are apt descriptions of his administration, along with “illegitimate,” etc.). Rather, it’s that Biden is a relatively weak president helming a hurt, angry and split nation that is really divided against itself. In fact, the only points of agreement shared by Democrats and Republicans is that the country is in trouble (true) and that China is largely to blame (false).
This is not a new problem. We can recall the initial optimism with some in Beijing when Donald Trump was first elected, seeing many happy that China had dodged Hillary Clinton’s public commitment to a pivot against China. Plus, the general idea was that Trump was a businessman—and whatever his failings, moral or otherwise, he would be attentive to the bottom line, discount ideology, and above all pursue American interests in rational ways.
Whether that was a good assessment of Trump’s actual inclinations is irrelevant. The results speak for themselves. His destructive four years of power in Washington devastated China-U.S. relations and overall American wellbeing; and he is likely to be judged historically as significantly to blame for humanity’s failure to respond adequately to climate change.
To be sure, Biden appears more reasonable when he talks about global warming and pandemic control. He seems more rational in his approaches to domestic governance and diplomacy—at least in his efforts to soothe allies and court new ones. But his actual policies have not yet produced many positive results, and some of them are lacking sense, especially when it comes to China.
For example, Biden’s approach to China has been a three-headed monster—compete, cooperate, and contain—a strategy that simply won’t work. This is because actually balancing these three contradictory approaches requires an incredible level of self-balance, which Washington lacks completely today.
–The Daily Mail-Beijing Review News Exchange Item