Concerns are growing over a new Cold War between the United States and China. Image: iStock

Cold War rhetoric between China and the United States is threatening to freeze relations between the world’s two leading economies, triggering the risk of a military conflict.

During the past three months, the manic hyperbole emanating from Beijing and Washington has chilled the diplomatic atmosphere amid the Covid-19 pandemic and rising tensions in the South and the East China seas.

There are even fears inside President Xi Jinping’s administration that a US-inspired coalition will challenge the Communist Party’s right to rule. An internal study from the Ministry of State Security, and cited by Reuters, warned that China should be prepared for a “worst-case scenario of armed confrontation.”

“The report, presented early last month to top Beijing leaders, including President Xi, concluded that global anti-China sentiment is at its highest since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, sources said,” the news agency reported on Monday.

“As a result, Beijing faces a wave of anti-China sentiment led by the US in the aftermath of the pandemic and needs to be prepared in a worst-case scenario for [an] armed confrontation between the two global powers, according to people familiar with the report’s content,” it added.

So far, more than 3.6 million people have been infected globally by this new strain of coronavirus with the death toll edging past 252,000. In the US, more than 1.2 million have been infected with nearly 70,000 fatalities.

China’s official figures are minuscule in comparison. Up to May 4, infected cases were 82,881 with 4,633 deaths in a population of 1.39 billion. Outside the initial SARS-CoV-2 epicenter of Wuhan and the broader Hubei province, there were roughly 15,000 infected cases.

Against this backdrop, US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have fired a barrage of barbed statements after questioning how the outbreak started in China.

Last week, Trump claimed he had seen evidence that gave him a “high degree of confidence” that Covid-19 originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, an allegation China has categorically denied.

‘Loss of life’

Earlier, Pompeo accused Beijing of causing an “enormous amount of pain” and “loss of life” in what he implied was a coronavirus cover-up. “I’m still concerned there are things we don’t know. We don’t know the history and we haven’t been able to get our team on the ground to do the work it needs to do,” he said last month. 

“This is an ongoing challenge in that the Chinese Communist Party and the World Health Organization have failed to do the things they have the responsibility to do when they have a pandemic inside of their country,” Pompeo added. 

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Again, Beijing has denied those claims.

But politically, this has been a public relations nightmare for the Communist Party, despite rolling out what has become known as face mask diplomacy. Accusations of incompetence have been leveled against the government for its early response to the crisis, as well as reports of a “cover-up” by officials in Wuhan back in December. 

“With the death of Li Wenliang, a doctor who was rebuked by state authorities for warning others about the virus, the failings of Xi’s top-down approach have been laid bare,” Yuen Yuen Ang, of the University of Michigan, wrote in a commentary for Project Syndicate.

Australia, France and the United Kingdom have raised concerns about a lack of “transparency” from Beijing in the way it handled the Covid-19 crisis. A virulent propaganda campaign, verging on bullying, has also created unease inside the European Union.

Antoine Bondaz, of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, last month illustrated the challenges facing the EU and Europe. 

“China considers Europe the soft belly of the West. In their logic, there is the West, and in it the US that will oppose China for structural and ideological reasons, and their European allies that need to be neutral in case of conflict between China and the US,” he said.

On Monday, the focus again shifted to Washington when Deputy National Security Adviser Matthew Pottinger made it clear that Beijing’s efforts to suppress internal criticism were doomed to backfire.

In a speech delivered in Mandarin, he addressed the Chinese people directly by evoking memories of the May the Fourth movement in 1919. The anniversary on May 4 commemorated the student-led populist uprising in the wake of World War 1.

“When small acts of bravery are stamped out by governments, big acts of bravery follow. [Would] China today benefit from a little less nationalism and a little more populism?” he said. 

“Democratic populism is less about left versus right than top versus bottom. It’s about reminding a few that they need the consent of many to govern. When a privileged few grow too remote and self-interested, populism is what pulls them back or pitches them overboard,” he added, a remark that appeared to be aimed at the CCP.

Needless to say, it certainly created a stir.

Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, called it “the most remarkable speech we’ve ever seen from anyone” in the Trump administration. 

“If you’re a member of the Chinese Communist Party, you might read [the invocation of the May the Fourth movement] as encouraging people to challenge some of the existing parts of your political system. It didn’t quite say overthrow your leaders, but it certainly encouraged the rise of the masses, shall we say,” she told The Guardian newspaper.

Already you can feel the chill wind sweeping through the corridors of power in Beijing and Washington with summer just around the corner.