As this article’s writing was in progress, the death toll in the US related to COVID-19 pandemic had almost breached the 50,000 mark. If this trend continues, it would not be surprising if in the next few weeks the total number of COVID- 19 related deaths in the US would touch the 1 lakh figure mark and sadly so.
Later this year, on November 3, 2020, the American people would take part in the country’s 59th quadrennial presidential election to either re-elect the incumbent president, Donald Trump, for a second term or reject him in the same. As things stood just before the global outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the forthcoming US presidential election was about Donald Trump only. And it still is. The only difference being that by the time the moment for polling would come, the US electorate would also take into consideration Trump Administration’s handling of the pandemic and whether it has been able to penalize those who are alleged to have ‘abetted the outbreak’.
Imagine a US President going for election with the burden of the death of countless American citizens occurring in the fag-end of his tenure and where he had to acknowledge that ‘there will be a lot of death’. Can the incumbent president, in such a scenario, cruise through the looming election without any ‘payback’ or would, in usual American style, the electorate expect their President to act as a ‘Super Hero’ and ‘avenge’ those deaths? With US President almost hinting at possible consequence against China, in case they were ‘knowingly responsible’ for the outbreak and its global spread, the moot question is this: Can Donald Trump expect to have a smooth ride in the forthcoming election without him declaring ‘War’ against China to pacify the enraged US populace? Would Trump’s Democrat challengers treat COVID-19 pandemic as a bygone mishap or capitalise on it to corner the incumbent President in the final face-off?
Incidentally, a lawsuit filed in the US District Court in Eastern District of Missouri by Missouri’s Attorney General Eric Schmitt, gives a critical clue of the shape of things to come. The lawsuit has been filed against the Chinese Government and the Chinese Communist Party accusing them of suppression of critical information related COVID-19, misleading the world on the contagious nature of the virus, a crackdown on whistle-blowers, hoarding of Personal Protection Equipment, destruction of critical research and exposing millions to the virus.
"The Chinese government lied to the world about the danger and contagious nature of COVID-19, silenced whistleblowers, and did little to stop the spread of the disease. They must be held accountable for their actions.” stated Erich Schmitt. He also stated, ‘COVID-19 has done irreparable damage to countries across the globe, causing sickness, death, economic disruption, and human suffering.’
Even though the lawsuit per se, may not have any impact on China right now, but is definitely a harbinger of the shape of things to come. Reeling under economic crisis and rising death toll, it is for sure that many other states in US would also file similar lawsuits, keeping in mind the popular sentiments, which might put tremendous pressure on the Trump Administration to act against China in some way or the other.
However, it is not just the issue of lawsuits. It is also about those who are politically opposed to Trump. Democrat nominee and Trump’s most potent challenger for November elections, Joe Biden, has already started targeting Trump’s Achilles’s Heel. ‘The uncomfortable truth is that this president left America exposed and vulnerable to this pandemic’, stated Biden in one of this released videos perceived by many as a precursor of his possible campaign strategy. Biden further stated in the video, ‘He (Trump) ignored the warnings of health experts and intelligence agencies, and put his trust in China's leaders instead." Certainly this is going to hurt Trump’s invincibility image and this not something that he can shrug off casually.
If one analyses what Tony Blinken, former Deputy Secretary of State and foreign policy advisor to Joe Biden stated, it gives a clear indication of how Democrats would try to pitch Biden as a ‘messiah’ who would rescue the US from the ‘mess’ that the US is now in. Blinken stated, ‘President Trump went soft on China when it mattered most. Joe Biden will insist that China live up to its responsibilities.’ In such a scenario of a sustained attack on Trump, can Trump get a smooth ride without a vitriolic display of anger and vengeance towards the ‘alleged perpetrator’ of COVID-19 outbreak, namely China? Would the electorate accept his inaction or term it as his weakness? Will US domestic politics play its part in shaping up global geopolitics in the next six months?
In fact, the Covid-19 crisis has hit US in more than one way. Witness this: The futures contract for Western Texas Crude (WTI) crashed to minus $37.63 a barrel on 22nd April, 2020. If this trend continues, it is going to be a nightmarish situation for hundreds of American shale oil companies and the very future prospect of shale oil production in US. The American shale oil exploration and production companies have already been witnessing tough time for quite some time even before the pandemic started its carnage on people and industry.
The intense competition from OPEC and Russia and their collective reluctance to cut their respective crude production for long, even during the global slowdown, hammered the viability of the American shale oil companies in a bloodied manner. The global oil glut meant that most had to over leverage to remain floating. But the COVID 19 crisis has been like a death knell. As per a research by Rystad Energy, if the price of oil continues to hover around the $20 a barrel bracket, almost 533 US based shale oil exploration and production companies may end up filing for bankruptcy by the end of 2021, while if the price crashes further and hover around the $10 a barrel mark, an estimated 1100 oil companies may end up filing for bankruptcy in US. This, one has to remember, indicates the impact on just the shale oil industry. The impact of COVID-19 pandemic across other sectors, including aviation and manufacturing, would be profound too.
By the time the date for polling would come, the picture would get gloomier and the resultant job losses coupled with rising cases of bankruptcies would take a toll on the perception of the electorate. Already, as per reports, around 26 million Americans have been rendered unemployed since the COVID-19 outbreak and the number is only going to go up in the run up to the US elections later this year.
Thus, no one would perhaps be any more interested in remembering what kind of trade deals President Trump facilitated or what he did in the past in reviving jobs in US because all that the electorate would remember is the carnage of the last six months on jobs and health. In such a scenario what would the US electorate expect from their Government?
If one takes a clue from the recent statement made by US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, during a television show where he stated that China will ‘pay a price for what they did’, then perhaps it clearly shows how things might shape up in US amidst the rising discontent and opposition pressure, and what US Administration may be compelled to do to deflect them.
The Chinese culpability, in some or the other way, is beyond doubt. Their lackadaisical approach toward hazardous wet markets which are notorious for trading in exotic animals and past outbreak of pandemics, their total lack of transparency in dealing with sensitive issues, their alleged attempts to cover-up the outbreak and clamping down on whistle-blowers, their history of lab leaks, their selling of faulty testing kits, their suspicious actions allegedly in connivance with WHO, especially related to official statements by WHO with reference of Chinese testimony, which made the world falsely believe that human-to-human transmissions were not happening in case of COVID-19, in addition to a whole host of other unanswered questions definitely makes it difficult to give China a clean chit. Add to this the shocking instances of Chinese financial behemoths taking advantage of the global financial crisis and attempting to takeover distressed companies in crisis laden countries where valuations of companies have slumped thereby making them easy prey in stock markets.
President Trump may be anything but a warmonger. During the last four years, the USA has been anything but belligerent. It has been more inward-looking and refused to continue the job of global policing. However if ‘war is a continuation of politics by other means’ then Trump may either have to vow for demonstrable retribution or himself take the blame for the mess, US is right now in, and bow out of the presidential race. Since the second possibility can be ruled out, one can expect some form of hostility with China, be it diplomatic, cold or hot.
To begin with, the world might witness US taking a strong stand against China in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and the possibility of any strong resolution being passed or attempted to pass, cannot be ruled out, Chinese veto notwithstanding. The global mood having turned significantly against China, one should not be surprised if such resolutions, including seeking financial compensation from China, find unprecedented and overwhelming support across countries and continents. The grievance of many against China is not just about its alleged cover-ups on COVID-19 related crisis, but is also about its notorious cheque-book diplomacy that has pushed several small nations on the brink of bankruptcy.
Further, one may also witness Trump proposing a Japan-type stimulus for all such American companies having their manufacturing base in China, to shift it elsewhere or bring them back to US. With more than 26 million Americans having already lost jobs since the COVID-19 related shutdowns, this may in some way boost Trump’s prospects in the eyes of the American voters even though how much the American companies would pay heed to this idea is another issue.
Can Financial Sanctions against China be Ruled Out? Not Really..
Often, US Administration has used economic sanctions as a medium to financially penalise countries. Since 2017, CAATSA or the Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act has been in vogue which has been imposed by US on Russia, Iran and North Korea. If one is to go by Mike Pompeo’s statement on making China ‘pay the price’, one cannot rule out the possibility of US imposing some kind of major economic sanctions on China. Whether it would be feasible or find acceptability is another issue but in an election year, given the kind of quagmire that Trump Administration may find itself in, it may take this route in his attempt to pacify the nerves of electorates.
Least of all, though not completely improbable, is the possibility of some kind of a major skirmish or face-off. Situation in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait are not really quiet in nature. Beneath the superficial surface of harmony, lies an uneasy anticipation for the worst. Chinese military exercises and manoeuvrings near Taiwanese airspace and territorial waters have not gone down well with Taiwanese Armed Forces. One wonders if the China has taken advantage of the global COVID-19 crisis to flex its military muscles. There were also reciprocal military exercises by Taiwan simulating interception of Chinese warplanes from mainland China. Also, for some time now, US Navy destroyers have been periodically making transits across the Taiwan Strait to bolster its show of solidarity with Taiwan and for sending a stern warning to China to avoid any mischief. The situation is not going to get better any sooner. In such a scenario, a conflict type situation, if not a real conflict, may give the maximum mileage to President Trump and quash at least some of the criticisms of the Joe Biden led Democrat campaign aimed at Trump and accusing him of being ‘soft on China’.
While it has been nearly two-and-a-half decade since the ‘Third Taiwan Strait Crisis’ of 1995-96 and even though Chinese military has undergone massive modernisation since then, still US has enough military edge to pack a punch if it wants to. Also, it has to be noted that neither the Chinese Armed Forces nor its arsenal has been tested in real battles since the 1979 clash against Vietnam.
While a full-fledged or even a local face-off may still be an unthinkable proposition, one must not forget that these are not normal times. The COVID-19 carnage both on human lives and economy may invariably provoke the mask of tranquillity to peel off. It is also highly unlikely that too many countries, beyond the usual suspects, would object if US really plans up something big.
For Trump, therefore, the Hobson’s choice is loud and clear. Either he has to seek vengeance on China in some or the other way, or risk facing adverse outcomes in the forthcoming elections if he maintains status-quo and appear, in the eyes of the electorate and opposition, to be conciliatory or accommodating towards the Chinese leadership. Trump may not be a war monger but perhaps only the declaration of that three lettered word, or something similar in the form of ‘payback’, can brighten his prospects. If COVID-19 Pandemic is perceived by the US Electorate as the ‘Pearl Harbour Moment’ of this century, then given its magnitude of carnage, the writing on the wall is too crystal-clear for the US President to ignore.
(Author of this article, Pathikrit Payne is a New Delhi based Geopolitical Analyst. The views and opinions expressed are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing do not reflect the views of Republic TV/ Republic World/ ARG Outlier Media Pvt. Ltd.)