President Donald Trump’s recent attacks on China over the coronavirus outbreak risk further deterioration of already strained ties between the two countries at a time when the global economy is in a precarious situation. Mr. Trump, under fire at home over his handling of the pandemic, seeks to hold China accountable for the infection spread. He has attempted to tie the virus to a virology lab in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, endorsing an unproven theory, while his administration officials accuse Beijing of withholding information about the virus. Over the past week, the President went so far as to seek compensation, threatening to impose more tariffs on China. This is a U-turn given his initial appreciation of his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping’s handling of the crisis. Stepping up the attacks on China might help Mr. Trump, whose approval ratings are falling, to mobilise his base. The Republican Party has already issued a memo asking candidates to attack China. Mr. Trump echoed the party sentiment when he said last week that China “will do anything” to defeat him in the November election. His supporters are portraying Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, as a representative of the old political elite that is “soft on China”. With six months left for the U.S. Presidential election, Mr. Trump and his party have effectively turned China into a campaign issue.
The question is about what shape this renewed anti-China rhetoric will leave U.S.-China relations; ties have been uneasy since Mr. Trump became President. The trade war by Mr. Trump and the push to weaken Chinese giant Huawei’s global bid to roll out 5G technology had impacted the four decades long partnership. However, both sides agreed to an initial trade agreement in January that cut some U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods in return for China’s pledges to buy more American products. A final trade deal is yet to be reached. If Mr. Trump decides to punish China over the COVID-19 outbreak, it would, in all likelihood, lead to the unravelling of the trade talks during an unfortunate time for the global economy. Also, China, which has brought the virus situation at home under control, has sent economic and medical assistance to the hardest hit countries. Even the U.S. is importing personal protective equipment supplies from China. When Mr. Trump halted funding for the World Health Organization last month, China stepped in with an additional $30 million grant for the agency. Mr. Trump should look beyond his narrow blame game and see the larger picture. If the goals are to defeat the virus, save lives and rebuild economies and societies, those can be achieved only through global cooperation, not through unsubstantiated accusations, conspiracy theories and threats.