Local residents walk past the Yaoji Chaogan restaurant in Beijing where then-US vice-president Joe Biden and his entourage had lunch during a 2011 visit to China. Photo: AFP

It’s official now. For the coming US election, the Republican Party will bet the house on blaming everything on China. The 57-page “Corona Big Book” prepared by O’Donnell and Associates, the party’s strategist, outlined all the ways to lay blame on China, to accuse the Democrats of being soft on China, and to vow to make China pay for the Covid-19 pandemic.

This Republican strategy leaves no room for Joe Biden and the Democrats to out-Trump President Donald Trump. The “Book” also recommends not bothering to defend Trump himself. In other words, all offense and no defense. Presumably, the strategists are clear-eyed and can see that Trump is not defensible.

The PBS NewsHour reported that at the daily coronavirus briefing Trump has spoken, on average, four times as long as his two scientific advisers, Drs Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci, combined. His White House staff, not wishing to see daily displays riddled with gaffes, wanted to cancel these briefings, but Trump refused because he doesn’t want to miss any opportunity for exposure on national TV. 

Bleach as home remedy

Needless to say, his off-the-cuff utterances can become rich material for the Biden camp to build into campaign spots. Why not, for example, interview some New Yorker who drank bleach as a cure for Covid-19 and ask that person what he or she thought of Trump prescribing without a license?

A key part of the Republican strategy is to accuse China of months of coverup and hiding the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus from the world. Many, including me, have not been able to find any possible gaps in the timeline communicated from China that could span anywhere close to a month. 

A more recent analysis was posted last week by Vijay Prashad. He carefully examined the events inside China and the Chinese interaction with the World Health Organization from December 31 to the end of January. He could not find any supporting evidence for even the one Western news outlet that claimed China withheld information on the outbreak for six days, from January 14 to 20.

From January 24 to February 20, Chinese researchers published 15 scientific articles in the New England Journal of Medicine, Lancet and the Journal of the American Medical Association, each paper reporting on the ongoing progress on their investigations of the novel coronavirus. Publishing at such a rate in peer-reviewed scientific journals was phenomenal and hardly consistent with any conspiracy to withhold data and information from the world. 

Trump, abetted by Dr Deborah Birx, also pointed to the orders-of-magnitude-lower death rate in China compared with many Western countries as a clear indication that China has been lying. Not so fast, said John Walsh in Asia Times. China’s death rate was consistent with neighboring countries in Asia and Australia. 

The real difference was that Western countries ignored the lessons learned in China while its neighbors in Asia did not. Lockdowns and social distance were absolutely necessary to “flatten the curve” and bring the contagion to heel. 

If Biden’s advisers decide to mine the alluvial nuggets that Trump has carelessly strewn about and treat them as issues to draw attention to his ineptitude and disqualifiers as president, they can start with the Covid-19 timeline in the US. There are many versions, and this is just one. This timeline compilation identifies the days Trump played golf, the days spent on the road campaigning, and a list of all the inconsistent and contradictory statements he made to the press. 

Intriguingly enough, the timeline says Trump was first warned about the virus on January 8, which he ignored.

Timeline exposes Trump’s malfeasance

It turned out that the head of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention had contacted his US counterpart in Atlanta on January 3 to inform Dr Robert Redfield of the appearance of an as yet unidentified pneumonia-inducing virus. It took a few days for this news to filter its way through Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar to Trump. According to insiders, Trump either did not regard Azar highly or the department particularly important, or both, and did not take the report seriously.

If a coverup took place, it was due to Trump’s negligence and not taking his responsibility seriously. Looking at the timetable, the Biden camp can see that Trump frittered away more than six weeks. That was a precious period that the Trump White House should have been using to mobilize the nation and prepare to deal with the invasion of Covid-19. 

Laying the blame on China is to distract and take attention away from the malfeasance of the Trump administration. Unlike Trump’s core team, everybody else in the world understands that the blame game accomplishes nothing, and worldwide collaboration is required to bring the pandemic under control.

There is another reason to take a different approach to using Covid-19 as a campaign issue. By calling the novel coronavirus the “Chinese virus,” the Trump administration has made Asians living in the US targets of racial epithets and physical attacks. There are around 20 million Asian-Americans in the country. Biden can win their support by just referring to the disease as Covid-19, the official WHO-designated name. Of course, proactively defending Asian-American civil rights would also be the right thing to do.

The other part of the Republican strategy is to accuse Biden and the Democratic Party of being soft on China. What should Biden do? To deny being soft on China or to show that he is tougher on China than Trump would be a losing proposition. Every denial would prompt another challenge until the defense runs out of responses. 

Instead, the Biden camp should turn the issue on its head and examine what Trump being “hard” on China has done for the American people.

Trump’s damage

The most obvious is the tariff war initiated by Trump. Biden’s team of economists should study the amount of “free” money collected from the tariff for the US (a point of pride for Trump) versus how much businesses and farmers lost in export sales. Also, how much prices went up because of the duty on imports from China and therefore the rise in cost of living for the American people. 

Trump equates free trade with an equal bi-directional volume of trade and considers a trade deficit to be a personal affront. When he launched the trade war, he thought he would reduce the trade imbalance. The last time I looked, in August last year, the US trade deficit with China had actually increased and not narrowed.

Candidate Biden also needs to think about the difficult tasks after the election if he wins. If the pandemic is still around, he will have to work with China to fight the contagion. If the infections are already under control, he will need to come up with a mutually beneficial economic expansion plan to help the US recover. 

He will face a tough challenge. The animosity toward China has been stoked to hysterical levels by partisans on the left and the right. The tension was heightened by the novel coronavirus. Biden will need the courage and wisdom to articulate a vision where China and the US don’t have to be friends but can openly trade and do business together. The more activity the two countries do together, the more they will stimulate each other’s economies and hasten recovery.

The International Monetary Fund is calling the pandemic “the great lockdown” and a crisis like no other in history. Its best-guess projection for global economic growth in 2020 is an unprecedented negative-3%. The US economy is projected to shrink by -5.9%. The only economies expected to end the year on the plus side are China at 1.2% and India at 1.9%.

A lot of uncertainties and unknowns lie ahead. The actual economic projections could be way off but the relative difference IMF assigns for China and the US is saying that should the two countries continue to exchange body blows, China will emerge better off than the US even if both end up losers.

Such a dire IMF forecast should fortify Biden as he dismisses the right wing pushing to decouple totally from China. No one has spelled out the insanity of decoupling more lucidly than Peter Beinart in The Atlantic. The Biden brain trust would do well to study this essay carefully and map out a plan for future growth, and avoid the destructive path Trump has followed.

Dr George Koo recently retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is currently a board member of Freschfield’s, a novel green building platform.